sex in reno.
Years ago I was in a small plains state town. Spending the weekend with a friend of a friend. His parents were disciples of Francis Schaeffer, having spent time at L'abri, but at the time I met them they were living a very comfortable middle class life afforded by getting tenure at a private college that apparently paid decently. The home was a large three story brick dealie with beautiful woodwork throughout, books everywhere, we were offered tea on nice china, that sort of song and dance. As one might suspect from Schaefferites, the conversation covered politics, the arts, theology, and had a slightly stilted, formal air to it. The son of the people who owned this home presented himself as a charming, polite, quite civil and well educated young man, and his parents gave every indication of believing that he was with them in terms of belief and posture toward life.
That was at the beginning of the weekend. After spending the obligatory few hours at the parents' home, we left to go to a bar. It was then I discovered that the son's idea of drinking was at least a fifth of vodka a night, with drinking stamina maintained by the occasional line of coke, a little weed for kicks, and stops at a couple of sorority houses to secure other pleasures.
That weekend was odd in certain respects - the rural plain state town in question certainly wasn't where I would have thought to go if I were looking for an intellectual middle class bloke who could really party - but as a general phenomenon this sort of thing has not been all that unusual in my experience. I've seen on any number of occasions kids from conservative bourgeois and petit-bourgeois homes whose parents had absolutely no idea what their kids were into.
That is what immediately came to mind when I read Reno's Public Square Preferential Option for the Poor piece. (hat tip Aaron via Facebook - and thanks to Samn! for pointing toward this response to Reno).
Reno is following what seems to be an argument making the rounds in many conservative Christian "intellectual" environs of late. I went at it a bit with Anthony Esolen in the thread of a Touchstonista post he wrote some time ago which argued much the same line as we find from Reno here.
At least with Esolen you have a writer who can, uhm, write. I have not subscribed to First Things in ages, and have not picked up a copy in perhaps a year and a half. I visit their website on those occasions I find someone has linked to something that sparks some interest, which is not often anymore. But I have in the past wondered how the institution of First Things could survive in a post Richard John Neuhaus world.
RJN was a man with whom I disagreed on many things, but he could write. He had a wit that was intelligent and formidable. He had a cultivated and flourishing pomposity, one that drove me nuts in the few brief encounters I had with the man, but there was a mirth mixed with it and there was a gravitas to RJN that, shall we say, gave him room to be pompous with at least some justice.
With Reno we get (later in the same Public Square bit) aphorisms such as:
The postmodern vision of peace: If nothing is worth fighting for, then no one will fight.
The new liberal elite is made up of the very select group of everybody who includes everybody.
To love is more precious than to know.
Indeed. I realize not everybody can be a Nicolás Gómez Dávila but hell, I'm glad I am not paying good money to read smug junior high level (well, once upon a time) aphorisms. And, of course, following in the footsteps of RJN is a sure way to not measure up, but we shouldn't make excuses.
I don't dispute the idea of moral poverty. My wife and I are going to Wisconsin and Minnesota later this month and we will be staying with my mother-in-law for part of the time we are away. My mother-in-law lives in a small, quite rural WI town where one still doesn't have to lock doors of house or car. There is one cop there whose jurisdiction is that little village and another one a few miles down the road. Plenty of people in those parts are working class folks who have been laid off of late as packing plants and local industry have made cuts. My mother-in-law is seeing a significant loss to her own income thanks to Gov. Scott Walker, as are a number of people in that area because it is close to the largest prison in the state. But for whatever reason when people there lose their jobs and income they very, very, very rarely take up robbery or thievery. Divorce rates there are typical of white midwestern communities. There is some meth, and a fair amount of alcohol abuse (my wife's hometown village of 850 has 4 taverns; we are talking about WI), and the usual kids getting in trouble over this or that petty thing. There are a fair amount of single moms. Most people there live together before getting married these days. There seems to be a fair amount of adultery, which most everyone knows about because it is a small town. None of these "vices" is found to the degree we see here in Memphis, but central rural WI also has had (we will see how things go in a post Walker WI) a much more serious social safety net, better public schools, and other social "props" than Shelby County TN has ever had.
There are so many avenues through which one could compare almost entirely white rural WI to urban mostly African-American Memphis. The idea that "moral poverty" can explain the social ills of a place like Memphis seems to me to be about as trite as continuing to blame slavery for all of Memphis' ills. 50 years ago most African-American youth in Memphis lived in the same households as their biological fathers. That isn't at all true today. I don't think slavery or "moral poverty" come close to being the analytic silver bullet that explains the mess.
But I will continue to view Reno & conservative Christian company as ideologically pure and intellectually disingenuous so long as they acknowledge the class differences with regard to divorce rates and drug use and single motherhood and the like, but at the same time purposefully ignore material explanations for such phenomena. It would seem that material circumstances must have had something to do with it - can't a Christian mind assent to at least that?
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - before any of these Christian conservative intellectuals venture into the question of class and morality (as construed by Christians who admit themselves to be "bourgeois" as Reno does) they should be required to read Owen Chadwick's 2 Volume masterpiece The Victorian Church (link is to volume 1 only). The situation today with regard to class based participation and non-participation (among whites) in religion is beginning to look more and more like the class/religion demographics seen in Victorian England.
But aside from that Reno's articulation of his thesis (as Esolens did) strikes me as simply petty. Flamboyantly so. Take:
Here’s a typical story. A few months ago, a Northwestern University psychology professor invited a sex entrepreneur to speak to his class, and the visit concluded with a sexual performance that, as one newspaper discreetly reported, involved “a woman, a man, and an electric-powered device.”
Uh, no. That is not a typical story - it is the typical story. Just about every conservative commenter in America has told that particular story 20 times since word broke of it. The vast majority of college students might get exposed to some literature and social science which is arguably hostile to Reno's conception of morally sound family life, but they are not going to get to watch a couple and a vibrator go at it in class. That remains fairly exceptional. Some of these social conservatives are with sex like the old Assemblies of God Pentecostal novelist Frank Peretti was with demons - folks, there is not a demon or a Michel Foucault under every single rock. If only life were so simple.
Reno notes "suburban librarians insisting on the right to view pornography" but fails to state the obvious with regard to pornography today - that it is now largely a new media phenomenon. And access to new media is very much connected to class. I suspect that a higher percentage of Memphian children are exposed to pornography under age 10 than children in rural WI, but I'm not sure that the guys in my metal shop, or the guys selling dope down the street from my shop, actually view pornography more than the average suburban male.
The more avenues you have to the internet the easier it is to get to porn, quickly and consistently. I remember in the last couple of years when some of the highest paid skilled workers in my shop had just gotten to the point where they could afford phones with high speed internet on them and quality images. Yes, those guys occasionally watched porn videos and passed along raunchy emails with those phones. But most of them still did not have the internet on a computer at home. As far as I know, I am one of 2 guys at my shop who has high speed internet at home - the few others that have internet have dial-up and I have heard at least one of them talk about how his internet is useless with regard to watching porn because of the slow speed.
As a consequence of having gone to bible college many moons ago I have some friends who are in ministry - most of them ministering to middle class whites (even those that start out in other ministries tend to gravitate toward the suburban middle class life once they hit middle age). One thing I have heard over and over from a number of friends over the past decade or so is that far and away the most common crisis that occurs in the conservative Christian household with spouses younger than age 45 is the wife being shocked to learn that her husband is watching porn, and generally watching a lot of it. When your life consists of multiple computers at home and work, and lapbooks, Ibooks, smartphones, etc., etc., there is no shortage of avenues to free online porn. When you read statistics of males using the internet to watch porn, the rates seem to indicate that the vast majority of males who have access to the internet use it for such. I'm not sure that class is a factor here. I have one pastor friend in a "thriving" suburban Evangelical church who a couple years back guessed that at least 80% of the adult males in his congregation use the internet to view porn at least once a month, with about half that number doing such most days. I'd bet he is more or less correct and his figures are in the ballpark of what is found in most conservative petit-bourgeois Christian circles.
Further, as common as infidelity is among working class young people (say under age 45), it still very often leads to a break in relationship, at least for a period of time, or at least that has been my experience in a lifetime of observation. Having been exposed to both working class and petit-bourgeois worlds, I'm willing to concede that infidelity may occur less in bourgeois environments, but I'm not sure it occurs to such a drastically less degree than divorce does. In the (petit)bourgeois circles I have been familiar with, though divorce is certainly an option and happens with some frequency (not 50% of bourgeois marriages, but certainly still 25%+), known infidelity often does not lead to divorce. There are greater social pressures to stay together and more socially accepted (even mandated, we might say) avenues which help prevent divorce. Petit-bourgeois couples can go get marriage counseling. They can afford to pay someone to watch their kids and go off on a marriage weekend retreat, that sort of thing.
Further, it is much easier for a petit-bourgeois spouse to not get caught having an affair. When you work a job which is salary and not hourly, and you have irregular hours as many professions do (lawyer, doctor, executive, business owner, even teacher) you simply have more opportunity to slip away and have a good excuse. There is no paycheck which lists the amount of hours worked for your spouse or paramour to look at when they are wondering if you really did work late that night. A professional is going to have "solid" reasons to get late night phone calls. He or she will have more internet access at home. He or she is more likely to travel for business reasons. A petit-bourgeois person is more likely to use reliable birth control and to know how it works. No matter what the moral background of a given petit-bourgeois woman, she is generally going to be less inclined to have an abortion because she is more likely to know the health and psychological risks involved, and because her community is more likely to place social stigma on the act of abortion. This incites a greater fervency and competency with regard to use of artificial contraception.
What I mean to suggest here is that when Reno talks about the bourgeoisie fighting poverty by wearing ties and eating meals and not swearing and not watching reality TV and the like, he nods at the elephant in the room he otherwise seems to ignore. There is a considerable extent to which conservative Christianity is becoming a petit-bourgeois phenomenon in this country. And there can be no doubt that the social pressure conservative Christians feel to not divorce easily and to not abort and to not have children via multiple partners actually succeeds in influencing the drastic difference in sociological date between petit-bourgeois and working class / underclass statistics with these sorts of things.
I've heard plenty of elderly black folks in Memphis bemoan the loss of such social pressures in their own communities so I won't fault Reno for wanting those social pressures to remain functioning among his bourgeois white environs. But when talking about Christian morality, and highlighting the primarily sex-focused aspects of the moral life in the manner that Reno & Co. do, I really have a hard time believing that the bourgeoisie, even the Christian bourgeoisie, are all that less inclined to "sexual sin" than working class / underclass folks are. I think that the more pertinent factors are their means to not get caught and to prevent certain occurrences, such as pregnancy, and to replace or supplement actual sex with more tech savvy access to better quality porn. If we want to talk about truly "typical" sexual occurrences my sister-in-law describes a 14 year old Memphis girl, pregnant, who didn't understand that her menstrual cycle had anything to do with pregnancy. I'd venture a guess and say that most petit-bourgeois girls who have reached their first period have been explained the basics of how it relates to fertility and understand that basic explanation. There are indications that this is not true in Memphis.
In my interactions with upper middle class and wealthy women over the years (whether clients at work or women at church, etc.) there is, I would argue, a greater emphasis on sensuality and sex appeal with persons from said classes who are between the ages of 25 and 50 than there are with working class females, at least once they get past their 20s. In their 30s and 40s petit-bourgeois women still have to look good, and maintain a certain confident but spritely demure, sexually available/desirable posture (this is true even with petit-bourgeois women in conservative Christian circles - indeed, it might even be more pronounced there). There is social pressure for them to do so. Working class women generally don't have to look so good, and they are rarely under the same sort of social pressure to maintain good looks into their 40s. People in working class / underclass communities generally expect a human body to look what it looks like after decades of smoking, drinking, drug use, and fast food. I wonder why Reno would not see the virtue in working class folks "letting themselves go" versus the petit-bourgeois vanity with regard to the body. There is a sense in which while it might be true that working class folks have more sexual partners and more sex outside of marriage over a lifetime than their petit-bourgeois counterparts, this does not mean that the sexualization of petit-bourgouies culture is markedly less than what one finds in working class and underclass circles. Consumer oriented postures towards sex are simply expressed differently in different class settings, with the petit-bourgeoisie often having a more sterile and safety oriented approach to sex which better protects their health and their assets.
I wonder if Reno has a certain confidence - I wonder if Reno intuits that were he poor his morals would survive that poverty - and even help lift him out of it or make his situation better. There is a sort of health & wealthism to his thesis, with morals taking the place of faith as the vehicle through which the believer receives the blessing.
Every time I read a piece like this I am inclined to think that the writer does not have much experience with poverty in a late modern setting. If we agree with Joseph Pieper that leisure is the basis of culture we might be inclined to consider the difficulties involved in cultivating morals acceptable to the bourgeoisie when you and your spouse or paramour are looking at a lifetime of minimum wage jobs and have to supplement income either through illegal activities or working constantly. Of course, we will hear the caricature I heard from a petit-bourgeois Christian the other day about "all those black boys" who do "nothing" but "stand in the street all day" but I see no reason to view this as any less requisite a form of business networking than the lawyer or executive or accountant who has to golf with his clients or take them out to dinner frequently. Dope don't sell itself people.
There is the romantic view out there that from our grandparents' time in the depression and all time before then there was this great deal of moral stoutness found among poor peoples. For many social conservatives, this romance seems to generate from a view of the "sexual revolution" which was something of a socio-moral vacuum that occurred independently of processes brought about by capitalism. In fact there have been several sexual "revolutions" in the last 100 years in America, and all of them correspond to widespread changes in access to technologies - in the 1870s-1880s it corresponded to widely distributed romantic literature - for the first time in the hands of a large minority and perhaps a majority of persons. In the early 20th century came the automobile. Then radio. Then TV. Around the same time interstate highways and the correspondent increase in the number of moves a family makes over a lifetime (think about it folks, if moving out of town is easier then the aftermath of an affair is easier to mitigate). Then cable. Then cell phones and the internet and the ability to watch porn in an airport restroom stall.
Further, as modernity has progressed these very technologies have promoted what we might call a totalitarian aesthetic - wherein in the vast majority of dominant media consumed the petit-bourgeois life has been presented as the normative American life, and, more importantly, petit-bourgeois comforts presented as normative - what is to be expected in a run of the mill life. When someone consuming a media which presents the constant access to entertainment and comfort as normative, and those viewers don't have access to the comforts presented in those images, it may be that they are all the more being encouraged to pursue substitutes. My grandfather expected much less in the way of comfort and pleasure in life than I do, and the kids who are 20 years younger than me growing up with video games on their cell phones strike me as the biggest collection of spoiled pussies the world has ever produced. I don't think the explanation here is primarily the loss of certain and particular moral educations being offered, I think that is derivative to technological changes and changes in media consumption patterns and the content of the media being consumed. What drives those changes is not first a change in socio-cultural postures regarding morals, but, conversely, a capitalism that will render any social norm to a state of flux because changing social norms create new markets for goods and entertainments.
I agree a "moral poverty" of sorts is very destructive to poor communities. Fathers leaving the homes of their children, rampant infidelity, a culture of lies and perversion - none of this is helping the poor. But to treat the moral aspects of the equation as if they fell out of the sky after the culture arbitrarily decided it wanted to hook up more and cuss in front of the kids while dressing like a proletarian is simply an ideological diversion. Capital and recent technologies have far more to do with it. The bourgeois conservative Christian is desperate to have his cake and eat it too - for him it cannot come down to economic issues - he wants to keep his. This game is intellectually incompetent and morally perverse.
Fr. Yousuf has such an excellent comment in the thread that cuts to the chase much better than my rambling thoughts. I thought I'd share it here:
Reno with a straight face suggests that wearing a tie that will be seen of men is more important, more fundamental, than actually giving alms, (either secretly or publicly). It is like a total inversion of the sermon on the mount. He can do this because he assumes from the outset that he and his readers are better. Better than urban liberals. Better than the poor. The core conviction is "we are better" and so the chief obligation is to manifest the betterness.