Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The decline and rise of the American society 

I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We're in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that. This revival has been a bottom-up, prosaic, un-self-conscious one, led by normal parents, normal neighbors and normal community activists.
So writes David Brooks, noting in his latest opinion piece the whole surprising range of social indicators which have improved (often dramatically) over the past ten or fifteen years. I won't summarize it - read the whole thing.

All this just goes to show - in case anyone really needed a reminder - that no trend is irreversible. I remember in the early 1990s, the gnashing of teeth among social conservatives about how the culture wars were lost and the society was all going to hell fast (metaphorically, but for some, literally). Fifteen years on, and many, if not most, of the negative trends previously seen as evidence of our civilization's descent into barbarism are in reverse. This is not to say that all is well - but it's better.

Brooks thinks that the explanation lies partly in a natural reaction to various excesses and stupid - yet once fashionable - ideas that have damaged the social fabric of America. His other explanations - better parenting, greater civic participation - merely beg the question as to what in turn accounts for these changes.

I think the answer is in largely generational - partly, it has to do with Baby Boomers growing older, and partly, with the forward march of Generations X and Y. Every generation is shaped by, and reacts to, both other generations (particularly their parents) and to the objective conditions of the outside world (including, importantly, the prevailing economic conditions). If various social trends are on the mend, it's because the Xers and the Ys are reacting to the world that their parents made, as well as to the realities of living in a post-industrial, globalized society.

As an aside, Glenn Reynolds finds it amusing and intriguing that the social renewal has been happening at the same time as pornography and violence became more prevalent on the internet, in video games, and elsewhere.
Maybe the porn, and the videogames, provided catharsis, serving as substitutes for the real thing. Maybe. And maybe there's no connection at all. (Or maybe it's a different one -- research indicates that teenagers, though safer and healthier, are also fatter -- so perhaps the other improvements are the result of teens sitting around looking at porn and videogames until they're too out-of-shape and unattractive for the real thing...) Most likely, the lesson is that -- once again -- correlation isn't causation, despite policy entrepreneurs' efforts to claim otherwise.


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