February 20, 2014

Moral and Cultural Inequality

In First Things, R.R. Reno on Inequality and Agency.  Moral and Cultural Inequality, Not Income Inequality, Are the Real Problems Facing Society.

What is inequality? It’s the unbalanced distribution of power and control over wealth and innovation, government and culture, society and neighborhoods—over our lives. That distribution is changing in our society. We can all feel it. At this point the conversation is focused on income inequality. But that’s too narrow. The economic top 20 percent has gained a near monopoly on social capital. This moral and cultural inequality is a deeper problem, and more explosive.
For most of American history, the Bible and the Judeo-Christian ethic had currency. In addition, we shared a common patriotic vocabulary anchored in our founding documents: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This shared moral and civic vision empowered ordinary people to participate in the great conversation about how we should shape our common life. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged his racist adversaries with a two-pronged weapon: the Declaration of Independence and the teachings of Scripture, both of which the common man could engage, understand, and respond to.

In the past, elites did their part to sustain this civic, moral, and religious consensus. Predominantly liberal, the newsmen of the 1950s and 1960s nevertheless expressed their moral passion in the same classic, high-minded public vocabulary King used. They operated within our encompassing civil religion even as they took critical stances.

The effect was to include a wide range of people in the public conversation and promote an equality of moral imagination. Religion, morality, and civic myths: These are not the opiates of the masses, nor the mystifications the powerful use to ensure their dominion. On the contrary, they provide us with an inclusive common language of duty, responsibility, and accountability.
To an unpre­cedented degree, our secular elites have a monopoly on culture that cannot be challenged by ordinary people. The same people who are falling behind in the global economy also find themselves culturally disempowered. That’s why Fox News can build a brand around populist resentment.

The relentless critiques of traditional moral wisdom have led to a personal loss of agency as well, one that gives rise to today’s most profound inequality: marriage inequality. As David and Amber Lapp painfully detailed in the last issue (“Alone in the New America”), stable marriage is desired by many young working-class people but seems inaccessible…..

The editors of the New York Times intuit the deepest basis of their power. They are willing to pay higher taxes—or at least volunteer others to pay them. But a redistribution of cultural power? Not a chance. The same goes for faculty at universities. They’ll rally round the call for greater economic equality, but God forbid that a social or religious conservative should receive an appointment. That tells us a great deal about the inequalities and equalities that matter.
Posted by Jill Fallon at February 20, 2014 5:39 PM | Permalink