January 18th, 2017


Cultural inequality

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 15, 2016

In all the talk about income inequality, a more important kind tends to be forgotten: cultural inequality.

But it's finally dawning on some of our luminaries that the cultural deficit in our society can be as detrimental, if not more so, than the material one. There's only one way for us all to be equal in terms of income, and that's for us all to be equally poor. And there's only one way for all of us to be equal culturally, and that's for all of us to be equally ignorant. When that old truth finally occurs to our commentariat, the result is reassuring.

When even David Brooks of the estimable New York Times notices the problem, real progress is being made. Whatever he's been drinking, he needs to take another swig. The first seems to have opened his eyes. To quote from one of his more recent -- and better -- columns:

"It's not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it's norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes woven into daily life, which people can observe unconsciously and follow automatically."

This loss of social capital didn't happen overnight and isn't likely to be corrected by tomorrow morning. When there's no longer such a thing as normative behavior, then anything goes. But we're not supposed to notice. For that would be -- sin of sins -- judgmental. How dare we call ladies and gentlemen ladies and gentlemen, and no-count folks no count, or trash trash!

To quote David Brooks, all these norms disappeared in "a plague of non-judgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another," especially if it was. Just as some cultures, like those whose values include a respect for learning and a desire for justice, are better than others. But are we allowed to say such things any more, especially on our Ivy League campuses?

We should have learned from John Paul II, whom some of us think of as John Paul the Great, that culture can be the decisive force in history, and that at the center of the cultural is cult, that is, religion. It's all-important, transcendent, putting everything else in the shade thanks to its bright and blazing light. It was Stalin who asked with the cynicism of a born tyrant, "The pope! How many divisions has he got?" Now we know -- many more than all the armies of all the tyrants in only transient history. For it is ideas, good or bad, that matter -- not brute force.

John Maynard Keynes was an economist rather than a theologian. But he understood that ideas, "both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

All men are created equal, to quote the Declaration of Independence, but that doesn't mean we should all strive for cultural equality any more than we should all want to remain equally poor -- or equally uncultured.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.