The bourgeois virtues personified

I learned something new and interesting recently: One cannot argue in favor of traditional virtues like hard work, thrift, honesty, civility, patriotism, delayed gratification, sexual restraint, etc. And why not? Because: Ward Cleaver!

Two law professors, one at the University of Pennsylvania, one at the University of San Diego, had written an op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer in which they decried the decline of such virtues, grouping them under the brand name, bourgeois culture. Not all cultures are equal, the professors noted, and they went on to argue that the culture best suited for a postindustrial, democratic country is the bourgeois culture that prevailed in Western countries up to the Sixties. But now that culture has fallen out of fashion, as witnessed by our society’s growing dysfunction.

You can, I am sure, imagine the response to this from the academic Left. Racism! Sexism! Homophobia! Xenophobia! Etc. and so forth. What no doubt most enraged the snowflakes and grievance mongers was the fact that the professors’ point is really inarguable. Such virtues do forge the key to a happy, productive life. But since they’re associated in the collective consciousness of the Left with Mr. Cleaver, a middle-class white guy sitting there in his easy chair after work, still wearing a tie, reading the paper while June gets dinner ready, the professors have just got to be spreading racism and sexism and hate speech — blah, blah, blah.

Never mind that nothing they wrote could be construed as an attack on minorities. They made a point, indeed, of noting that the underclass vices, arising from an “antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal” dating from the Sixties, affect whites as well as minorities. And, they go on to note, not only are the vices colorblind but so are the opposing virtues. That is to say, the benefits of bourgeois culture are available to all who choose to embrace them, regardless of race or ethnicity.

So what’s wrong with promoting these bourgeois virtues? Why is it, precisely, that championing bourgeois culture is hurtful and harmful to minorities? Or is that argument really just a nice way of saying that blacks and other minorities cannot be expected to pattern their behavior along the lines of hard work, thrift, honesty, civility, etc.? Recall the stories that came out of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster: social breakdown, widespread looting and violence, snipers shooting at rescue helicopters — even rumors of cannibalism. Well, of course, the media seemed to intimate. New Orleans is a black majority city, after all, and the people feel marginalized and abandoned so…what did you expect? But it turned out that many of these terrible stories were either gross exaggerations or outright fiction. By and large, the people of New Orleans behaved no differently than people anywhere would behave in the face of such a catastrophe. But the media — and by extension the Left — rather casually assumed that they’d behave very badly indeed.

By a choice irony, the white progressive elites who decry Cleaverism mostly practice the bourgeois virtues, though they wouldn’t dream of describing them as such. But they’re not willing to preach what they practice — which, like the fables of Katrina, suggests something not particularly flattering about their actual attitude toward minority groups.

Yes, yes, I know: The bourgeois virtues can’t be forced on people. But on the other hand, what’s the point of denigrating them by dragging in poor old Ward Cleaver? What’s the point of saying, in effect, that hard work, thrift, honesty, civility, patriotism, delayed gratification, sexual restraint, etc. are white people’s values? What’s the point of multiculturalism if it teaches in effect that sloth, ignorance, criminality, irresponsibility, selfishness and adolescent self-regard are beyond criticism? Again, the irony is choice: In its obsession with race and multiculturalism, the Left has arrived at some conclusions that can fairly be described as racist.

As the professors noted in their op-ed piece, many contemporary social problems can be traced to the breakdown of what they call bourgeois culture. Yes, certainly, its precepts had often been violated in practice. But beginning in the Sixties its social value was first criticized and then denied in principle. Today we’re living with the result. And Mr. Cleaver, wherever he is, must be looking on with a rueful smile.

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