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Monday, February 26, 2018

On the Virtues of "Bourgeois" (White Cutural Vlues of the 1950s

I’m reading an extremely lengthy blog post that’s responding to an op-ed that asserts that bourgeois white culture is superior to other cultures.  The author of the blog post lists a set of features of bourgeois white culture found in the op-ed being responded to.  I’ve translated it into a set of bullet points:

1.  Rejection of non-marital childbearing
2.  Rejection of divorce for those who have had children
3.  Education
4.  Hard work
5.  Rejection of “idleness.
6.  Going “the extra mile” for your employer or client
7.  Being patriotic
8.  Being “neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable”
9.  Not using “coarse language” in public
10.  Showing respect for “authority”

11.  Rejection of “substance abuse and crime.”

[The op-ed’s author contends that this list of cultural “habits” represents the dominant (white) culture in the U.S. in the 1950s.]

How much there is in this list that I disagree with is hard to say.  (Or I thought it was when I started typing; the answer turns out to be, almost all of it.)  Leaving aside the question of whether this is a fair representation of the dominant (white) culture in the U.S. in the 1950s, I would say I find (1) and (2) difficult to respond to as (a) I avoided having children and (b) therefore did not have to face the question of divorce having had children.  With respect to (2), I have known a fairly large number of people with children, some of whom wound up divorcing and some who did not.  I frankly cannot see any particular difference in the behavior or success of the two groups.

Given what I did for a living (40-ish years in higher education), I clearly value education (3).  Support for and the opportunity to pursue and to achieve the education one wants seem to me to be cornerstones for an acceptable society.  Whether that is more true for a bourgeois culture…well, I rather doubt it.  Education has been, and ism esteemed by many such a wide range of cultures that making it a unique part of bourgeois culture seems, well, presumptive.

Hard work (which I think really means “working productively and diligently at one’s chosen work” and rejection of “idleness” (undefined) are hardly virtues recognized only by bourgeois (and white) cultures.  What might be a vice, though, is a single-minded preoccupation with them.  In fact, “idleness” may, in some ways, be a virtue, in that it provides us with time to unwind, to explore aspects of our lives that do not fall readily under the rubric of working hard.  After all, it was not some decadent, declining culture that originated the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;”[1] it was the nice bourgeois (white) English culture of the 17th century.  It was a recognition that “without time off from work, a person becomes both bored and boring.”

I really have trouble with (6).  There should be, in any relationship, mutual obligations, and this, which adduces a responsibility of the employee to act in the interests of the employer, customer, or client, does not seem to recognize a reciprocal responsibility of the employer (at least) to treat employees with respect and dignity, to pay them fairly, to provide them with safe working conditions, to provide opportunities for advancement, and so forth.  In any development of a set of cultural norms, it seems to me that the reciprocal nature of social (and economic) obligations cannot be ignored.

“Being patriotic” ((7) seems to me also problematic.  Everyone knows, of course, this one, attributed to Stephen Decatur:

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”[2]

Often, or course, misquoted as “My country, right r wrong.”  The number of times people have raised exceptions to the evocation of a mindless patriotism (which I’m willing to concede that the author of this list did not intend) is, well, quite long.  Personally, I like Carl Schurz’s re-working of it as

“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”[3]

As stated in the list of bourgeois cultural virtues, there seems to be no place for a patriotism that recognizes the failings and flaws of one’s society and works to correct them.  Particularly in the 1950s, treating an unthinking patriotism as a virtue would be to oppose the Civil Rights movement; in the 1960s, to demonize resistance to the war in Vietnam; in the 1970s, to treat as normal the actions of Richard Nixon; in the 1980s, to treat the Iran-Contra affair as a non-issue; in the 2000s, to accept unquestioningly the invasion of multiple countries in the name of objectives constructed from lies.

I’ll admit that I do not know what “being neighborly” means (8).  I try (and more frequently than I like, fail) to treat everyone as I would want to be treated.  That comes from a much older moral tradition than bourgeois (white) culture, as does being charitable.  In any case, these are not virtues unique to bourgeois (white) culture…far from it.

What to say about not using “coarse” language in public (9)?  If I were to try to enunciate a moral value here, it would be “don’t use language that you know is going to offend the people to whom you are speaking, unless your language is the only way to get your point across.”  Let’s get specific.  Is (was) calling someone a nigger using coarse language in public?  Was it in the 1950s?  I would say (a) it’s probably regarded as unacceptable now and (b) it was clearly not regarded as unacceptable in the 1950s.  How/why did that change?  Because people objected to the language.  That is, they were unpleasant (un-neighborly) to people who spoke like that.  Is (was) calling someone who was female and worked for you “my girl Friday” coarse language?  (Or simply infantilizing and demeaning?)  How did that change?  (Well, I don’t think we’re all the way through this process yet.)  To the extent that it did change, it’s because women (mostly, and a few men) objected—were not appropriately subservient to their bosses.

And (10), showing respect for authority.  Well, if we had all shown respect for authority, the Civil Rights revolution would never have occurred.  Thousands more would have died in Vietnam.  Millions of people who now have the right to vote (a right which is under attack, by the defenders of one sort of bourgeois culture) who once did not.  And had women respected authority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would women have the right to vote today?  If black Americans (and their white supporters) had respected authority in the 1950s and 1960s (and still today), would they have had the right to vote now?  I have always said, and it seems to me to be truer today than ever, the most important thing I learned (in college, as it happens) is “Question authority.”  An unquestioned authority destroys civil society.  It destroys the pursuit of knowledge.  It destroys personal growth.  Unquestioned authority comes as close to a definition of evil as I think I can get.

And rejection of “substance abuse” and “crime” (11).  Prohibition worked nicely, didn’t it?  And the extent of (quietly hidden, ignored, or denied) alcoholism in the 1950s is the ongoing stuff of history, literature, and television.  It’s OK for me to abuse a societally-approved substance (alcohol), but not one that the “authorities” refuse to approve (and, as I type, our Attorney General appears to have re-declared war on) (marijuana).  And crime…we are supposed to reject crime.  Meaning what, exactly?  Murder, rape, assault, theft?  What about creating unsafe working environments that kill people?  What about polluting the water and the air and destroying people’s lives?  Or do I accept your definition of what constitutes a crime?

So, it seems, I have managed to reject all eleven of these tenets of bourgeois (white) culture.  I have found them, frankly, to be tools for the suppression of women, or blacks, or Latinos, or environmentalists, of intellectuals (except for those approved by the patriarchy).  (One thing I certainly did not intend to do was to write nearly 1400 words about this…)

Yet I have lived and largely prospered within this bourgeois (white) culture.  It has given me—far more, in some ways than I have earned—a comfortable life that has allowed me to pursue my interests.  I don’t know quite what to say about that, except that I have tried, around the edges, to change it.  Perhaps without much success, and without taking many risks.  But I have at least recognized and acknowledged how privileged I have been

[1]All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, wikipedia,
[3] Ibid.


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