Funny thing about 'fellow Americans'
Monday, March 31, 2014 4:38 AM
At the risk of implying that we should all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," how well do you think Americans know and feel for each other?
In particular, how well do you think Americans in the main understand and empathize with low-income Americans?
Do you think citizens who have never been incarcerated have an accurate sense of the actual lives lived by those who have?
Or what about the children of those who are or have been incarcerated? To what extent do you think Americans who never have been incarcerated understand the lives lived by those girls and boys?
And beyond 600 million hands clasped warmly around campfires, what would you say are the sources of "glue" holding our society together? (Stay tuned for a no-longer-possible ecumenical moment from when I attended P.S. 215 in New York City in the "less enlightened" 1950s.)
Over the last year I asked 39 exceptionally well-versed men and women questions like those above, in face-to-face interviews from New England to California, for a book I'm writing about how very high non-marital birthrates and divorce rates are contributing to deepening class divisions in the United States and what our nation might come to look like as well as be as a result. (Early warning: It's not always pretty.)
The short consensus answer from the interviewees was that most Americans barely have a clue of the actual lives lived by those a lot less lucky. They routinely acknowledged that they barely had a clue themselves.
The ignorance that enormous numbers of mainstream Americans are assumed to have about the daily realities of Americans holding onto lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder is both cause and effect of class divisions that can be sharp already. But what might we come to look like if and when shared experiences and understandings shrink even more, and common ground erodes even further, in significant part because of the reinforcing impediments of family fragmentation? Impediments the United States leads the industrial world in, with more than 40 percent of all U.S. babies now born outside of marriage?
By "reinforcing impediments of family fragmentation," I mean the ways in which children growing up in single-parent homes are more likely, for example, to do more poorly educationally and occupationally than they otherwise might, with subsequent generations of their own children and grandchildren also likely to do less well. If interviewees think ties among Americans are in rough shape now, they should know these ties are likely to grow even rougher in the future.
Nothing respondents had to say, of course, should be read as proof of anything about our future. They're smart, not seers. But their thoughts are unusually well-informed and deserve to be taken seriously.
Such is the case with this comment from a leader in several fields, including social services for men and women in desperate need:
"My quick answer is I don't think Americans know the depth and breadth of America's really disorganized families, fragmented families, families where there are numbers of half-brothers and half-sisters and there's no men in their lives.
"They move frequently, and there are financial challenges all the time. People are frequently leaving households to go to one institution or another - a group home, prison or whatever - and then coming back. I don't think most Americans, across the political spectrum, have a clue about that kind of instability."
The same is true of this next one, from a well-known social scientist. I had asked him whether he thought average Americans have a decent sense of the lives of men who go back and forth to prison. "I'm pretty sure they have no clue about the lives of these people," he said. "I haven't done any systematic interviewing on this, but I can tell you that when I lecture about these subjects around the country, people are invariably shocked by what I report."
I asked for a shock-inducing example.
After an audible sigh, he said, "There are almost twice as many African-American children with a parent who has served time in prison for a year or more before the kid reaches 14 than white children with the same experience - even though there are six times as many white children as there are black children."
But "knowing" or "not knowing" about people who might be hurting is one thing; what about actually having empathy for them and their predicaments? Another academic, a well-known historian this time, argued that Americans are more likely to be disdainful of poor people than empathetic about their plights. As summary judgments go, hers was more severe than the norm.
In regard to the aforementioned "glue," the most basic connection between family cohesion and national cohesion has to do with how shortages of the former lead to shortages of the latter. Or, if you will, if American families come to be readily characterized by disorder, America will come to be less firmly rooted in ordered liberty.
An interviewee who's a well-known writer began answering the question about American glue by saying what it isn't.
"It isn't race. It isn't language. It isn't religion. It isn't the fact that your ancestors were from here. None of those things is true, which makes the United States fairly distinctive in the history of societies." As for what the national adhesive might be, he started by referring to his conception of the American creed: a free society, the idea of living together in freedom, and ordered liberty. From there he moved on to religion, albeit in a more inclusive sense. Think, he suggested, of sociologist Peter Berger's "sacred canopy."
He then idiosyncratically focused on what he saw as a benign strain of "multiculturalism" as an up-to-date-glue.
"I resisted this for a long time," he said, "but if all you were doing was wandering around public schools in America, you would be absolutely convinced that the national civic religion was something called 'multiculturalism.' It's frequently taught in a very heavy-handed way. And a lot of people, especially older ones, mistrust it, including me in some ways still. But I have come to be friendlier to it as possibly another way of saying, 'E Pluribus Unum,' though sometimes we forget the 'Unum' part."
This got me thinking about the previously mentioned assembly program I participated in when I was in the third or fourth grade of an overwhelmingly Jewish elementary school in the Far Rockaway section of Queens. We had an Easter program, with parents invited and the whole dress-up, Brownie camera bit. There wasn't any religious music, but I still remember dressing up and strolling on stage as if we were parading on Fifth Avenue, hoping to make it into the Rotogravure. The one song I do recall was Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade."
If any Jewish parents objected to their little kids celebrating Christianity's most sacred holiday, I don't recall it. Or at least I don't recall any neighbors picketing the place.
Might such a unifying non-reaction be likely now? No. Might the original decision to hold such a program - in a school with mostly Jewish students - be replicated now? Not a chance. Actually, it might not be kosher in too many public schools regardless of their locale or student body's makeup.
Beyond the fact that "Easter Parade" was written by the Jewish Irving Berlin, what's to be learned from this long-ago school event as it pertains to cohering glue both then and now? One lesson might be that "multiculturalism" as practiced a half-century ago under names such as "brotherhood" was more hospitable than some of the kinds promoted now.
Sticking with music lessons a little longer, my wife and I attended a wonderful performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Target Center in June. The immense ensemble from Salt Lake City was on a midwestern tour and I counted a grand total of perhaps half a dozen blacks in the 300-plus, exclusively Mormon singers and orchestra members. Not a very impressive multicultural lineup. But here are some of the songs they performed:
Two Welsh hymns: "Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah" and "Awake and Arise."
Two African-American spirituals: "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and "Rock-a-My Soul," both performed by a black soloist.
A Nigerian carol: "Betelehemu."
A Sephardic wedding song: "Ah, el novio no quere dinero!"
And "from the American songbook": "Sunrise, Sunset," from "Fiddler on the Roof"; "I've Got Rhythm," by George Gershwin, via New York's old Lower East Side, and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," by, again, Irving Berlin.
When it comes to gluing us together by "celebrating our differences," give me a couple of spiritually and otherwise emotionally drenched tunes anytime over a day of sensitivity training.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His new book, in progress, is tentatively titled "Drawn & Quartiled: What Will America Look Like if Massive Family Fragmentation Rates Continue?" It will be published next year by Rowman & Littlefield.