For liberals, niceness is an article of faith. They believe that in the best of all possible worlds everyone will be nice to everyone else. Nonetheless, too much niceness can have alarming consequences. Many of these downsides have been documented in Charles Murray’s new book “Coming Apart.” He makes it plain that millions of poor people have suffered irreparable damage as a result of being treated with a super-abundance of sweetness and light.
Liberals are fond of chiding conservatives for “blaming the victim.” They tell us that backward-looking people are too ready to hold the poor responsible for problems they did not create. If these unenlightened troglodytes would only back off and treat those injured by capitalistic excess with respect, these downtrodden souls will be able to overcome their disabilities.
Murray, however, demonstrates just how severe is the plight of the lower classes. On almost every measure, the top 20 percent in our society are doing far better than the lowest 30 percent.
Let us consider marriage. Everyone knows that divorce rates have risen sharply. Yet many do not realize that middle class couples tend to stay married, whereas poor couples do not. Indeed, the poor have a distressing habit of not marrying at all. They merely cohabit until convenience — or a jail sentence — cleaves them asunder.
This might not seem an insuperable problem, except for the fact that these folks often have babies. They do not wait to tie the knot before they start producing the next generation. Sadly, many procreate even before leaving their teens.
Given that two out of every five children are today born out of wedlock and that their parents are liable to be dirt poor, the impact of non-committed sex can be drastic. Since the children of unmarried parents are likely to grow up poor, uneducated and unhappy, this means that millions of children are condemned to misery thanks to the unrestrained impulses of their parents.
But liberals tell us that we must be nice. We ought not condemn a disadvantaged teenage girl for having unprotected sex with a guy who is unemployed and strung out on drugs. It is not her fault that life dealt her a faulty hand. After all, she is doing the best she can to survive.
According to them, it makes sense that a woman with meager marital prospects might desire motherhood to compensate for her unhappy fate. Why indeed shouldn’t she seize the few pleasures available to her?
The answer, of course, is that her choices affect others. More specifically, they have dire consequences for her offspring. It may be a cliché to say they did not ask to be born, but they did not. Nor did they ask to be born to irresponsible parents.
Once upon a time we called children conceived under these circumstances “bastards.” By the same token, we condemned their mothers as the next best thing to prostitutes. These women were not treated kindly, hence they and their families sought to hide their shame.
But as the targets of humiliation, they did something else. Even though they were poor, they sought to avoid illegitimacy. Then, if a mistake were made, they rectified it with shotgun alliances.
Beyond this, many of the poor avoided illicit pregnancies because they feared the wrath of the church. Routinely told that they would go to Hell for their transgressions, they controlled their wayward urges. Unfortunately, as Murray has also documented, the poor are no longer going to church in large numbers. Who then is to hold them accountable for their actions?
The poor may not be responsible for having caused their dilemma. But they are responsible for many of the behaviors that perpetuate it. This being so, is it really nice to let them off the hook without a word of disapproval?
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.