The Common Good

BOOM: David Brooks, Charles Murray, and the Reign of Mammon

Der Mammon und sein Sklave. Holzstich.via Wiki Commons, http://bit.ly/zom5Df.
Der Mammon und sein Sklave. Holzstich, 1896 via Wiki Commons, http://bit.ly/zom5Df.

Tuesday's New York Times carried a thought-provoking op-ed by David Brooks called "The Materialist Fallacy." I recommend that you read it: it's only 764 words long. Brooks argues that "in the half-century between 1962 and the present, America has become more prosperous, peaceful and fair, but the social fabric has deteriorated." This is not just because of job loss (the liberal explanation) or government intrusiveness (the libertarian explanation) or "the abandonment of traditional bourgeois norms" (the neo-conservative explanation).

It has more to do with declining social context and social capital, says Brooks, who never met a financial capitalist he didn't like. He really likes Charles Murray's new book, however: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. (If you're not up for the 416-page book, you might want to read Brooks's January 30 column in praise of it.) Both authors worry about nefarious social forces that are driving a wedge between rich and poor, productive and non-productive, law-abiding and outlaws.

Brooks is partly right, and so are his critics. Yes, there's a rip in our social fabric. Yes, it is caused or made worse by job loss, ill-advised government programs, and shifting (or abandoned) values. Yes, it diminishes social capital and impoverishes social context. But also, Mr Brooks, and perhaps fundamentally, our decaying social fabric is the direct result of our enthusiastic worship of Mammon--the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).

I don't need to remind anybody about rapacious financiers, bloated CEOs, unscrupulous lobbyists, and corrupt politicians. But there were plenty of those in the 1890s and the 1920s, and, as Brooks points out, the social fabric still stayed more or less intact back then. Even two World Wars and a Great Depression didn't unravel it. People still finished school, still got jobs, and still got married before having children, if not always before getting pregnant. Why did things start to break down in the 60s?

It's all the Boomers' fault, right? I mean, the first Boomers were getting their driver's licenses in 1962, the very year Brooks chooses as the beginning of the end. And once we had wheels, and cars with back seats, and, hey, the Pill!--it was all downhill from there.

Nope. Brooks doesn't think it's that simple. But I don't see him fretting about the sea change in the cult of Mammon that took place in the 1950s when we older Boomers were children. For the first time, kids — millions of us — became a market segment. With a brand-new television set planted in nearly every living room in America, we were sitting ducks for anyone who had a product to sell and money to buy air time. We were as plankton to whales, as baby seals to sharks.

The marketers told us we were fantastic, and we believed them. They told us we deserved whatever we wanted, and we agreed. They warned us, sometimes not so subtly ("often a bridesmaid, never a bride"), that if we didn't buy their product, we might face some diminution of our social capital, and we trembled. And they encouraged us to buy their product right now, whether or not we had cash on hand.

Believing them, we stopped thinking about tomorrow. Sha la la-la-la-la, live for today — never mind that what we did today might get us in debt, or destroy our brains, or produce babies. We were the "Now" generation, and proud of it.

But what do you get when people start wanting everything now, so much so that they stop making and carrying out long-range plans, that they defer commitment indefinitely, that they heedlessly risk future solvency in favor of present satisfaction? Well, at the front end, you get a great economy based on thriving businesses with ever-expanding sales volumes. Then, when the rush subsides, you get fatherless children, inadequate education, declining health, a hazardous environment, crumbling roads, and joblessness. You get a social fabric shot full of holes.

So whom shall we blame for the present sad state of so many Americans? Government? Big business? Mysterious social forces? Our own lack of moral fiber? Sure, why not. We've all sold out to Mammon. Our society's organizing principle is the love of money.

Alas, until we as individuals and as a nation stop worshiping at Mammon's altar, all attempts to fix the social fabric--be they Republican, Democratic, socialist, anarchist, moralist, religious, or academic--will be about as effective as sewing "a piece of new cloth on an old garment" (Mark 16:21). Still, a patched garment, if no new fabric exists, is better than no garment at all.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

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