The William Bennett flap raises some interesting and important questions about the moral state of our nation. What does morality mean in America today? Can there be a truce between our competing cultural camps? At the moment, America is uneasily suspended between the moral system of the Fifties and the radical impulses of the Sixties. We are caught in the middle. Despite all the problems, though, the middle may not be so bad.
Why is there a culture war to begin with? Why did the old moral consensus break down? It’s because we live differently now. Human beings can’t live together in peaceful and stable social groups without moral rules. Yet the more we live as independent individuals, instead of as members of tightly knit communities, the less we want or need moral rules.
After World War II Americans moved out of small towns and tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods, and into relatively impersonal suburbs and urban apartment complexes. (This story is told especially well in Alan Ehrenhalt’s book, The Lost City.) And after World War II, many more Americans spent the years after high school away from home at distant colleges and post-graduate schools before finally marrying and starting families. All this brought more isolation, but also more freedom.
Our relative independence of others is the key to the rise of the new social liberalism. Yet, no matter how independent we get, the ineradicable fact of childhood dependence creates demands for a stable family structure governed by certain moral rules. This is the root of our contemporary culture war. Our lived individualism continually pulls us toward a full-fledged libertarianism, while our childhood dependence exerts a countervailing pull toward moral traditionalism.
Our new social situation forces us into the unstable and conflicted moral middle ground we now inhabit. Unless we find a way to reconstitute the old small towns and ethnic neighborhoods (or some modern equivalent), we shall never be able to fully reestablish the moral system of the Fifties. The Sixties ethos, on the other hand, if taken to its logical conclusion, is unlivable. That’s why the communes broke down. The hippy communes tried to combine group solidarity with total personal freedom. The result was chaos. Likewise, the extremes of drug use and political violence in the Sixties led to a kind of individual and collective meltdown, for the hippies and the activists alike.
So we are continually pulled in the direction of two opposing moral systems, neither of which can be fully or consistently lived out. That means we’re going to be stuck in between the Fifties and the Sixties for some time to come. There will be moments when one or the other moral outlook is stronger. But neither side of the culture war will be able to definitively win. (For a more on this view, see “Wishing Away the Culture War,” my review of Alan Wolfe’s, Moral Freedom.)
Let’s apply this framework to the issue of cohabitation before marriage. Clearly, from the perspective of the Fifties, cohabitation before marriage is wrong. In fact, cohabitation was once called, “living in sin.” William Bennett is a critic of cohabitation, even though he realizes that there is very little public criticism of the practice nowadays. In his book, The Broken Hearth, Bennett correctly points out that the trial period of cohabitation doesn’t really lead to better and more stable marriages. If anything, cohabitation tends to undermine marital stability. Bennett is right about the social costs of cohabitation, but clearly the practice grants individuals greater personal freedom.
Although I agree with William Bennett about the social costs of cohabitation, I think that in this case, the gains in personal freedom are worth the cost. But what really tilts the balance in the case of cohabitation is the way we now live. As Kay Hymowitz points out in, “The Cohabitation Blues,” her excellent discussion of cohabitation in the March, 2003 issue of Commentary, it’s the extended post-adolescence of young professionals who delay marriage for education and apprenticeship that has driven our shift to cohabitation. Unless the underlying social and economic situation changes, it will be impossible to go back to the moral system of the Fifties.
So on this issue, as on many aspects of our general post-Sixties sexual loosening, I disagree with William Bennett. But does our inability to return to the sexual system of the Fifties mean that anything goes? No. To be sure, there are forces pulling us in the direction of “anything goes.” The recent, radical and, I think, very ill-advised proposals of the influential American Law Institute are a specimen of the problem. The American Law Institute wants the law to equate marriage and cohabitation. That would effectively undermine the special significance of marriage.
As Hymowitz points out, despite the rise of cohabitation, most individuals do eventually marry. And most of them see marriage as a qualitatively different step than cohabitation. Above all, most Americans still believe that couples should marry before having children. Cohabitation is indeed unstable, and it would be foolish to disrupt families with children by erasing the distinction between cohabitation and marriage. (See Hymowitz for more on the ways in which cohabitation can harm children.)
Hymowitz, who does not oppose cohabitation, but doesn’t want it legally recognized either, articulates the kind of measured and grounded middle position that makes sense in our current environment. Because of the way we now live, the balance between family stability and personal freedom has shifted. While the costs in family stability of our new more liberal sexual system are serious, the benefits in freedom are also real. Above all, the possibility of going all the way back to the old social-sexual mode is exceedingly remote. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is unnecessary, or that we ought to move to a system inspired by the full radicalism of the Sixties. There is a middle ground position-albeit an imperfect one. And the need to draw a line to prevent a slide into the most socially liberal position is dictated, above all, by children’s need for family stability.
So much for cohabitation. Let’s turn to another tough moral issue-the Clinton impeachment scandal. Surely bitterness over William Bennett’s strong stand on impeachment is behind the current attempts to bring him down. The Clinton scandal is another example of a clash between privacy and freedom on the one hand, and traditional moral rectitude on the other. I think the arguments on both sides of that still simmering battle are strong.
I was not a public writer when the Clinton scandal hit, so let me give my slightly odd take on the affair. I was torn during the impeachment debate, because both sides seemed to me to have an important point. Certainly perjury, in whatever circumstances, is a serious matter. But I do agree with those who believed that Clinton’s privacy had been unjustly invaded. I don’t blame Kenneth Starr for this. The root of the scandal, I think, was a very bad sexual-harassment law, pushed by radical feminists, that allowed for far too intrusive questioning of Clinton about his sexual past. Ones those questions were put, Starr clearly had reason to pursue the matter. But those questions in court about Clinton’s sexual past should never have been put in the first place.
It is true that, in a supreme irony, it was Bill Clinton himself who signed and supported the feminist inspired law that proved to be his undoing. That fact was noted at the time, but mostly just to score points against Clinton. The role of that intrusive law in the Clinton scandal was never adequately acknowledged. Republicans were more interested in hammering Clinton than in questioning a bad sexual-harassment law. And Democrats were more interested in painting conservatives as moral scolds than in putting the blame for personal intrusion where it really belonged: on their feminist allies. This point was made by Jeffrey Rosen throughout the impeachment process, and was raised early on in the scandal by Norman Podhoretz. But for the most part, few wanted to talk about the bad and intrusive sexual-harassment law that started the whole Clinton scandal rolling.
Adultery is a very bad thing, not only because it is a serious betrayal of personal trust, but because it can easily lead to the breakup of families with children. And of course, lying under oath is extremely serious as well. But a deep intrusion onto someone’s sexual or personal privacy is also a terrible thing. Unfortunately, even if it was in some ways due to his own ill-advised sexual-harassment law, this sort of unjust personal intrusion was inflicted on Bill Clinton. So, too, William Bennett’s legitimate privacy was egregiously violated by those out to destroy him.
So I sit, uneasily, between the two moral camps on the Clinton affair. Each side has legitimate claims. On this issue, and on others, our current national dilemma calls on us to balance sometimes conflicting claims of freedom and privacy on the one hand, and traditional morality on the other. In general, I favor a middle position. I think we have to find a way to live with many of the social, sexual, and moral changes of the Sixties, yet without following those who propose ever more radical reforms. In particular, the end of marriage and its conversion into an infinitely flexible series of private contracts (which is where we’re headed) is a bad idea. Lines have to be drawn that will staunch the dissolution of marriage, even as many of the changes since the Sixties are accepted. Of course, I take the same sort of middle-ground position on homosexuality. I oppose sodomy laws, and welcome our generally increased social tolerance for homosexuality. Yet I oppose gay marriage.
There are many problems with the sort of middle-ground position I’m offering here. I think I’ve given some pretty clear and principled grounds for preferring some changes to others. Nonetheless, both religious traditionalism and strict libertarianism are more consistent — or at least more straightforward — than the middle ground position I’m discussing here. I can’t claim to be more consistent than the two warring ends of the moral-cultural spectrum. But I do think my middle ground position is where most Americans live — and where our society is going to be staying for some time, like it or not.
Strict libertarianism may be consistent, but it achieves that consistency only by disregarding the necessity for stable family life — especially for dependent children. Yet I am glad the libertarians are out there, zealously guarding our liberty and privacy. We need brilliant advocates for liberty and privacy, like Jeffrey Rosen, to give us fresh insights into our cultural battles.
I also have immense respect for the traditionally religious. And readers of NRO will know that I often defend the rights, the deeply valuable insights, and the good work in strengthening the family, of this all-too-misunderstood group. Yet, on reading this piece, religious traditionalists will no doubt charge me (with some justice) with ignoring the transcendent basis of the very moral claims that I value. I cannot deny that this traditionalist view is both strong and consistent, even if I do not share it. Yet I do not think my middle ground position is that far from the traditionalists. As I’ve said repeatedly, traditional religion is filled with sociological wisdom. And my own stance depends on moral postulates (for example, about the importance of families and children).
So that is where we are. We are living in a moral universe consisting of three broad groups: religious traditionalists, social liberals, and a balancing and relatively secular group in the middle. As the Bennett flap shows, our diverse moral camps don’t seem to be living with each other very successfully. But we probably can’t live very well without each other either. Somehow Americans continue to muddle through, making the compromises and balancing moral judgments that we must.
As for William Bennett, I understand the bitterness he’s inspired, but I also believe that the attack on him was deeply unfair. (I’ve made that argument elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here). I am more socially liberal than Bennett, but I agree with him about much. I think our society needs good men like him, and I can live with the fact that I don’t always see eye to eye with him.
Although I’ve placed myself on the middle ground of our moral terrain, I think the Bennett case shows that even traditional morality is often not a radical either/or. All the great religions are forced to make a complex series of balancing judgments about how to gratify our unruly desires. Catholicism is very demanding in sexual morality, but more lax in the matter of gambling. To insist that moral men must always behave with ultimate and perfect restraint is something no religion or society can do. To pretend that even traditional morality consists of prohibition alone is to caricature. In that sense, all of us, religious or secular, are “caught in the middle” of a series of fundamental and conflicting imperatives.