Social conservatism and the preferential option for the poor

In the new issue of First Things, R. R. Reno writes

On the question of social justice, Pope John Paul II once wrote, “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich.” For most of my life (I was born in 1959), the rich and well-educated in America have desired nothing more than the personal freedoms of bohemian liberation. The rich, we must be clear, include the secure and successful academic and professional upper middle classes. I am not talking only about people who live in penthouses, but about people like us and those we know.

This bohemian liberation has involved the sexual revolution, of course, with the consequent weakening of the constraining and disciplining norms of a healthy culture of marriage. But the ways in which the rich have embraced their freedoms hasn’t involved only sex and marriage. It also includes the verbal antinomianism typified by George Carlin’s campaigns to normalize obscenity, suburban librarians insisting on the right to view pornography, tech billionaires who dress like dockworkers, a feminism that mocks the social mores that make women ladies and men gentleman, and many other attacks on older notions of bourgeois respectability.

The social reality of contemporary America is painfully clear. By and large, the rich and powerful don’t desire more wealth nearly as much as they desire moral relaxation and the self-complimenting image of themselves as nonconformists living a life of enlightenment and freedom in advance of dull Middle America. Meanwhile, on the South Side of Chicago—and in hardscrabble small towns and decaying tract housing of old suburbs—the rest of America suffers the loss of social capital.

I must admit that I often feel frustrated by my liberal friends who worry so much about income inequality and not at all about moral inequality. Their answer is to give reparations. Are we to palliate with cash—can we palliate with cash—the disorder wrought by Gucci bohemians?

No. Progressives talk about “social responsibility.” It is an apt term, but it surely means husbanding social capital just as much as—indeed, more than—providing financial resources. In our society a preferential option for the poor must rebuild the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers, and that means social conservatism. The bohemian fantasy works against this clear imperative, because it promises us that we can attend to the poor without paying any attention to our own manner of living. Appeals to aid the less fortunate, however urgent, make few demands on our day-to-day lives. We are called to awareness, perhaps, or activism, but not to anything that would cut against the liberations of recent decades and limit our own desires.

I would take issue with a couple of other articles on the First Things website today, though:

  1. Regarding the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Reno writes “No morally serious person can imagine that, given present political, social, and legal reality, someone like bin Laden can be tried in a criminal court in New York, or for that matter in the Hague.”  This is not obvious to me.  I would like someone to explain why such a thing is so impracticable that we Americans have to bump off our enemy to avoid such a situation.
  2. I would rather that First Things, a religious journal, avoided outside topics like global warming.  Professor Happer makes a few decent points in his article, especially regarding our uncertainties regarding feedback mechanisms triggered by the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (although I’m not sure that’s entirely a cause to be reassured).  Being a physicist himself, he doesn’t deny any obvious truths, such as that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that its abundance in the atmosphere is increasing, and that the Earth has lately been in a warming phase.  On the other hand, he flirts with an argument that I’d like to see retired from public debate:  namely, that there’s nothing abstractly bad about a somewhat higher CO2 concentration and even a somewhat higher temperature.  Who’s to say that our current temperature is ideal?  The problem with this line of argument is clearly seen if I apply it to one anticipated consequence of global warming.  “There’s nothing especially ideal about the current coastlines of the Earth.  Why would it be so bad if they were to suddenly shift?”  Well obviously that’s bad, because regardless of any abstract ideal, people have built their cities based on the current locations of the coasts.  Move them, and cities will find themselves without water access, or underwater.  The question is not whether the Earth is heating too much, but whether it’s heating too fast, too fast for us to adjust.

2 Responses

  1. Regarding Osama bin Ladin, I suppose it might’ve been possible to try him in New York, though even there we’d have been subjected to a spectacle, probably lasting years, of the usual suspects’ apologetics for his crimes.

    I should also note that New York does not currently have the death penalty, though Virginia (the Pentagon) and Pennsylvania (flight 93) do, as does the federal government.

    Attempting to try him in the Hague would only have led to a farce that would make Slobodan Milošević’s “trial” look just.

  2. Do you support this, then? That the poor should have “preferential treatment” to the rich?

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