I read an article on my way into work Friday morning that got me looking at this subject from a different angle. It’s in the current issue of National Review (with Chris Christie on the cover) and it’s called ‘Status Hiatus’ by a writer named Michael Knox Beran. In some ways, this piece is the flip-side to the excellent ‘Ruling Class’ article discussed here several weeks ago. In it, he discusses the historic obsession with ‘status’ and democracies’ effect on it.
The author argues that the anxieties created through status-obsession can leave people feeling divided. Those who are at the top will usually find a way to stay there, while everyone else can only gain some satisfaction by looking down, but inadequacy when looking up.
In feudal days, these distinctions were enforced and immobile — you stayed in whatever class or status you were born into. Whatever anxiety existed was over the fact that you could never change your status, either up or down. The Medieval period, when the Church was the overbearing societal force, took away much of the obsession with status. God and the Church was the only things seen when looking up, and God in this interpretation didn’t care much for the vanities of man, or even man in general. Obedience to God was what mattered. Later, after the Church’s stronghold on society was weakened by secular forces, status again reared its head and became an obsession, but the growing trend toward democracy meant that status was something one could move in or out of. Now the status anxieties concerned whether or not one could successfully move into and maintain a certain level of status, now that such mobility was both possible and desirable.
Those of the upper status tiers had their proclivities to certain status fashions and accoutrements, and once imitated by those of lower ranks, they merely shirked them off. In the 18th Century, the salons of London and Paris were populated by men and women of ornate dress and powdered wigs. Once the bourgeoisie started imitating this look, the upper crust shirked off these styles and started dressing their servants and maids in powdered wigs, remaking the fashion into that of the lower class. The same was true in the 20th Century.
Today, the billionaire hedge-fund manager dines out in jeans and a shirt with the coattails out, while the blue collar man shows up to a party awkwardly dressed in a jacket and tie. The rites and rituals of hierarchy may have changed, but the hierarchy itself still exists. In a status-driven culture, the philanthropy that ensues may be societally beneficial, but it usually reflects the wishes and the tastes of the donor rather than the beneficiary.
He goes on to say that it has always been fashionable to disparage any culture that had its origins in the Dark or Medieval period. Since those days, the institutions that were established in the place of the Church manifested themselves in the civic institutions that we know today, most of which flourished at the local level. Freed from the overbearing bonds of the Church, people once again pursued status and hierarchy, and expressed and devoted a portion of their cultural energy toward the benefit of others.
As we know, the idea of charitable care has largely been usurped by the centralizing impulses of the left, who see themselves as the rightful administrators of the charitable culture. They seek to level the status playing field by taxing it, thereby punishing success and taking away the charitable impulse from the individuals and their civic institutions. By taxing status, they punish it, and they deprive society of the good that status competition produces.
19th century writers saw the connection between a decline in the civic-pastoral culture and the rise of psychopathology and sociopathy, as evidenced in books like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” This is where the modern obsession with psychotic behavior and sociopathic personalities really began, the literary works of Conan Doyle and Stevenson ultimately passing the criminal mind torch to the dozens of crime-themed TV shows we know today. The sociopath fascinated us then and now because we see it as a symptom of the larger problem, namely the feeling of estrangement from community.
So while it took me a long time to get there, that is ultimately my point. The growing cultural divisions within our society coupled with the proclivity to turn over more of the giving and charitable impulses that an individual expresses through established connections with his civil society over to a centralized group of elites (unearned, rather than those who are status competitors) results in a feeling of disconnect and disunity that produces the people, stories, and scenes of societal and interpersonal mayhem that we see play out on a daily basis, either in our own lives or in the media.
Winning this war that we’re in is as much about reestablishing the bonds of commonality and of civilized discourse as it is about taking our government back from the statists. Otherwise, our angry, divided culture will become a house divided upon itself, and it will fall. Ushered into its place will be a culture — a foreign culture — that is unified, but not desirable.