012 Culture Problem: the Himmelfarb "decency reservoir"
It’s astonishing to see the sheer volume of bad behavior these days.
It’s like everyone forgot how to do the right thing.
In a book called The New Honor Code, I wrote about two cases.
The first was the Harvard soccer Scandal of 2016.
The Harvard soccer scandal is many things. It is a failure of nerve, dignity, judgment, and decency. It was a failure to protect Harvard women from Harvard men. Everyone was diminished—female players, male players, the sport, the administrators, the dean, the Crimson, the journalists, the college and the university. When given a chance to stand up and be counted, almost everybody folded.
The second was the Wells Fargo scandal of the early 21st century.
Wells Fargo invented accounts for phantom clients, eleven-year-old children, and homeless people, all the while falsifying records to avoid detection and redress. This bank destroyed credit ratings, humiliated employees, and retaliated against those who dared criticize them. Wells Fargo was the West Coast bank without a moral compass. It was a monster by the sea, something that crawled up out of the Pacific to feast on trusting Americans.
These cases are something more than an outrage.
They are also a puzzle.
Harvard is our oldest university, long charged with shaping the moral character of (some of) our children.
Wells Fargo is a bank charged with protecting the livelihoods of large numbers of Americans.
If they can’t do the right thing, well, WTF. No, really, WTF.
In a more perfect world, we would hope for the operation of explicit codes. Ones that specify our roles and the rules. Ones that say, for instance, if you are a CBS executive, praying upon interns is wrong.
These days, for many people, codes are a fading memory.
The puzzle becomes a little less puzzling if we posit the “Himmelfarb reservoir.”
Gertrude Himmelfarb was an American historian interested in moral ideas and behaviors. She gave us startlingly original ideas about the wellsprings and successes of Victorian morality. (I am no expert in Himmelfarb’s work and I am certain to failed to fairly represent it here. All due apologies.)
Himmelfarb has become a patron saint of people who want to undo the work of social reform and cultural progress of the past 150 years. That’s NOT the reason I evoke her here.
No, my intention is to ask whether Himmelfarb could see something that we could not. That we were drawing on the morality of another time.
Until it ran out.
When did this happen? Hard to know. But the thoughtless thuggery of Harvard soccer, Wells Fargo and CBS executives is pretty clear as evidence that it has.
It turns out we were cheating. Our order of our social life did not come from our own efforts. The decency of daily life was not something we created. We were borrowing it. Or stealing it. In any case, we were not making it. It came from someone somewhere else.
Now that we have exhausted the Himmelfarb reservoir it’s clear that we were cheating. Now we know what it’s like to live in a world in which we do not make our own morality.
It’s a horrifying place.
People who once could be relied upon to produce at least a facsimile of decency will now sometimes do completely horrifying things. It’s makes a Hobbesian world. With 258 million adult Americans, the sources of indecency are close to limitless. Drain the reservoir and the life get solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short in a hurry.
I think Himmelfarb’s work is especially good on one of the ways we got here. She noticed how routinely we came to scorn our Victorian heritage. We made a practice of it.
Oh, please. So fussy. So old fashioned. So utterly unhip! A prison house of conformity.
To be sure, there was something to this. We were taking down Victorian and other historical moralities because we discovered that they were Trojan horses. They created morality but they also contained, expressed and policed inequalities. For all the good these moralities did, they also promoted racial, sexual, ethnic, and class prejudice.
It was good to challenge the Trojan cargo of the old moralities. But, oops, when we disposed of them, it is possible that we lost something critical.
By the 21st century this “something” was clear. Our residual storehouse of decency was running on empty. Simple moral determinations now seemed difficult, beyond the reach of even of the people responsible for Harvard soccer teams, American banks, and CBS interns.
Here’s the weird part.
For some reason, we couldn’t see our morality draining away. It never occurred to us that the Victorian codes might contain anything we might miss. As the 20 century ran onwards, as institutions failed, as moralities wore out, as our moral confusion mounted, no one seemed to ask whether we might have got this wrong. (Well, to be fair, Himmelfarb did.)
How anthropologically clueless. How sociologically unforgivable. What made us think that we could exhaust the Himmelfarb reservoir without suffering the consequences?
And now what? How do we restore our decency deficit? How do we put our moral Humpty Dumpty back together again?
Watch this space.
Here’s how this Substack argument here is shaping up.
We have covered seven culture problems:
001 Culture Problem: the “Failure to Launch” people are stalled waiting for adulthood
002 Culture Problem: vibe shifts in decline: evidence that culture is not cohering
004 Culture Problem: decline of the water cooler: our ability to calibrate is failing
006 Culture Problem: bad food: something as fundamental as food was corrupted
008: Culture Problem: celebrities are sometimes a bad influence, colonizing our kids
010: Culture Problem: common sense is being emptied out
012: Culture Problem: the Himmelfarb “decency reservoir”
We have suggested five culture solutions:
003 Culture Solution: fluidity can serve us as an adaptation
005 Culture Solution: big pictures are available and improving
007: Culture Solution: good food and a massive revolution, proof of our power to repair
009: Culture Solution: The Denzel Washington School for Drama can help us use culture to fix culture
011: Culture Solution: There are ways to use culture to address the crisis in culture. Encouraging people to enter the Artisanal economy is one of these.
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