Sunday, October 31, 2010


One experience is certainly denied us. We can’t “redo” our childhood and “experiment around”—and thus examine how we might have turned out if we had been brought up in a marginal, disordered household… How much of what we value as adults would still be there in us if our upbringing and culture had been skimpy, shoddy, or confused?

There is a good-old salesman’s saying: It’s better to be lucky than to be good. There is the saying we’ve all heard: There but for the grace of God go I. A sense of having been exceedingly fortunate surfaced in me as soon as I was old enough to see the world well enough. I credit my upbringing for whatever virtues I may have and blame my shortcomings on me. That’s good policy in general—an acknowledgement of probabilities. Culture is more nurture than achievement—and most of us do well if we but pass it on intact. That alone requires all of our effort.

It must be so because these days literally millions of babies have been and continue to be born into marginal families. I’m not slicing, dicing, or dividing and therefore don’t mean economically marginal. Economic deprivation may or may not be a part of it—wealth, indeed, may be a cause of it. But generally, thus by the second or third generation, the sins of the fathers—and let’s not forget the mothers, either—will have manifested in economic decline as well.

The paradox that I discover here is that loss of culture is caused by individual acts of failure—often by small, careless acts—but the transmission of such failure to the next generation magnifies these errors. The poorly nurtured children are weakened and disabled. With each round of births, the children are less and less to blame because, in an almost literal sense “they know not what they’re doing.” But their acts of failure are much more visible and harmful. And the paradox is that we hold individuals responsible who have become irresponsible by lack of nurture rather than by their free choice.

Thus then develop very strange notions and gain a wide authority. One is that morality should not and must not be taught in schools. Morality is a religious concept, and religion, folks, is a lifestyle option, isn’t it?

Ultimately failure of any kind, not least cultural failure, is self-correcting. But cultural failure may take centuries to work around and cost vast amounts of suffering—generally of the stupidly innocent.

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