Out of the Aether

For at least two centuries, scientists believed in what was known as “aether.” (It was sometimes spelled “ether,” just like the liquid used as both an anesthetic and solvent.) Isaac Newton, by way of describing and defining aether, wrote that “All space is permeated by an elastic medium or aether, which is capable of propagating vibrations.”

These vibrations were thought to be the medium by which forces such as light, electromagnetism, and gravity were transmitted across the vast distances of space. Scientists spent a lot of time speculating about how the aether worked and constructed elegant cosmological models based on the aether’s supposed qualities.

The problem was that there was no aether, certainly not in the sense they understood it. The Michelson-Morley Experiment and Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity pretty much killed off the idea and/or the need for an elastic medium by which various forces were transmitted. The way things actually work turned out to be more complicated, and, frankly, stranger than had been previously thought.

Is “culture” our aether? Obviously, unlike aether, there is such a thing as culture and it does transmit various forces. But it’s worth considering if we haven’t constructed our own elegant model about how things work that isn’t equally flawed.

Part of the problem is the way we use the word “culture.” In their book, “A Practical Guide to Culture,” John Stonestreet and Brent Kunkel define culture as “what we do with the world: we build, we invent, we imagine, we create, we tear down, we replace, we compose, we design, we emphasize, we dismiss, we embellish, we engineer.”

But that’s not how most Christians define it. As John Stonestreet has put it, “a lot of Christians think of culture as all the bad stuff in the world.” In most Christian circles culture is about bad ideas, the bad moral and ethics these ideas produce, the means by which these bad moral and ethics are transmitted, and, ultimately, their bad affects.

Thus, we see every problem as having its ultimate origin in some bad theological and/or moral idea, and being transmitted by a culture shaped by those ideas. This is what I mean by culture being analogous to aether.

Now, there is some truth to this. It is possible to draw such a line between bad ideas and terrible consequences. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the prophetic encyclical by Pope Paul VI. While it’s best known for setting forth the Catholic Church’s position on artificial contraception, what it really did was to show where contraception, which is ultimately about divorcing the sexual act from its God-ordained unitive and procreative purpose, would lead.

In Section 17 Paul VI wrote about men forgetting “the reverence due to a woman . . .  disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, [reducing] her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, [and] no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

In other words, he foresaw the age of Tinder, Aziz Ansari, and even Harvey Weinstein. Similarly, he asked “Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” It was as if he knew about China’s “one-child” policy and the United Nations Population Fund’s support for forced sterilization that served as its inspiration in advance.

He didn’t of course. He simply saw with clarity where this particular set of bad ideas would lead.

Unfortunately, not all evils can be traced to their source so neatly. In her 2015 book, “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,” Jill Leovy puts the extraordinary homicide rates among Black men in South Central Los Angeles into much-needed context.

At its peak in 1993, “black men in their early twenties in Los Angeles County died by homicide at a rate of 368 per 100,000 population, similar to the per capita rate of death for U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.”

The obvious question is “why?” and the standard – actually just about the only – response produced by the aether is about culture, specifically the “collapse of the black family.”

The problem with that “explanation” is that, to borrow a line from conservative columnist Steve Chapman, “It’s incomplete [and]  worse, it’s often used to gloss over intractable realities that continue to hinder black progress.”

The gloss Chapman was specifically referring to is the disappearance of “A lot of the well-paid blue-collar jobs once abundant in cities.” The abundance of these jobs facilitated family formation and their disappearance contributed to the lack of family formation.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965 paper “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” brought the problem to the nation’s attention, saw the connection. Sociologist William Julius Wilson documented the link in his 1997 book “When Work Disappears.”

It’s not just African-American communities. Charles Murray’s much-discussed book “Coming Apart” discusses the cultural divergence between two “statistical constructs” he called “Fishtown” and “Belmont.” “Fishtown” is wracked by the same “tangle of pathologies,” to use Moynihan’s controversial phrase, that American’s associate with poor communities of color. To put it simply, Belmont isn’t.

The “coming apart” Murray writes about is almost entirely about “values.” But there’s something else separating the “statistical constructs.” The people in “Belmont” are the kind of “knowledge workers” favored by our globalized economy, while the people in “Fishtown” are the ones left behind.

The elegant model produced by the aether would tell us that people in “Fishtown” and its real-life equivalents are struggling economically, at least in significant part, because their “values” have deteriorated. But it’s possible (likely?) that we have causation backwards.

After all, as Murray pointed out, there was little, if any difference, in the norms and mores of working class whites and middle-to-upper-middle class whites fifty years ago. What’s more, even today people in these communities are more conservatives in their views on extramarital sex and women’s roles than their more affluent counterpart. So, what’s changed?

One obvious answer is their material circumstances. The disappearance of the “well-paid blue collar jobs” Chapman referred to led to a decrease in the number of marriageable males. In an ideal world, i.e., the New Jerusalem, men and women would have refrained from sex and procreation so as to not make problems worse but the New Jerusalem has yet to descend.

But there’s something else at work in places like South Central L.A. As Leovy tells readers, “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.”

Drawing on the work of sociologist Max Weber, she writes “black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence—the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force . . . But slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly where blacks were concerned.” Instead, legal systems, especially in the South, focused on social control of African Americans while rarely, if ever, giving any thought to black-on-black homicide.

As a Louisiana newspaper put it in the late nineteenth century, “If negroes continue to slaughter each other, we will have to conclude that Providence has chosen to exterminate them in this way.” The historical record is clear: In the absence of law and the monopoly on violence, personal violence becomes lethal. This is true whether we’re talking about South Central or the American frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While it would be ludicrous to compare modern Los Angeles to Jim Crow Louisiana, the attitude towards what was going in places like South Central was a “virulent form of callousness” that “permeated officialdom, the media, the public rhetoric surrounding homicide.” The epitome of this callousness was the expression “NHI,” which stands for “no human involved,” used to characterize many of the murders committed there.

In the meantime, the link between sex, marriage, and procreation has been sundered. The difference between the worse and better off is the latter have a lot more margin for error.

You don’t have to completely agree with Leovy to understand that any monocausal explanation for what happened in South Central Los Angeles represents a failure to think about the issue in the way it deserves. It says more about the people offering the “explanation” that the thing being “explained.”

Unfortunately, a lot of talk about culture leans heavily towards the monocausal. Like the people speculating about the properties of the aether, we construct models that offer solutions to complex problems that are, as H.L. Mencken famously said, “neat, plausible, and wrong.”

No one was harmed by getting the whole “aether” thing wrong. The same can’t be said about people like those in “Ghettoside.” They have been victimized in ways we can’t imagine. Let’s not add insult to injury by proffering “explanations” that reflect our concerns instead of their complex realities.


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