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Pessimism at Any Cost(?)

November 21st, 2007 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

It’s been said that the conservative political movement lives and dies on pessimism.

With significant evidence that the cultural mores of our fathers are still in retreat, conservatives have had ample material to buttress their cause. From the drug wars to abortion, there has been no shortage of conservative rallying points.

But as Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin point out, the American cultural situation may be less dire than social conservatives make it seem. If their presentation is accurate, we may have stopped slouching toward Gomorrah.

They tick off the gains we have made in the various sectors of society—crime, teenage drug use, welfare rates, abortion, education, and the sexual behavior of young people.

Yet not all is well. Specifically, they point out that “soft nihilism and ‘ethical relativism’” still lurk. And despite the advances in the list above, the family—that central unit of society—has not improved much.

Wehner and Levin are right—there are grounds for hope.

But any claim of progress begs the question: are the social evils actually gone, or have the practices simply been replaced by other similarly deleterious activities? Consider their description of young people:

More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent.

Both of those are true. But most young people have simply replaced sexual intercourse with other sexual activities that don’t lead to pregnancy. Consider, for instance, that the CDC 2006 Report on sexual activity (which contends that such activity is dropping among teens) defined sexual activity in terms of intercourse alone. Though pregnancies among young people may be down, sexual activity is still alive and well. Once you get behind the numbers, a different story emerges from Wehner and Levin’s.

It’s important to avoid a ‘pessimism at any cost’ mentality. And working to refute optimistic interpretations of cultural evidence certainly borders on such a stance. But Wehner and Levin’s broad strokes attempts to build optimism is less persuasive than it initially seems, and hence is a shaky foundation for responsible optimism.>

That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t be optimistic about our culture. If Chesterton is right, an optimism that is groundless is far more durable, and far more foundational, than an optimism built on the faulty grounds. If our optimism depends on our progress, it will be as shifty as statistics. But if it’s built on the fundamental fact that American culture is our culture, then we will never lack for the motivation and desire to make it as excellent as possible (and here, I see the suspicion of patriotism of the 60s on the left as a fundamentally nihilistic attitude).

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.