The Cultural Misery Index

Every month the Census Bureau publishes the "Index of Leading Economic Indicators," a series of statistics on the state of the economy. But the economy isn't the only sign of our national well-being. A few weeks ago, William Bennett, former secretary of education, unveiled an "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators," a series of statistics on the state of the culture. Bennett isn't talking about operas and symphonies. He's talking about culture in the anthropological sense: values, behavior, social institutions. And the numbers paint a dark picture of American culture in the decades since the 1960s. Violent crime is up 560 percent; today four out of five Americans have been victims of violent crime. Illegitimate births are up 400 percent. Divorce rates have quadrupled; the number of children on welfare has tripled. Teenage suicides are up 300 percent, while SAT scores have dropped almost 80 points. What is the cause of this precipitous cultural decline? Bennett says the numbers are "evidence of a shift in . . . attitudes and beliefs." America's trend-setters and opinion-shapers simply place "less value," he says, on the behaviors that lead to stable homes, educational achievement, and high moral character. We all remember when Dan Quayle was ridiculed for taking on the "cultural elite" and its casual view of marriage and parenthood. But Quayle was right. America's values are heavily influenced by the cultural leaders who write television scripts, produce movies, compile textbooks, and draft laws. And in the past three decades, these leaders have largely turned their backs on the traditional values of faith, family, and fidelity. We get a vivid glimpse of that shift in the autobiography of Frank Capra, a three-time Oscar winner who watched the attitudes of the entertainment elite change during the 1960s. Capra described a new generation of movie directors "who substituted shock for talent"—whose philosophy was, "God is dead. Long live pleasure! . . . Liberate the world from prudery! Emancipate our films from morality!" Well, no one can deny that today our public life has been "liberated" from prudery; our films and TV programs have been "emancipated" from any hint of morality, along with our school curricula and many of our laws. The question we have to ask ourselves now is, Do we like the social fallout of these changes? Are we really happier? Bennett's cultural indicators give a resounding no. On almost all counts, America's social pathologies are growing worse. Moral decline has led straight to social decline. This is something we've all sensed. But now we have the numbers to prove it. When we talk with our secular friends about the crucial need for values in society, we can pull out Bennett's misery index: There in black and white is evidence of the chaos that results when society takes a casual attitude toward morality and family life. The values affirmed in our public life have a deep effect on private behavior. It's time for Americans to do some serious soul-searching over whether we like the effects we're seeing. And then to ask what values we ought to be affirming in our public life. For information on how to receive the "Index on Leading Cultural Indicators," write or call: The Heritage Foundation 214 Massachusetts Avenue, NE Washington, DC 20002 (202) 546-4400.


Chuck Colson


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