May 3, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, May 3, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A majority of millennials reject capitalism and support Bernie. Is this the future of America?
Generalizations about human generations are often dangerous, but they’re unavoidable precisely because as we experience life generation by generation; we detect changes within and amongst the generations as indicative of the larger trends in the society. We notice them generation by generation because, at least in general terms, it takes some time for a culture to develop and for moral change to take place, for cultural and social development to become very apparent.
We talk about the Greatest Generation, as they’re often known, or the GI Generation of World War II. We talk especially about the Baby Boomers, at that time the largest generation in American history. Then came Generation X, and the Millennials are now on the scene. Yesterday on The Briefing we talked about what is happening now in Paris–a massive student unrest, a student unrest that is tied to political concerns that are not pointing to any particular kind of economic or political policies, but are indicating in ways reminiscent of the 1968 rebellions in Paris that pointed to the emergence of the New Left to the fact that there is a basic unrest in the millennials. And that is pointing to great political uncertainty.Show Full Transcript
In Paris, the issue is now the demonstrations taking place night after night with young people calling for a politics that will re-enchant the world, pointing simultaneously to the danger of anarchism–if these students have any political philosophy–it’s some form of anarchism, and to the temptation of utopian politics. Here in the United States the pattern has been visible with the unexpected popularity amongst college students of Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist and also someone who is closer to eighty than to eighteen, to say the very least. What we’re looking at here is a general worldview confusion that is becoming very apparent among the millennials.
If we go back to Paris, we need to note that the demonstrations began because of proposed economic changes on the part of the French government that actually would have privileged younger Parisians and young French citizens over some of the older generations. The situation there was a call by the government for a change to the labor laws that would allow for the firing of non-productive personnel in older generations in order to make way for younger French persons to get jobs. The unemployment rate among young French citizens is upwards of twenty-five percent. These young French citizens don’t want jobs. That’s a surprising issue. They responded to the government by saying that what they want are the goods of an economy without having to join the labor force in any traditional way.
Now coming back to the United States, it hits closer to home. The Washington Post reports, Max Ehrenfreund is the reporter, that a majority of millennials now say they reject capitalism–that is, a majority of American millennials. As Ehrenfreund reports,
“In an apparent rejection of the basic principles of the US economy, a new poll shows that most young people do not support capitalism. The Harvard University survey which polled young adults between ages eighteen and twenty-nine found that fifty-one percent of respondents do not support capitalism. Just forty-two percent said they support it.”
Now when we see something like this, we have to ask a very urgent question. What in the world’s going on here? How can a majority of those polled amongst millennials in this Harvard University study reject capitalism, even as they’re studying in institutions that were built by capitalism? One of the students who was involved in the project, Eric Lustbader, a senior at Harvard said,
“The word capitalism doesn’t mean what it used to.”
For those who grew up more recently, according to the Post, capitalism has meant a financial crisis from which the global economy still hasn’t completely recovered.
Now here again we see how experience frames reality, but there’s a reality here these students really aren’t coming to terms with. One of the issues that becomes very apparent in this Washington Post story and in the Harvard University study is that these students don’t have any concrete economic plan. They haven’t taken responsibility to come up with any particular economic theory they believe to be right. They just don’t like things the way that they are. The more troubling issue once we look beneath the headlines is that these students, the millennials, generally tend to believe that government can deliver what nothing else can deliver. That’s a very dangerous presupposition and it’s something we need to watch as we’re seeing the American future come into view.
The millennials in this survey tend to believe, they say, that just existing is a rationale for why one is due a basic income, housing, healthcare, and other benefits. There is no explanation of how these things are to be produced in an economy. Though it is clear that a majority of millennials, according to this survey, reject capitalism, there is no indication that they actually understand what a free market is, or for that matter, the basic distinctions in economic theory and in the larger worldview between Marxism and capitalism, between a free market understanding the economy and socialism.
It is very interesting then to turn to major newspapers around the world such as the Financial Times in London and see that what they are observing on the American political scene is the Democratic party being drawn further to the left by the insurgent candidacy of Senator Sanders, but with very large unanswered questions, especially when it comes down to how any of these policies might actually be adopted and put in place. As many observers have noted, the net effect of the Bernie Sanders candidacy amongst the Democrats might be that the party makes promises and now gains assumptions that simply can’t be delivered, even if that party were to win not only the White House but control of Congress.
Inevitably, the point for us is that as we are looking at a generation move into adulthood and into leadership in the society, we are looking at the framework and the worldview that will be dominant for years to come. Just think about the influence of the Baby Boomers in terms of the rebellion of the 1960s and then to the expansion of government during that period in the 1970s and then to the redefinition of American sexual morality that is continuing to ricochet through the culture even now.
For that reason, we should pay attention to the assessment of Jacob Weisberg in the Financial Times of London when he writes,
“Mr. Sanders’ most significant effect will be felt over time. As the overwhelming choice of voters under thirty-five, he points the way towards a more progressive future for the Democratic party. Millennial voters strongly prefer his European social democratic model to the centrist one represented by the Clintons,” meaning Bill and Hilary. “At age seventy-four, Mr. Sanders will not be the one to lead his young followers into the promised land. Nonetheless,” Weisberg writes, “he has brought a more radical political future into view.”
That assessment is addressed directly to the Democratic Party. But in a larger sense, it is also addressed to the nation at large. Notice is being served of a major worldview shift amongst the millennials that is reflected in their voting patterns and in their political preferences, and also in what they describe as their own economic self-understanding. The millennials have demonstrated that they clearly prefer a candidate who makes endless promises. At this point, they’ve not decided to look too closely at just how those promises might or might not be delivered.
The language of postmodernity: why the phrase "I feel like..." undermines the truth
Meanwhile next, at the New York Times over the weekend, Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, looks also to the millennials, including her own students. What she sees is a shift in the way they speak, which is reflective of a massive shift in the way they think and not in a way that is helpful or healthy. Molly Worthen writes,
“In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. ‘I’d support Donald Trump because I feel like he’s a doer,’ a senior at University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. ‘Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,’ a Yale student complained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, ‘I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.’”
Are you detecting the trend? Molly Worthen then writes,
“These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They feel like. Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials.” Worthen says, “I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia, and in so many things, the young are clearly carriers of a broad cultural contagion.”
It turns out that linguists follow patterns and language very closely and are able to document at least in general terms how new phrases emerge and how Americans learn new ways to speak. Especially prominent among millennial Americans is the tendency to begin a statement of either fact or judgment with, “I feel like,” rather than the confidence of a statement of objective truth.
Molly Worthen says,
“This isn’t just about students adopting some new idiom.” She says, “Make no mistake. ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the matter simply. ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase,” she says, “says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument, a muddle that has political consequences.”
The consequences were well spelled out by Natasha Pangarkar, a senior at Williams College, who said,
“’I feel like’ is heard in the classroom on a daily basis. When you use the phrase ‘I feel like,’ it gives you an out. You’re not stating a fact so much as giving an opinion. It’s an effort,” she said, “to make our ideas more palatable to the other person.”
Now one of the things that Christians always have to keep in mind is what we would call an epistemological humility. That is a certain humility in making a very clear acknowledgement that we are finite human beings which to state the obvious means we might be wrong. This epistemological humility for the Christian points to our dependence upon scripture and God’s gift of revelation. The only way out of a disastrous epistemological humility is the fact that God has actually given us truth in His Word and he has addressed it to us in order that we might know all that he has revealed. In that sense, for a Christian, it’s not a proper humility to say, “We don’t know,” when the Scripture says, “We do know.”
After generations of both political correctness and philosophical postmodernism, we now see a generation that seems to be virtually incapable of beginning any sentence with anything other than, “I feel like,” which as is indicated in this article means a retreat from any claim of truth or a fact merely to an assertion of opinion. The young woman from Williams College quoted in the article I think has it exactly right when she says,
“It’s an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person.”
That itself is a statement of massive consequence.
Here you have a young woman, a senior at Williams College saying that her generation uses this language preceding a statement of either fact or value with, “I feel like,” in order that the person to whom they are speaking will evidently not feel intimidated by a statement of fact or for that matter, a very clear and candid statement of opinion. Natasha Pangarkar, that senior at Williams College says she is trying to avoid beginning sentences with, “I feel like,” because she says,
“I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.”
That is a very key insight. Molly Worthen also points out that what she describes here as linguistic hedging is increasingly popular around college and university campuses because of the fact that language itself has become such an explosive issue on those campuses. Free speech being marginalized with the kind of campus culture that is taking the shape of trigger warnings and other kinds of innovations. Worthen cites Bradley Campbell, a sociologist at California State University of Los Angeles who wrote that the campus culture has changed from a culture of dignity that celebrates free speech to a culture of victimhood “marked by the assumption that people are so fragile that they can’t hear something offensive.”
In her own analysis, Molly Worthen insightfully writes,
“Democracy is premised on civilized conflict. The great advance of the modern age has been our ability to argue about society’s most pressing questions without resorting to physical violence most of the time. Yet the growing tyranny of feelings in the way Americans talk about everything from how to fund public education to which presidential candidate to support exerts a subtler kind of coercion in the public square.” Molly Worthen says in conclusion, “We should not ‘feel like.’” She puts that in quotation marks. “Instead we should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.”
This gets back to another historical insight that should also have Christian attention. When we move through the GI generation to the Baby Boomers to Generation X and then now to the millennials, we are noticing that every generation tends to learn from the generation before it good and bad habits. In one sense, historians now look to the indulgence of the World War II generation, that GI generation after the war, and to the fact they treated their children as absolute projects to be invested in at all costs. Those children became the Baby Boomers who actually thought the world revolved around themselves because, after all, they had been told that it did.
The unfulfilled promises expected by the Baby Boomers got downshifted into Generation X when that generation came on to the scene with no obvious sense of direction whatsoever. Now the millennials, the generation that will be the largest generation in American history, replacing the Baby Boomers with that distinction, this is the generation that now comes on to the scene unable to begin a sentence with anything other than, “I feel like.” Christians looking at this have to understand that what happens in the culture does eventually show up generation by generation.
We cannot expect that all those years of postmodern theory being taught in university would not have an effect. We could not have expected that the moral relativism that was infecting the culture wouldn’t eventually show up in the language. We couldn’t expect that, after all, when we told the millennials that it was their feelings that would be paramount over everything else, that eventually they would come to begin their sentences with, “I feel like.” This is where Christians have to understand that we too can be infected with these linguistic developments, the opportunity to try to find refuge in a linguistic or verbal hedge, as Molly Worthen describes it.
At this point, Christians would be helped by bringing forth what I might call the apostolic test. Could the apostle Paul be heard saying such a thing? Just look at the apostolic preaching in the New Testament. Look at Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Look at how the disciples and the apostles presented the Gospel. Look at Peter on the day of Pentecost and ask the question, “Could we possibly plausibly believe that they could begin any of those sentences merely with, ‘I feel like?'” The linguistic hedging that Molly Worthen describes in this article is something that upon reflection we can hear all around us but what’s really, really important for Christians to understand is that this betrays a far more fundamental shift in the way Americans think before that thinking is reflected in how they speak.
Can you legislate morality? Why the U.S. has in the past and should continue to in the future
Next, shifting to Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times has an interesting opinion piece dealing with adultery, asking the question, “Why is adultery still a crime?”
Writing for the paper, Deborah L Rhode writes,
“One of the curiosities of America’s current presidential campaign is that the Republican front-runner is a self-confessed serial adulterer, yet few conservative voters seem to care. In his book The Art of the Comeback, Donald Trump bragged about his sexual experiences with what he described as ‘seemingly very happily married and important women.’”
Then Rhode says,
“That so many people aren’t holding it against him suggests a tolerance that should be better reflected in our laws and policies.”
What Rhode is pointing to is the fact that adultery is now still illegal in twenty-one states, including the state of New York, which happens to be the residence of none other than Donald Trump. As Rhode writes,
“That fact became awkwardly apparent in the year 2008 when the state’s then governor, David Paterson, acknowledged that he had had several extramarital relationships but then went on to say that he ‘didn’t break the law.’” Rhode then says, “A follow-up story in the New York Times began, ‘Well, actually, adultery, it turns out, is a misdemeanor crime in New York, punishable by a fine of five hundred dollars or ninety days in jail.'”
Rhode explains that “adultery is rarely prosecuted as a criminal offense, but when it is, the arbitrariness,” she says, “of enforcement erodes confidence in the rule of law and unfairly singles out those blindsided by the charge.”
Now this is the kind of argument we have seen elsewhere. On The Briefing some time back, we discussed the fact that the state of Colorado had announced it was going to clean its books of what it called morals legislation, including the fact that the law of Colorado at that time indicated that adultery is a crime.
What should we see here? What we should see is the fact that there is a massive moral change reflected in the fact that there is even this article and the controversy over whether or not adultery should be a crime. One of the most interesting things that takes place in political discourse is when people say, “You can’t legislate morality.” That is a fundamentally ridiculous statement and one we need to confront head-on. Virtually every arena of law other than the merely administrative deals directly with a moral claim and a moral judgment of one sort or another.
Furthermore, even when it comes to sexual morality, every society, no matter how liberated it describes itself, still has laws on the books related to sexual behavior and sexual relationships. When someone says that you can’t legislate morality, when they make that argument, they are almost always talking about some discreet area of morality and the law. They’re identifying a particular moral issue they don’t want legislated by the law. Even as the state of Colorado bragged that it had eliminated morals legislation and cleaned up its statutory law, the reality is that a quick look at Colorado indicates that the law there still makes any number of moral judgments. It just no longer reflects the will to make a moral judgment about adultery.
Rhode, who clearly wants to eliminate all of these laws against adultery, says,
“Legal prohibitions persist largely for symbolic reasons.”
Yes, that is fundamentally true, and furthermore, it’s fundamentally true of the entire law itself. Rhode makes the argument, “Legal prohibitions persist largely for symbolic reasons,” but we need to note that that’s true. It’s true for vast areas of the law, areas of the law that no doubt this very writer would not want to eliminate.
When we’re talking about the law, statutory and criminal law, Christians need to understand that the laws adopted by a people will reflect the morality of that people. In essence, what we now see is the elimination of so-called morals legislation points to the fact that we are increasingly a people uncertain about whether or where to draw any moral boundaries whatsoever. This is nowhere more apparent in American society than in the increasing awkwardness of morals legislation when it comes to areas of sexual behavior and sexual relationships.
One of the saddest aspects of this entire situation is that Americans have so marginalized and subverted marriage that adultery–that used to be against the law in all of our states–is now disappearing as a matter of legal consequence. Concern about adultery largely disappeared with the arrival of no-fault divorce and the larger sexual revolution, aided and abetted by the pill. The sexual revolution has transformed American society in ways that only make sense if we understand that adultery was once something this society was willing to state very clearly should be against the law, but now, no longer.
This is where Christians have to understand that the issue really isn’t what all that says about the law, but what the law says about us. All that also brings us back full circle to the way Americans now talk as well as the way Americans now legislate. If we are a society that is willing to say only, “I feel like adultery is wrong,” then we’re a society that will eventually find no way to make a clear moral judgment about adultery, whether in the law or otherwise.