BY CHILTON WILLIAMSON, JR., SEPTEMBER 12, 2019
Several years before his death last spring, the Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs remarked to me, in reference to 21st-century America, that “this is what a proletarian society looks like.” I was reminded of his words at Mass last Sunday as I surveyed the congregation below from the choir loft. A corpulent youth at the back of the church was wearing a white T-shirt with “JUST DO IT” printed across the shoulder blades.
In my first year or so as a practicing Catholic, a heavyset young man sat himself down in the pew ahead of me and knelt to pray, giving me an upfront view of the back of his T-shirt. It featured a color print of one pig mounting another above the legend “Makin’ Bacon.” He received Communion, but no one seemed to take notice of him or his T-shirt.
That was bad, but it might have been worse. I once sang at a funeral Mass for the repose of the soul of a young woman who had died by her own hand. A few moments before the service began, her father sauntered in, dressed in shorts, a golf shirt, and a ball cap the priest requested that he remove. Perhaps his plans for the day had originally included a ball game, and he had simply forgotten his other engagement.
On the other hand, dressing for Sunday Mass as if for the ballpark is now the general rule in Catholic parishes across the United States. Twenty years ago, my priest delivered a sermon on the subject of what constitutes proper attire for Mass on the Sabbath. Wear the best you have, Fr. Taylor said, and if the best you have is not much, don’t worry your heart about it. A good rule of thumb, to be sure. But, if it’s being followed today, a majority of the Mass-going population in America evidently qualifies for free clothing from the Salvation Army.
Afterward my wife and I went for lunch at a local bar, one of the few in town that serves lunch on Sunday. The clientele is mixed: university professors and local professional people, college students, young blue-collar families, tourists, and so forth. What never varies is the contemporary prole uniform: tight jeans, many with artfully cut holes over the kneecaps; message T-shirts; tank tops worn regardless of age, sex, body build, and weigh; sneakers, and flip-flops.
Around the middle of the last century, children dressed like their parents. Nowadays, parents dress like their children. Has infantilism, or perhaps simply Peter Panism, become epidemic in America?
Not so many years ago, people watched their figures as well as their dress— their own and their children’s. At lunch the other day, probably two-thirds of the customers were overweight, many of them grossly so. Unsurprisingly, the top special on the menu was chicken alfredo in a heavy cream sauce covered by slabs of cheddar cheese and, over it all, bacon strips.
Have Americans entirely abandoned themselves to slovenly obesity and physical and mental sloth? When even regular pew-sitters receive the Host without first taking care to present themselves as creatures fashioned by the Almighty in His express image, one is justified in wondering what sort of people Americans have allowed themselves to become. Lukacs had the answer: proletarian ones.
Americans have willfully deprived themselves of any sense of self-respect, whether that which is proper to beings fashioned in the likeness of God or to self-responsible, self-governing people. Formal ignorance of the machinery of government on the part of many citizens is not dangerous to the future of a democratic society. (“Civics,” a stultifying bore as I discovered in the seventh or eighth grade, is interesting chiefly to the sort of person who runs for class president.) But a comprehensive unawareness of history is dangerous and, when combined with a Sunday school knowledge of the Christian religion and its role in the political development of the past two millennia, perilous.
One needn’t be a snob to wonder how so generally slack and careless a people could possibly have a future as a strong, self-confident, responsible, prudent, cohesive society. The proletariat, by definition, is supposed to be the breeding class. Yet the postmodern American proletariat cannot be counted on to do even that much. Instead of procreating, it sterilizes; failing that, it aborts.
The problem is plainly an excess of democracy that, as de Tocqueville foresaw, would extend equality before the law to produce a leveling sameness in every level and aspect of society. That includes public thought and understanding, personal aspiration and effort, and taste—all of which, like water, invariably seeks the lowest possible level to attain the lowest common denominator.
Americans, taken collectively and as a mass, seem to me to have become unrecognizable in the space of only a few decades. Included among them are no doubt many thousands or even tens of thousands who can explain in fluent terms how the congressional committee system functions and find their way through the nearly impenetrable morass of campaign financing law, but are otherwise just as lax and civilizationally substandard as they fancy the average Trump voter to be.
This is the major development in the recent history of the United States. It was glimpsed in advance by many of Franklin’s more skeptical and realistically minded colleagues at the Constitutional Convention—though not, perhaps, by the perennially optimistic Doctor himself—as the likely future of their envisioned Republic.
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior writer at Crisis and the former editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review.