Quayle is serious. Why aren't we?

RICHARD BROOKHISER

June 19, 1992|By Richard Brookhiser

AMERICAN electioneering is so scorned for its emptiness and frivolity, for its ignorant armies clashing by sound bite, you'd think a major political figure who addressed serious issues in a serious way would be thanked for his efforts.

Instead, Vice President Dan Quayle has been treated in his recent speeches like a rabble-rousing rube.

He may have trouble spelling potato, but here are four points he has raised which we should all ponder, whatever we finally conclude.

The American family has changed drastically over the last quarter century. Quayle hunters accuse him of denying this reality.

But he began by assuming the reality of change.

In 1967, he pointed out in his Murphy Brown speech in San Francisco, 68 percent of black families were headed by married couples. By 1991, less than half -- 48 percent -- were.

But the vice president had another statistic: Among families headed by married couples, fewer than 1 in 17 are poor, while the poverty rate among families headed by single mothers is 1 in 3.

Mr. Quayle knows it's a big and changing country. He simply asked us to question whether all the changes have been for the better.

Culture affects behavior. Mr. Quayle isn't the only person who believes this.

Every feminist who applauded the message of "Thelma and Louise," every parent who wonders about the effects of cop-show violence on his kids, every aging rock critic who credits Elvis with jolting America out of the sexless somnolence of the '50s period thinks culture changes hearts and minds.

The question is: In what direction?

By citing Murphy Brown, Mr. Quayle left himself open to the charge of making a social mountain out of a sit-com molehill. But Murphy Brown is one of the thousand molehills.

The creators can say, truthfully, that they are only depicting aspects of reality. But our depictions of reality reinforce it and reshape it further.

Moral upheaval hits the middle class, but it flattens the poor.

The vice president only touched on this point and his critics have hardly touched it at all. Not surprisingly, because politicians and commentators are typically middle class or richer and can only talk about the poor from hearsay.

Still, let's listen to him and see if we recognize ourselves.

"The responsibility of having families," said the vice president, "has helped many (baby boomers) recover traditional values. And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the '60s and '70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not."

For decades now young suburbanites have been projecting their own desires onto the poor, who are supposed to be more "authentic," and romanticizing the images they have created.

When the middle-class kid decides his vacation in an alternative lifestyle is over, he or she can usually arrange re-entry to the bourgeois world.

But for the poor, the slippery slope from respectability can plunge rather rapidly to welfare dependency, gangs, death.

No one needs bourgeois values more than project dwellers, because they are the only ticket out.

Values are everyone's problem.

As a professional politician, the vice president lives by identifying enemies and rallying supporters, and so it wasn't surprising -- particularly in an election year -- that his discussion of values quickly became an attack on "the cultural elite."

This is an old theme in American politics: Elite -- slave owners, bankers, pointy-headed intellectuals -- are bad, while we the people are virtuous.

When Quayle spoke this week in New York, though, he was asked why large audiences watch sit-coms mocking their values? How can pop culture be attacked as elitist?

He gave a surprisingly honest answer: Audiences "ought to think about it."

We all ought to think about it, including those of us who may say we support "traditional values" while our lives tell a different story.

4 Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for reminding us.

Richard Brookhiser is senior editor of National Review.

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