The working class never recovered from the ’60s fling with nihilism
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THEY’RE TEARING DOWN the old St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown. My son is a friend of the man who bought the forlorn structure to convert into a 49-unit multifamily residence. The 19th-century Polish Catholic house of worship being on the historical register, the developer is required to preserve the façade.
Demolition follows a yearslong battle on the part of some to save St. Laurentius. It could not be saved. The buyer’s engineers showed that the whole foundation was crumbling. Dismantling proceeds by hand, the edifice wrapped with scaffolding, its large cross now lying against a fence. Neighbors gather to take a last look.
Fishtown, favorably situated on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, was a vibrant Irish and Eastern European immigrant manufacturing town since the American Revolution. World-class builder of iron ships in its heyday, it also spawned the ancillary sectors of smelters, blacksmiths, rope-makers, mast-makers, sawmills, steam engines, and boilers. It boasted textile mills, a glassworks, and a sugar refinery.
No one was rich in Fishtown, but people did well. Then time passed. And people didn’t do well. Was the river ward simply the victim of the same economic forces that killed industry in other big American cities after World War II? Or is the tale more complicated? Charles Murray’s magisterial Coming Apart delves into the complications not broached in more facile histories, and particularly what went wrong in the 1960s.
Ah, the ’60s! Well I remember those “turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie days—rejection of our parents’ robotic morality, 9-to-5 work ethic, and materialism. But I also remember that after a decade something strange began to happen. Quietly, one by one, the smarter dropouts of my generation underwent a kind of “rapture” from the scene and returned to the lifestyle we had rejected—marriage, industriousness, and other bourgeois fundamentals. They didn’t preach it, but they did it.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax summarizes the widening U.S. prosperity gap between lower and upper classes in this way: “There are pockets of the ’50s, and they’re called upper middle class people.”
We like to divide the world into the salt-of-the-earth working class and the villainous rich. But Murray demonstrates that it was in fact the working class of Fishtown (and other Fishtowns, USA) that never recovered from its fling with nihilism and nontraditional morality. While the upper classes by and large came to their senses, Fishtown went from bad to worse by abandoning religion and marriage, practicing casual divorce, and dropping out of the labor force in large numbers.
It devolved from a community where married moms and dads raised children on blocks where everybody knew each other, and neighbors had tacit permission to spank the other family’s kid if he was out of line, to a sitting duck for external invasion by New York and Philadelphia real estate prospectors.
While a tireless apostle of the tried-and-true virtues, professor Wax metes out censure for the Main Line elites as well. Herself a member of that class, she impugns its culpable indifference in not sharing abroad the secret of its success, hiding behind progressive nonjudgmentalism toward perverse social practices, while protecting its own children from it.
“I am very critical of elites. I think elites are very selfish, and they’d rather be politically correct, and not tell anybody else what to do, and live their lives, and act like they’re open-minded and tolerant and supportive of people with diverse lifestyles … and at the end of the day they’re not doing anybody any good.”
The sequel to Murray’s 2012 chef-d’oeuvre is a Fishtown now in high-gear gentrification, the old landmarks succumbing to the excavators and hydraulic hammers that are taking down St. Laurentius Church.
I am reminded of a Scripture: “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). If that is true for brick-and-mortar landmarks, it must go double for the spiritual markers.
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