How Have We Changed?


In 1954 the illegitimacy ratio (the proportion of out-of-wedlock births to total births) was less than 4.5 percent. In 1991 (the last year for which we have definitive statistics), it was 29.5 percent; today it is certainly above 30 percent—a sevenfold increase in less than half a century. The white ratio rose from almost 2 percent to 22 percent; the black from almost 20 percent to 68 percent. In 1964, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his report about the breakdown of the black family, the black illegitimacy ratio was 24.5 percent; today the white illegitimacy ratio is 22 percent. For poor whites (below the official poverty line) the ratio is 44 percent. In 1990 one in ten teen-age girls got pregnant.

The illegitimacy figures are only (a very large “only") the tip of the iceberg. They have to be seen in conjunction with such other factors as the doubling of the divorce rate, the quintupling of the cohabitation rate, and a vast increase in the number of “sexually active” (as the euphemism has it) teen-agers. (In 1970, 5 percent of fifteen-year-old girls had had sexual intercourse; in 1988, 25 percent had.) And looming over all these statistics is the well-documented correlation between single-parent families and welfare, crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, school dropouts, illiteracy, and the rest of the familiar syndrome known as “social pathology.”

There is no question but that we are experiencing a sexual revolution that is nothing less than a major social revolution.

It was sometime back in 1954 when a distinct change came over the United States. It happened after the uprising of our North Korean prisoners, when scores who were thought by the hard-liners to be getting soft were executed by their fellow prisoners. The American press and general public were horrified that prisoners could be so dedicated to a lost cause that they would actually kill so many of their “brothers.”

I remember at the time thinking that there was nothing odd about the patriotic Koreans’ reactions, only the reaction of the American press. It seemed to me at that moment our nation had lost part of its will.

After the Korean War, gradually and imperceptibly, our classic American resolve, our vitality, our willingness to look boldly at the blackness of the human soul wilted away. Since then we seem to have succumbed to a collective gnashing of teeth or forgiveness sessions over every ill at home or abroad. We appear to have cast aside our common sense and exaggerated most solvable problems, making them all but insoluble. We have become a nation of brooders. We may have lost our national soul and fiber in the process.

Many of the men in my years at college enlisted in the Marine Corps convinced that our luck in having been educated meant that we had to repay society by becoming officers. Some of my colleagues were killed within minutes of coming on the line in Korea, others were crippled—the most gifted is still a mental vegetable—and one was wounded and buried by mortar shells behind the Chinese lines and lives today because several members of his platoon were wounded in retrieving what was thought would be his corpse.

Those of us who survived were profoundly saddened by the deaths and cripplings of our fellow men, but we didn’t dwell on it. We all had volunteered.

To me, the most overlooked and underreported way our country has changed is that since 1954 we have collectively bankrupted our nation’s toughness. We have become soft, sentimental, fat, complacent, too rich, monstrously selfish, cynical, disgustingly decadent, dedicatedly hypocritical—and, worst of all, perpetual whiners.

During the past forty years the country has moved out of the machine age into the information age. The insistence of many scholars and journalists that this transition was taking place became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans began to think and speak in information-age metaphors, and these metaphors influence their activities. They send messages traveling in bits at the speed of light, not in words via snail mail. Instead of circumstances’ causing events, they seem to be arising from network interactions too complex to analyze. People meet by interface with computers instead of face-to-face with other persons. Information moves as bits along circuits instead of as components along assembly lines. No longer do mechanical engineers insist on uniformity; instead computer engineers celebrate heterogeneous networks. Local places with all their contingent characteristics give way to universal spaces sustained by electronic webs. These transformations are not to be explained by technological determinism. They result from countless Americans’ choosing to have affairs with computers rather than automobiles and restlessly exploring information networks instead of earthbound highways. Only an optimist would insist, however, that Internet surfers today are more fulfilled than Sunday drivers yesterday.

In the last decades there have been marked overturns of settled traditions and habits in American life—the growing power of women, the entry of many African-Americans into middle-class society, the openness of homosexuality, the national conflict over abortion, the nervous emphasis on health, sensible eating habits, and cancer, the anti-smoking crusade, the growing intrusiveness of the media, the replacement of learning in the universities by political correctness, the centrality of the computer.