That’s a key word in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (Crown Forum, 2012) and one we need in our vocabulary regardless of current election outcomes. Murray provides examples: “Unseemliness is television producer Aaron Spelling building a house of 56,500 square feet and 123 rooms. Unseemliness is Henry McKinnell, the CEO of Pfizer, getting a $99 million golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw Pfizer’s share price plunge.”
Unseemliness is not the same as illegality. Spelling used his own money. McKinnell received pay in line with the sweet contract he had signed. Also, if we complain about unseemliness we should look into our own motivation and ask whether envy is playing a part. Nevertheless, “unseemly” is a useful word, especially when contrasted with what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff”: doing a hard job because it’s a calling, not a money-maker.
In the terrific 1983 movie, The Right Stuff, based on Wolfe’s book by the same name, an official in 1947 asks one pilot how much extra pay he wants in order to risk his life trying to break the sound barrier. The answer comes back, “$150,000 … non-negotiable.” The official then asks Chuck Yeager how much he wants. Yeager replies, “The Air Force pays me. … When do we go?”
In the movie Yeager agrees to fly the next morning and heads off. The official then asks an Air Force officer, “How much are you paying him?” Response: “$283.” Question: “A week?” Response: “A month.” The amazed official exclaims: “That’s not bad. Not bad.” (Multiply by 10.5 to get the equivalent today: $35,700 per year. Still a “not bad” demonstration of guts.)
Charles Murray says many current leaders lack not only Yeager’s bravery but his sense of what is seemly and what is not. Murray adds, “If you’re looking for egregious examples of unseemliness, you can do no better than look at contemporary American government.” Yes, graft is always hard to stop, but “The pot has grown, with hundreds of billions of dollars of goodies now up for grabs. … Washington is in a new Gilded Age of influence peddling that dwarfs anything that has come before.”
What should be done? The answer is not new laws, because “Unseemliness is a symptom of the collapse of codes of behavior that depend not on laws and regulations, but upon shared understandings regarding the fitness of things, and upon an allegiance to behave in accordance with those shared understandings. Unseemliness is another symptom of hollowness at the core.”
Murray does not exhibit a biblical understanding, but he knows the importance of the core. A half century ago America’s leaders typically attended church regularly and had a better sense of what was unseemly, but that sense became unsustainable as mainline Protestantism turned into a hollow, doughnut faith. When people make lifestyle decisions without the sense of humility and modesty engendered by belief in an almighty God, unseemliness is the result.
The question now is whether we can recover from unseemliness—and if so, how? History attests that much is possible: Look at how William Wilberforce and others two centuries ago led the way for a British upper-class comeback. (A leading cause of the American Revolution was the patriots’ sense that London had fallen into decadence.) But how likely is an American comeback?
It all depends on what we believe. Murray hopes for “a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class … America’s new upper class must take a close look at the way they are living their lives … and then think about ways to change. … A civil Great Awakening among the new upper class can arise in part from the renewed understanding that it can be pleasant to lead a glossy life, but it is ultimately more rewarding—and more fun—to lead a textured life, and to be in the midst of others who are leading textured lives.”