Sunday, December 06, 2009


Neal Gabler has a short piece about the connection between Our ability to remember history accurately and Our ability to hold the government accountable for its actions.

He adds that We don’t “share”, meaning not the trendy psychologistic, Oprah-like public telling of personal ‘stories’ of feelings and woes, but rather what used to be conceived as public deliberation.

There is a mention of “jobs”, a current political mantra. It seems to me that We should be clear about one thing: these “jobs” will not be, and under the present arrangements cannot be, the type of jobs that Americans could expect in the Golden Age of 1945-1970: well-paying, steady, with at least a few benefits. There can’t be such jobs because – a little ‘history’ here – the corporations that provided them have spent more than a quarter-century sending those jobs overseas, where only stockholders (until recently) derived any financial benefit from them.

The “jobs” that the Beltway now piously brays about can’t be much more than ‘service’ jobs, the types usually reserved – back in the day – for teens willing to work after-school and on Saturdays, the variously-challenged who could not sustain work habits and larger responsibilities, and retirees who just wanted to make a bit on the side with a non-challenging bit of employment.

But the government’s willing collaboration with the corporations in the Great Oursourcing, and its subsequent non-regulation of the financial industry whose shell-games after a while were the only remaining wealth creating ‘industry’ left, have not yet been held to account.

It would be a hard thing to do in any case. At this point both Parties, their Members virtually undiselectable and all but the very recent and the most courageously upright indentured to the rich rewards of those corporations’ PACs, have for all practical purposes merged into a ‘Washington’ not seen since the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons who ‘purchased’ Congressional enablers as they hired butlers, coachmen, and lawyers.

I pass no judgments on Obama here, but did We really think that any candidate who actually posed a credible potential to clean out that Augean Stable or at least clean up Dodge would have been allowed to stay in the race?

At this point it’s possible that unless The People make its will known more vigorously, then no sufficient change will be possible. The sleazy Beltway kabuki will go on: much strutting and chin-stroking and brassy bombast alternating with grave clucks of sensitivity to everybody’s pain.

But since all the actors on that stage intend to allow only such change as will not personally cost them, and since they are indentured to the very interests that paid them to permit Our current lethal problems to reach this level of metastasis, then the circle – Our circle – cannot be squared.
Something will have to give. And unless We stand up and speak out with a clear and united voice, the only giving will be done by Us.

But The People is much weakened, thanks to 40 Biblical years of Identity Politics. And the young – bless them – are almost by definition innocent of history, even of the past several decades; that’s partly because the young don’t yet imagine that the past has anything they need to learn, and partly because Identity Politics has in divers ways helped to gut the teaching curriculum so that most students are told that the only thing they need to know about the past is that it was “oppressive”.

Americans have never been deeply historical-minded. From the beginning, the whole idea of the place was that an entirely new and fresh version of history would be inscribed here in the New World. Generations of immigrants arrived precisely with the intention of escaping from history. The whole idea was to stop looking back at yesterday, face the day and lay hands on the present in the hopes of making a better future.

There was all that stuff about ‘the American’ as “the New Adam” (and – although the reference quickly gets rambunctious – you can say the New Eve).

But the Framers – although certain that they were constructing for a new order of the ages – realized that human nature seemed to be reliably ambivalent, and prudent cautions must be taken against the predictable tendency of the species to prefer functioning at much less than the higher end of its range.

They conceived of a governmental machinery built precisely to be driven by interests and passions, but according to processes that would convert those divergent and not always bright energies into workable outcomes. Nothing too high-falutin’, nothing too fancy or idealistic (let alone Utopian), and nothing so ‘revolutionary’ that it would derange the machinery itself.

It was a serious piece of machinery, and not a toy. It was not a plaything for children, although the earlier children learned to be serious about its fragile but resilient complexities the better. Life, after all, wasn’t a game and childhood was best spent building the foundation for a competent and serious adulthood. Nothing less could sustain a civilization and a society and a nation.

The marvelous machine was not built to be administered by the young or the attention-challenged or the maturity-challenged.

Nor by those too weak of heart and mind to face complexity and consequences squarely and clearly, especially before chisel was hammered into precious stone. Would the great sculptors have produced what they did if marble were as malleable and as cheaply available as plastic? Abundance can induce a certain lack of seriousness and care, and even self-respect.

The drawbacks of immaturity, the consequences of it, have been out-shouted by the infatuation with its ‘freedom’: this has been true at least since the raccoon-coated, booze-and-cigarette wielding ‘collegians’ of the 1920s (embraced by songsmiths and film-makers).

Simultaneously, the advantages of ‘maturity’ have been out-shouted by the affright at becoming ‘old’, of being ‘conformist’, and the increasing disillusionment with the validity of any ideals which would justify sober postponement or – the horror! – foregoing of personal gratification or – the horrible horror! – mastering oneself by imposing some sort of order on the unruly horse-team that pulled the self.

I think the national ‘imaginary’ – as the Theory folks like to put it – could do with a change. Instead of old-young or old-new, I think mature-immature would be a better axis of analysis. It would let the young know that there is something that they don’t yet have and need to work to get, and it would remind the not-young that they have a responsibility to live up to.

For a while back in the day there was a glimmer of interest in the East’s ‘respect for elders’, but as usual the mediation through film meant that only the surfaces of the thing could be presented to Americans.

‘Respect for elders’ – beyond a natural human decency toward those physically weaker than oneself – was a maxim embedded in a culture where the young were simultaneously respectful of the elder while preparing themselves – under the tutelage of those elders – for their own responsibilities as elders. And, of course, all of them – young and elder – presumed that their culture and civilization possessed treasures of human wisdom that were worth all the trouble of shaping a Self through self-discipline and self-mastery.

This is hell-and-gone from the America set-up, especially as it has evolved: far too many of the elder at this point have themselves long-ago stopped preparing themselves, quite possibly because they were simultaneously distracted by the illusory abundance of American living and disenchanted with any larger, wider, deeper appreciation of American culture. And the young, thanks to a government-sponsored deconstruction of American ideals and institutions and values, have been set loose in a ruthlessly Flattened culture, where there is nothing but emotion and celebrity and a ‘Present’ reduced to the flicker of a Twitter.

With nobody tending the machinery and the government left to its own devices (and shortcomings), can it be any wonder that the great ship has not only gone off course but is having trouble maintaining headway and even watertight integrity?

Young and old, I would say, need to start looking more carefully at the values of maturity. And the consequences of immaturity. The government, clearly, has been learning all the wrong lessons from Us. And needs to be taught the right lessons.

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