Sunday, July 08, 2012
THE UNDERSIDE OF LIBERTY
For July 4th, writer Kurt Andersen wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times.
He had recently been at the Woodstock Writers Festival and the question had been put to him: “Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts … but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?”
His answer: what has happened “is all of a piece”: “extreme individualism has been triumphant … selfishness won”.
He has part of good a point, and one that fits in with my own view of the history of this past half-century or so.
Because – yes – there has always been a “tension” in “the American idea”: “between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal”. And in the 1960s this – he says – led to a supernova explosion of “self-love” (which, he also notes, Thomas Jefferson had derided as “the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others”).
There has indeed always been a “tension”, but it has been a dynamic and tensive tension (if I may): the interaction of the two poles (radical individualism, the demands of the common-weal) actually energized the vitality at the core of the lived American experience.
In fact, in the best-case scenario, you would work hard to develop yourself as an individual precisely in order to not only secure your own life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also to contribute thereby to the general common-weal of everybody else, who were also doing that same thing.
The two energies were harnessed together, like horses to a wagon. They were to be competently handled by the individual holding the reins, and this project would form the common Project of all Americans, each and every one.
Jefferson’s “self-love” – in the bad sense – would work out to something like this: you simply focused on your own pursuit of happiness and (parasitically) let the rest of the country and your fellow citizens eat your dust. Sort of like a quarterback: your only interest is to get the ball you are carrying down to the goalpost and everybody else on the field is irrelevant at best or a potential obstruction at worst. Your only ‘duty’ is to the ball and to your getting the ball to the goalpost (where you can happily spike it and do your favorite little dance, just to remind everybody you did what they didn’t or couldn’t). It is – I imagine – a very self-gratifying little exercise. A restorative little diversion, if practiced occasionally.
Whether you can build or sustain a society, a culture, a polity, and a country by making that your life’s primary objective is another Question altogether. But then again, there’s such a thing as ‘thinking too much’, especially in football American-style.
Andersen notes some historical examples of this and that era in American history when “Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification”, such as the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties.
Given the Abundance (to use historian David M. Potter’s term from the 1950s) with which the country was naturally endowed, there was more than enough to go around, and everybody could just get to it – making a life for themselves and their families while simultaneously contributing to the common-wealth. With so much Abundance, getting-ahead wasn’t a zero-sum game.
Human nature being what it is and always has been, there was always a ‘moral hazard’ to the whole proposition: you could get so carried away with getting more material Abundance for yourself that you lost sight of anything else. And that would not only morally and materially weaken the common-weal for everybody else, but it would also turn you into a troll – not to put too fine a point on it – although a very nicely-accoutered troll. And you might turn your kids into trolls in the process, or your game-plan might induce others around you to start ‘taking a walk on the troll-side’ themselves. And you can see where that dynamic might go if it really got rolling.
After periods of such intensive and general selfish self-indulgence, an “economic crisis” or “reassertions of moral disapproval” would somehow work out a restoration of “a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good”.
So the consequences of an economic crisis or reassertion of moral-disapproval were able to work as a corrective when things got out of whack.
But coming up to more recent American history Andersen starts to sail into troubled waters.
The “two decades after World War II” were notable for a couple of things – and he doesn’t quite touch on all of them. The generations that as young or middle-aged adults had fought – in the military or on the homefront – in that Good War were also the generations who had experienced the deprivations of the Great Depression that extended from 1929 well into the 1930s.
In 1945 the country emerged as the Primary Victor of that War since it had not only spear-headed the winning side with its industrial might and military prowess (although the Red Army had proven itself a kind of frightening peer in that regard), but by 1945 all of America’s peer-competitors for industrial and economic productivity had pretty much been wracked by the War, while the U.S. productivity base had remained untouched by bombing or invasion or combat waged on its own national territory. The country’s natural Abundance and the natural productiveness of its citizens were reinforced and amplified by the wrack and ruin of all of its peer-competition.
And that verrry comfy economic reality lasted until 1965 or – at the latest – 1970.
The Boomers, alas, spent infancy and childhood thinking that this was the normal state of affairs, now and forever.
Andersen doesn’t mention that.
He does mention that to the Boomers their parents seemed kinda worn-out, conformist, and sort of over-invested in just leading predictable and boringly peaceful lives. That those parents had pretty much had a too-eventful youth between 1929 and 1945 didn’t occur to their kids; that they had seen in the wartime wrack and ruin of Europe’s and Asia’s societies and in America’s own shocking experiences with the Depression and the Dust Bowl so much human destruction that they treasured ‘order’ and ‘stability’ and ‘peace’ … that didn’t occur to the Boomers either.
Like Dustin Hoffman’s eponymous ‘graduate’ in 1968, they only saw that ‘going into “plastics”’ wasn’t going to get you all the happiness that could be had: rather, get the girl, walk out on everything else, hop a bus, figure to score that night, ride out for more exciting pastures, and cut before any larger and longer examination of the consequences could be examined. Hollywood!
Or maybe like an “Easy Rider”, hop on your hog and blow through the boring and backward towns, making sure your very presence reminded all those troglodytes that they lived in caves and you had crawled out and really knew the score.*
And in “Bonnie and Clyde” it didn’t even make any difference whether you obeyed the law. You were just so ‘freeeee’ and ‘liberated’ by robbing banks (of other folks’ hard-earned cash) and living large. The law and ‘society’ were just things meant to oppress you and get in your way. Precisely a kid’s view of it all.
Of course, the kids wouldn’t have long remained mired in such natural (for a kid) misconceptions if their parents had been doing their job. But something had happened to the parents of the immediate postwar period: they really didn’t know what was right or wrong anymore and didn’t want to be too ‘authoritarian’ and bothersome (look, after all, where that had gotten the Japanese and the Germans and the Russians). ** And perhaps Rousseau was right: if you just leave them alone the kids will ‘naturally’ be good and ‘society’ will only screw them up.
After all, 1914-1945 had been a thirty-years or so that pretty much demonstrated to even the most unreflective observer that even the most extensively-developed civilization could screw itself up and deprive or kill dozens of millions in the process. Maybe we should just ‘let it be’ and trust the kids. Maybe that would be better. Maybe that would work. Yah.
Meanwhile, there was money to be made at all levels: the Little Guy could unionize and get a steady decent job and raise his family (think of ‘Archie Bunker’ – and who wouldn’t kill now for a steady job that paid decently, even if you had to carry a lunch-box to work every day?). And the bigger fish could take advantage of the country’s planetary pre-eminence in industry and finance.
Money could insulate you (and yours) from another Depression’s ravages. And nobody but the whacko far right-wingers imagined the government could start to look like those bossy monstrosities that Hitler and Stalin had put together.
But in all of that, as Andersen notes, there was still a balance: if beatniks and hippies were distasteful weirdos, so too were European-type superwealthy permanent aristocrats whose families and fortunes simply engorged to the point where they might as well have been Dukes and Countesses and all that, living on their estates far away from the troubles and toils of ordinary folk.
As he provocatively juxtaposes it: “Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name”.
And he continues: “But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment”.
That’s a good start. But only a start. In the first place, the counterculture was only one of two prongs of the Boomer revelation. The summer-of-love Flower Children – just looking for a boozy, bong-y, permanent summer afternoon on a California beach – were the laid-back siblings of the gimlet-eyed ‘revolutionaries’ of an increasingly large number of revolutionary agendas, seeking – complexly – to achieve individual fulfillment or empowerment by massing ‘victims’ together into Identities and groups whose advocates and agitprop organizers could hit the streets and head to the Beltway.
And that is the key element that Andersen doesn’t mention: it was the Beltway, spearheaded by the Dems and later joined in bipartisan bonhomie by the Republicans, that fueled the fires that birthed the Left’s new Leviatha while melting the bars of ancient Right-leaning Leviathan’s cage.
This wasn’t just some vague cultural synergy. This was a calculated political strategy conceived and hatched for their own purposes at the highest levels of government, there in the Beltway.
The deal – as I have often said – was that the Left’s organized Advocacies would be pandered-to in exchange for the votes of their Identity-group’s ‘demographic’ while the Right’s unsleeping ‘moneyed interests’ would once again be allowed to run free, like they were in (what would now be known as) the First Gilded Age.
Government (thus taxpayer) monies would be showered upon the Left’s agendas and groups while government legislative and regulatory authority would be engorged to enable those Big Outrage and Liberation agendas and impose them on society and culture, while government legislative and regulatory authority would be precisely weakened in order to allow Big Money to play its eternal Game.
But then – who knew? – the rest of the world recovered from World War II or started to develop along American and capitalist lines. Suddenly the country had competitors again.
So much so that in 1971 Nixon had to abrogate the Bretton Woods agreements of 1946 and float the Dollar. The vaunted U.S. currency was now no longer based on the amount of gold in the national vaults but would ‘float’ in the aether of international financial calculations. The economy began to wobble instantly.
But precisely at that same time, rejected 49 states to 1 in the 1972 presidential elections, the Dems desperately welded themselves to their newly-hatched client-Identities and went for ‘revolution’ from above, engineered and administered by deceptively happy-face New-Order elites and the pols who eagerly and happily loved them.
While simultaneously the Big Money elites now went international with an increasingly avaricious avidity that was only intensified by Reagan’s seemingly happy-face but restorative Presidency (when Gordon Gekko’s cinematic ‘greed is good’ became the official morality of the Right, as ‘revolutionary morality’ – which is not really morality at all – became the official stance of the Left).
There was no balance and no proportion now: genuine revolutionaries have no truck with ‘balance’ and ‘moderation’ on principle, and wealth has never accepted limits on its own engorgement.
The fundamental American ‘moral hazards’ – frakkulently and whackulently – intensified precisely as ‘morality’ was kicked to the curb both by the Left (morality is simply a code for sustaining the oppressive status-quo) and by the Right (there’s nothing immoral about making as much money as you can).
With ‘morality’ deconstructed, there was no balancing element to Shape or Boundary either ‘liberation’ or ‘wealth-creation’.
“Do your own thing”, says Andersen, “is not so different from “every man for himself”. True enough.
Although he neglects the revolutionary morality of Identity-group ‘liberation’ as it mutated here: there is no morality because morality ‘oppresses’ and it is only in the service of the revolution (whichever one you choose to benefit-from) that anything can be judged morality; revolutionary success is by definition the only ‘morality’ and is by definition ‘moral’. Case closed. If you ‘just don’t get it’, then get out of the way and shut-up or you really will ‘get it’.
The entirety of the foregoing brought to you by your government. And spun as (marvelously) simultaneously both ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ and also ‘traditional’ and ‘red-blooded’. Something for everybody! Although – weirdly and ominously – the common-weal somehow got kicked to the curb even as ‘everybody’ got something.
But as the world itself became America’s productive (and lately financial) competitor, the government had to resort to more and more tricks to keep up the flow of cash and the illusion that the Golden Eggs were still flowing: diversifying, out-sourcing, off-shoring, juggling the government fiscal and employment figures, re-jiggering the definitions, juggling the books, and then finally, Bubbles – as shiny and glossy as everybody who knew how to work the levers of power could make them. And now the government is simply printing the money and figuring that as the financial Hegemon it can keep doing that as long as the special ink and paper hold out. You might as well have printed up tons of special paper to sop up the water and started stuffing it ‘optimistically’ into the holes in Titanic.
Nor, as he notes, was there any longer any “social opprobrium” to provide speed-bumps to slow down the lemming-rush from Left and Right, nor watertight doors to stop the increasing flow of water leaking into the Great Ship.*** The same deconstructing of social opprobrium that lubricated ‘unwed motherhood’ and ‘gay sex’ and half a thousand other fresh, rich and transgressive bits of progress and liberation also deconstructed any sense of ‘decency’ in the amassing of personal wealth.
Nor am I here primarily disagreeing with the content of this and that ‘liberation’ and ‘transgressive progress’. Rather, for both Left and Right, I am pointing out primarily that nobody stopped to think through the larger systemic Consequences.
Whether you A) agreed or disagreed with the Content of this or that ‘liberation’ or ‘reform’ – from Left or Right – was only one part of the deliberative analytical task and the challenge that demanded to be faced.
There was also B) the Question as to how such changes would be introduced. What sort of government would it take to achieve all this? This was the Question of Method. To what extent could any Constitutionally-grounded American government achieve all this and still remain Constitutionally grounded? And to what extent would have to mutate into something else altogether (Leviatha and Leviathan)?
And there is then also C) the Question of Consequences: regardless of whether this proposed change is ‘good’, is it workable at a cost (financial, ‘moral’ – in the sense of the Framing Vision) that the country, the culture, the society can bear? That can be borne without the entire fabric of society and culture becoming so frayed or pressured that it unravels sufficiently i) as to be unreliable as a matrix of living and conducting a decent human life and/or ii) mutates into some other type and shape of thing altogether?
Costs and Consequences: not simply economically, but in the larger and more Classical sense of ‘the Human Economy’ of values and prudential judgments and decisions, made by all of those whose lives will be impacted.
Or, as one militarily-informed participant in the run-up to the Iraq War put it: nobody wanted to ask the essential strategic Question: And what then? Once you have ‘won’, what happens next? And how do you respond to it?
So: given, as Andersen related at the outset of his piece, that the social and cultural revolution(s) of the 1960s had been “mostly won” … what then? And really, if their Costs and Consequences had not really been appreciated, have they really been won? Which, of course, has been the abiding Great Question about the Iraq War and the seemingly endless string of military mis-adventures that it has spawned.
If you ‘win’ what you set out to win, and yet wreck yourself in the process, to what extent – really – can you be said to have won anything at all? Hitler – to use that realm of reference only because of its general familiarity – ‘won’ in Poland in 1939 … and yet he wound up – quite beyond his intentions – with World War 2 on his hands. The Japanese ‘won’ at Pearl Harbor … and yet they wound up – quite beyond their expectations – with the War in the Pacific on their hands, the strategic initiative of which by June of 1942, a mere six months later, they lost spectacularly and permanently at Midway.
Thus what Andersen calls the “Me Half-century”.
Except that the individual ‘me’ was organized into ‘Identity-advocacies’ (Left) and ‘interests’ (Right) and thus amplified the lethal Consequences astronomically.
And here We are, in the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Twelve and of the Independence of the United States the Two Hundred and Thirty Sixth … and counting. Literally.
Nor can it be asserted that the ‘culture wars’ of the 1960s can’t be held responsible for the economic perversions of the 1970s and 1980s and subsequently. It was precisely the American culture that provided the matrix and Ground of the Boundaries that would Shape and Contain America’s morally-ambiguous energies.
And when those Grounds and Boundaries were culturally kicked-to-the-curb, then all bets were off as to where the now unguided American energies might go.
And the government’s energies ditto.
So here We are.
And what then?
And what now?
*In that 1969 movie, it didn’t hurt that Fonda and Hopper blew through the Jim Crow South, where folks were not only set in their ways – which in itself isn’t such a bad thing – but were set in the ways of Jim Crow. From a scripting point of view, a neat loading of the deck.
**It’s interesting to look at – say – Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy shrewdly but wisely fathering the bumptious Andy Hardy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Jim Backus’s almost pathetically helpless fathering of James Dean in 1955’s “Rebel Without A Cause”, and Donald Sutherland’s Knowledge-and-Service society architect father in 1979’s “Ordinary People”.
***Thus, I would say, it’s really nothing but a distraction whether one is ‘optimistic’ or not: arguing whether the glass is half-empty or half-full is irrelevant when the glass itself was filled with a poisonous concoction that you have already half-consumed. Or, to use another image: arguing whether the ship is half-empty or half-full is irrelevant when in either case you have now taken on so much water that your critical reserve-buoyancy is negated.
I just finished watching an installment of Ken Burns’s superb video history The Civil War; the episode that deals with the events of 1864. There was a photograph of Lincoln, described in Walt Whitman’s words as craggy-faced, serious, his homeliness somehow elevated by the depth and power of his personality. So very much, I thought, a strikingly impressive example of human beings in the full flush of their adulthood, forged in no matter how hot the fires of life and events.
And it struck me: would Lincoln have ever become what he became, had he been required to play to the kids’ mentality?
But isn’t that precisely what has happened to American politics in the past forty or fifty years?
The world and era of the Civil War was an adult world and an adult era: kids had to learn quickly and as best they could what Life and History required of them, and make the best of it. And they acquitted themselves with a stunning sobriety and determination and achievement.
One might wonder, in the twilight, what Obama might have become had he himself not been under the pressures of that type of politics his Party did so much to promote forty Biblical years ago; or had he himself, perhaps, not been heated – but only to a softness – by the mushy flash-pan evanescence of a youthy politics of the quick Impulse and of the easy Intention.
One might wonder how long – without genuine human adulthood – the country might longer last.