Jeremiah Without God in the Wings

Rembrandt Jeremiah.jpg

Again I turn to James Carroll for the source of a blog post. Carroll recalls the prophet Jeremiah in his weekly op-ed piece in the Boston Globe this week. Jeremiah railed at the Jews for breaking their covenant with God, warning them that great misfortunes would be the consequence. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians follows in the story.

Carroll begins by referring to a recent book by Tony Judt that rails against the way we live today, not so much as disobeying God, but not paying attention to our own moral ends. In, Ill Fares the Land, Judt points out the great disparities between wealth and other measures of societal health in the United States. In the short extract I cite, Judt provides data showing the the US is an outlier in every correlation between wealth inequality and something bad. We are the most unequal, not the richest, of all the nations included. and are off the chart in indicators of poor health, crime, mental illness and (shorter) life expectancy. I haven’t read Judt’s book; it’s on my summer reading list, but I did read carefully the article in the link above. Judt has been long-time critical of US culture and policy, but his recent writings are particularly evocative, as he is writing while anticipating his death from a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).

Carroll reminds us of other “Jeremiahs,”—Christopher Lasch, Jimmy Carter, John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills—all critical of the way we, the larger society, have come to live. The list of such critics is much longer than Carroll chooses to include, but the point is still made by citing only a handful of authors/critics. He quotes President Carter on consumerism, as i also do in my book. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,’’ Carter warned. “But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.’’ I believe that Carter was only using the bully pulpit to cheer on the American people into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that the evidence for restraint was illusory then as it is now.

Carroll ends on a positive note:

Irony abides in such a tradition of criticism, for the end of such negative reckoning is the supreme affirmation that this nation is most fully itself in honestly acknowledging the gulf between reality and ideal. The uplift, from Judt to Whitman, is in the clearly stated truth.

I find the paragraph hard to follow, but I think Carroll was extolling us for being able to voice our criticism, contrasting the reality of the culture to our basic idealistic goals. But the hard facts remain: not all of us are free—many are much less free than others—and we now know that pursuing happiness through consumption and materialism fails to do the job. It’s not enough to be a Jeremiah; our modern counterparts lack the influence that he had. The affluent society of Galbraith was not enough to trigger social action, except at the margins. Rachel Carson’s clarion call is quiescent as we are moving forward with all sorts of grand technological experiments that we suspect may have large unintended and unpredictable consequences. The situation has changed, a message missing from Carroll’s column, as we are facing stresses on our global system of unprecedented magnitude. It won’t be God that destroys our modern Jerusalem; it will be a combination of Mother Nature’s wrath and self-inflicted injuries.

[Jeremiah by Rembrandt]

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1 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

Thanks for the reference to Judt's work - he is a brilliant thinker and historian. Even so, I think his basic premise - that we should look back on, appreciate, and revive our recent social democratic successes and apply them to our contemporary malaise - misses two highly important facts. First, the population is much larger than it used to be, making government social programs much less affordable. Secondly, and more importantly, we have greatly surpassed the limits of our natural resources, rendering further material growth impossible. The missing piece of his analysis is the kind of real sustainability you espouse.