Snap Out of What?

school-of-athens

A week or so ago, David Brooks wrote one of his looking down his nose, scolding articles that instantly (or a week later) drives me to respond. With the headline, “Snap Out of It,” Brooks argues that life really couldn’t be much better.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

He should read his colleague, Paul Krugman’s column today about the invisibility of wealth in the US today. He would have better deemed our time in history as another gilded, not golden, age. The allusion to a golden age took me back to ancient Greece age the time of Pericles. I cribbed this short discussion.

The so-called golden age of Athenian culture flourished under the leadership of Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a brilliant general, orator, patron of the arts and politician—”the first citizen” of democratic Athens, according to the historian Thucydides. Pericles transformed his city’s alliances into an empire and graced its Acropolis with the famous Parthenon. His policies and strategies also set the stage for the devastating Peloponnesian War, which would embroil all Greece in the decades following his death.

I can find not a scintilla of comparison. Our influence has steadily declined in economic terms, but perhaps not in military strength. Our dominant position in the world has stagnated in many ways leading to an apparent decline by comparison with the rest of the world. But I do not think that is particularly relevant anyway. What have we done to erect a modern-day Parthenon. The closest I can think of is the Internet. The only difference is that we are worshiping the Gods of Technology, not those who inhabited Olympus. I am not at all certain that this is an improvement.

I looked at some data for our Defense expenditures over time. The trends since 2001 would argue against Brooks’s claim that all is quiet and peaceful in the world, and we have little to worry about from the outside.

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Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

Our politics doesn’t accurately portray how the people would apportion spending priorities, so that a plebiscite might spend our national wealth differently, but there is no way to argue that we live in a peaceful, serene period in history. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. If our highway system is our Parthenon, it is nearly in as bad a state of disrepair and it is only about fifty years old, not 2500.

Brooks wrote this because he said he listened to a mood of despair and pessimism this summer. I am not sure whom he was tuned into. My guess is it is the punditry that surrounds him. It cannot be the poor; they have been downtrodden and hopeless for decades. Nothing especially new for them. Red Sox fans, perhaps. How could we slip from first to last in such an ignominious manner? The Koch’s? They are on a roll since Citizens United. Wall Street? The Market is setting records. He says, “We are living in an amazingly fortunate time.” He is using my teenage granddaughter’s favorite jargon word, amazing, with the same banal significance. He uses this to argue that we are having a “leadership crisis,” but fails to mention what leaders he is referring to. I think it is the seat of power in Washington DC, particularly the Congress and the Presidency.

He offers four fixes:

First, we need to get over the childish notion that we don’t need a responsible leadership class, that power can be wielded directly by the people.

Second, the elite we do have has to acknowledge that privilege imposes duties. Wealthy people have an obligation to try to follow a code of seemliness.

Third, discredit political bigotry.

Fourth, put congressional reform atop the national agenda.

It ain’t Nike here. These folks can’t or won’t just do it. These are not just a few nits in the system. If we do have a malaise, (and I think we do, but I am just one voice,) it is not about to be fixed by tweaking the system. Our values are wrong at the core. We have skidded to the extreme individualistic end of the me-community/others axis. We have pushed it beyond belief. Bigotry is just a form of extreme individualism. We cannot stop of thinking of the US as separate and different from the rest of the world. See climate change. Wrong! We are simply one piece of the planet and we are connected to the rest in a systemic mesh if interrelationships.

That’s enough. I still am unsettled by his column and I still am not sure why. Maybe it’s because the elite is scolding the elite, but trying to rise above the fray.

ps. One of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General called the remarks made by his female opponent, “unseemly.” He lost. The word was taken to be patronizing as I also read it here.

(Image: Raphael, The School of Athens)

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