Sunday, July 20, 2008

The not-so-great generation

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert urges us to take Al Gore seriously, the way we took JFK seriously when he said we should shoot for the moon. But Herbert notes that a spirit of inadequacy, dependence and apathy seems to have stolen our resolve and our capacity to respond to inspiration where it is needed and when it comes. Don't you know that in so big and diverse a nation, there is always someone who is saying the right things? The question is, who is listening?

In Herbert's view, one I largely share, the nation is stuck in the conventional belief that we Americans just won't and may even think we can't make do without petroleum in earth-parching quantities. Perhaps we should do to the car company ad campaigns what we did to the tobacco company ad campaigns...we are after all a very suggestible population.

Herbert asks but does not quite answer this question:

The correct response to Mr. Gore’s proposal would be a rush to figure out ways to make it happen. Don’t hold your breath.

When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.

When was it?

Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.

But he does confirm that that sense of helplessness is more substantial than mere perception by a few liberals like myself:

Americans are extremely anxious at the moment, and I think part of it has to do with a deeply unsettling feeling that the nation may not be up to the tremendous challenges it is facing. A recent poll by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine that focused on economic issues found a deep pessimism running through respondents.

According to Margot Brandenburg, an official with the foundation, nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past."

Well, I have my suspicions. And unfortunately, my generalizations don't sound any more tolerant or aware than Mike Savage's. In a word, I have to blame my own generation, the so-called Baby Boomers. We were the most privileged and pampered cohort...and one of the largest economic human history. We quickly took for granted our ease and the historical aberration of having resources that cost a tiny fraction of our incomes. We came to act as if this accident of prosperity were our earned entitlement. When? It is hard to say because it creeps up on us as we grow accustomed to ease. The relative fossilizes into the absolute. The phase becomes the norm and expectation. I share the view that it was that coddled mindset, unconsciously wincing at the vicissitudes of age and the clamoring third world, that quietly betrayed its future and its fleeting '60s values. We did not grow soft suddenly, but by turning from the dogged do-good morality of Jimmy Carter to the comfortable twaddle of Ronald Reagan, we marked a point of testing when we came up against something hard to do. Reagan was too simple to be the cause of anything. He was the symptom.

While the "greatest generation" had worked hard and suffered to bring us to the height of what was in fact a very unbalanced advantage:

  • so far ahead of the undeveloped world we could buy them out
  • so unscathed relative to the European countries that we could buy cars and dishwashers while helping fund their reconstruction of ruined cities and factories,

It is also true that America's decades of apparent ascendancy carried two distinct messages around the world:

  1. We seemed to have found some key to prosperity and lived a desirably luxurious life
  2. We took our prosperity as a mark of our superiority in every other measure you can make of a people.
We are the same kind of people that our parents were but that is the problem: we are just human. It is in our natures to take good times for granted but to find the virtue in hard work and sparing use of our supplies only when hardship enforces the lesson. The mental frameworks and illusions in which we dress our times and circumstances allow us to think or preclude our thinking in constructive ways about what is coming at us on the path of history. That path, some of us need to be told, is on the earth. The extent to which the sun, the water and the dirt have yielded the goods we commanded in our heyday is still largely unacknowledged in the daily media bombardment that has become so prominent a part of our experience. There was no profit in objectivity in the short run. In the long run, we are finding out we may not be so long running as our lulled and conceited self esteem would like to believe. I suspect that on a psychological level, the baby boomers simply never had to face the massive uncertainties and discomforts of the generation that endured a massive depression and fought an overt and hateful fascism all at once. Our willingness to deal with uncertainty has atrophied. We leave it to the children of the baby boom to relearn this strength.

They too are human. They can do this.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In check

These thoughts are the luxury of a comfortable old salary man contemplating retirement. I wish for the whole world, but particularly for those caught up in the thought that they must do just the task that seems to be set for them lest they not eat or not have progeny or....the list goes on, ...I wish that you could each have and chew on such doubts about your to-do list.

A badly organized list of what to do is not much help. Even if organized well according to the logic of external priorities, it is no better than having a good accountant who can always tell you exactly how far in over your head you are in debt.

It has not often been there for me but I'd guess that what must exist for success, what must come first, is the more emotional and very short list of why to do things. I rail against the pursuit of "why" in religious contexts but in the utterly human predicament of how to discharge one's life in a responsible and satisfactory way, "why" must be felt. Only an idiot geek like me would have to reason his way to this conclusion. I figure almost everyone else is already at this point of feeling confident of why they do what they do. Feelings are something most of us have. Education or reflection are not needed to acquire them, only to keep them in check or to develop more altruistic ones than nature gave us.

That way in which feeling trumps logic may be how "love makes the world go 'round".

If we can define desire as an abiding sense of motivation, not necessarily within the reach of explanation, directing us toward the attainment or maintenance of some possession, relationship or situation, then we should distinguish it from a wish by saying a wish can arise from no prompting at all or random circumstance and wither or grow into a desire. Which course, only fool would predict: the answer will be found in trial and effort and time. We do not know until we have had to provide time and carve resources from other commitments that absorb our personal stock of goods and powers, whether and abiding urge will form or any attachment arise.

It is only when you drop all else that you know you have picked up your heart's desire.