Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Driven Apart: Failure in a Land of Plenty

© Charles D. Hayes
A plethora of new books suggest America has entered a state of rapid decline. Two recent works on this subject, both heavily footnoted, are worthy of attention. One is by an elitist on the right and the other by one on the left. In contrast, a third new book is full of hope.
The first to consider is Coming Apart: The State of White American, 1960-2010 by sociologist Charles Murray, whose work I've been reading for years. He refers to himself as a libertarian, although a better characterization might be that he is an ideologue's ideologue. For decades he's argued in a subtle and often guarded tone that some of us are just morally and genetically inferior to others, and he has become rather adept at appearing to stumble accidently onto his biases. In other words, his narratives contain a thinly disguised philosophy that is implied rather than stated outright. 
Coming Apart offers lots of good data, and the contents could make a really good book if the author had been intellectually honest about what has driven us apart. Murray, however, has never been quite smart enough to avoid the transparency of his biases, even when they are cloaked in his data. He submits a two-pronged account of how America is fracturing into enclaves of upper class and lower class, portrayed as Belmont and Fishtown respectively. We are asked to pay no attention to the cause. Instead Murray lays the book out so the unsuspecting will discover his predetermined conclusions embedded in his statistics along with him. He wants us to ignore the greed and lobbied power that have in effect looted the country from the top down. He wants us to concentrate instead solely on the moral failings of inferior folks and to recognize once again that big government is destroying the moral fiber of America.
New York Times columnist David Brooks declared Coming Apart the most important book of the year and said he would be "shocked if there's another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society." This should be tempered by realizing how easily Brooks is shocked. That Murray does not want to discuss the reason for society’s coming apart is what is shocking. For more on Murray's book, check out Joan Walsh's brilliant review at salon.com.
The second work is Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline by social critic Morris Berman, who throws all subtlety out the window. He’s concerned not with moral failings of the poor, but with what he regards as the mindless aspirations of those we deem successful. He characterizes the New Deal not as a restructuring of the economy, but as "a few concessions to the poor and working class." He warns us that when hustling and technological innovation become the purpose of life, there is no purpose, and he sees little hope for course correction. According to Berman, we are a country where people throw their lives away for toys. Our obsession with connectivity results in social isolation as we destroy the planet through what amounts to disingenuous acts of trivial pursuit.        
Now contrast the views above with another recent book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. They write: "Humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp." They lay out their argument in nineteen impressive chapters.
So, we have here two cases for a dystopian future due to moral failure and one utopian argument that, even if such a future were possible, would require an ideological remaking of society that goes far beyond simply offering a few concessions to the poor and the working class. The first order of business is to favor work over capital, or Main Street over Wall Street, and that would take an effort just short of a political revolution.
Our dilemma comes to this: The only way to a future worthy of our highest ideals is to get beyond our Stone Age political mindsets, in which millions of people are so fearful that someone else might get something underserved that they would rather see most have nothing. The biggest obstacle to a bright future is adolescent politics. As I advocate in September University, it is time for adults to speak up or forever lose the opportunity to do so. What a predicament: to choose spite or infinite possibilities.  
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