Naturally, when I saw the title of Frank Bruni’s latest column I thought first about what the therapy culture has wrought.
Perhaps I am alone, but “America the Shrunken” immediately brings to mind the practice of headshrinking.
Obviously, mental health is not at issue. When I label therapy a culture I mean to say that it has been working to transform American culture. If Bruni is to be believed, it has succeeded, but the change has been for the worse.
In his words:
But our slide to No. 2 nonetheless seems inevitable, so much so that most Americans think it has already happened. For the last six years, when the Gallup Poll asked them which country was the world’s “leading economic power,” more answered China than said the United States. This year, the spread was an astonishing 52 to 31 percent. Fewer than one in three Americans puts us on top, even though we actually remain there.
More and more I get the sense that we’ve lost it, and by “it” I mean the optimism that was always the lifeblood of this luminous experiment, the ambition that has been its foundation, the swagger that made us so envied and emulated and reviled.
We’re walking small. And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.
Dare we say that America has lost its manliness? Bruni suggests as much, though he is too polite to put it in those words.
Of course, today's American culture might merely reflect the state of mind of the current occupant of the White House. Few people understand how much the person of the president influences the nation. Once you elevate someone to the role of alpha male, people will emulate both his good and his bad.
Yes, America voted for Barack Obama, so perhaps he reflects America’s sense of itself. After all, if the nation did not know what it was getting the first time, it should have known by the second.
Of course, some people are thrilled by the transformation. They believe that America needed to be diminished, that America’s cowboy ethos needed to be taken down a notch… the better to bring about universal peace.
Those who think such thoughts are not unhappy. For all I know, their happiness depends largely on biochemistry, but they do deserve to have a say. Bruni explains their position:
Less assertiveness could mean less overreach. Less confidence could mean less hubris. And money isn’t everything.
A thoughtful college junior I know told me that while he didn’t envision a richer American economy in his future or a mightier American role in the world, he looked forward to a country with a warmer embrace of diversity, including gay marriage in every state. He itched to be a part of its creation.
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for….
Unfortunately, the young generation has missed the essential. When you are the world’s alpha culture, when you are the world leader, abrogating your responsibility produces some very bad results.
It’s not very likely that everyone will now live in peace in the new Age of Aquarius. It’s more likely that, while you are contemplating the beauty of nature, other, less enlightened souls will be eating your lunch.
You may choose not to compete, but that does not mean that everyone else will retire from the fray. They will see your failure as an opportunity to gain ground.
Significantly, Bruni notes, when an economy does not keep producing wealth, politics can degenerate into struggles over smaller and smaller slices:
Still, I worry. Can a nation so long defined by its faith in an expansive frontier accept limits so easily? If we become convinced that the pie won’t grow, do our politics degenerate into endless squabbling over the slices? And isn’t pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Actions have consequences. When you set out to change the culture, to make it kinder and gentler, you might not be happy with the results. Joel Kotkin described the new culture in an article last year:
Rather than seek new worlds to conquer, or even hope to retain the accomplishments of prior generations, contemporary young Americans seem destined to confront a world stamped by ever narrowing opportunity, class distinction, and societal stagnation. Once a nation of competitive omnivores and carnivores, America could be turning more docile—a country of content, grazing herbivores.
If America takes competitive striving to be a negative value and it it demeans virtues associated with manliness it will surely fall behind. If you are too squeamish to eat a hamburger, you will most likely become a less fearsome competitor.
Kotkin hopes, as we all do, that America will break out of its torpor, that the younger generation will overcome its indolence and insolence.
In his words:
The real issue here is not the declining validity of American aspiration, but overcoming the economic, political and social factors that threaten to suffocate it. Similar challenges—the concentration of wealth of the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, war, and environmental angst—have periodically appeared and were eventually addressed through technological innovation, and critical political and social changes. Rather than accept the shrinkage of the American prospect, we should seek ways to restore it for those who will inherit this republic.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to shrink a head than to unshrink it. A head once shrunk will likely to stay shrunk.