Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Decline and Fall of America

While I've been identifying the green shoots that might signal a return to civic virtue, other members of our heteroclite culture have been hard at work promoting incivility, in the form of grotesque egomaniacal public outbursts.

In an excellent column this morning David Brooks looks back nostalgically at the American reaction to victory in World War II. Link here.

There he finds a victorious nation refusing to gloat. Having won the war, America was awash in modesty and humility. From political leaders to celebrities everyone struck the same moral tone: the war was over; it was time to get back to work.

To Brooks it sounded like victory.

At some point in the decades that followed, we lost the modesty and humility that characterized the "greatest generation." Intellectuals and artists in the 50s began the critique, but the decisive moment of cultural transformation came during the 60s with the advent of the counterculture.

The culture of modesty and humility was attacked and ultimately defeated because it was deemed to be mentally unhealthy.

As Brooks put it: "Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call 'expressive individualism.'"

Brooks does not quite say it, but his terminology suggests that he understands well that the new ethos was produced, propagated, and proselytized in the name of mental health. I have been calling it the therapy culture. Surely, it represented the triumph of a therapeutically-correct way of life.

Generously, Brooks says that this is: "just the culture in which we live." I fear it is not quite that easy. Especially as a conclusion to a column that clearly associates the lost (and hopefully, now resurgent) culture of the World War II generation with success.

The new culture may not be the death of civilization, but it does mean something. In Brooks' words: "It's funny how the nation's mood was at its must humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."

Actually, it is not really all that funny. The cultural ethos that glorifies self-promotion and self-expression is not a culture of achievement.

It is a culture of self-congratulation designed to cover up failure. It's a culture that says: let's declare victory and go home. As though the utterance of a few magical words could create reality.

It may not be the death of civilization-- largely because civilization does not stop at the nation's borders-- but if we are going to solve our problems and re-emerge as a great and prosperous nation, we must also work at cultivating the green shoots of civic virtue.

In this context, and not wanting to be anything less than optimistic, we might see the recent breaches of public decorum as the death knell of the therapy culture.

It may be a good omen that no one is rushing to defend Kanye West or Joe Wilson on the grounds that they were right to express their feelings.

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