Thursday, October 27, 2005

You Blew This Putt, Noonan

See image here. Twisted Feather tremendously odd Imports here.

1) This is light, thematic, and frothy, unlike the frothing at the mouth I'll do next. Halloween Hangman is a good time. (Tx, Bonnie) However, I warn you, there's SOUND. If you're at work, turn down the volume before linking or you'll hear abusive ranting from the skeleton that implies he died of cirrosis and lung cancer combined. I can practically see the ghosts of betting slips in his bony fingers.

2) Sometimes, I think Peggy Noonan gets it right. Some days like today, she sounds like she's only writing for and aware of the other inmates in the Beltway asylum and nearby gated communities. That may not be true, and I don't mean to damn her hunch-gathering. I don't doubt some people feel the way she writes. But I think the gloom off-base, not particularly tied to facts but choices of perception, and largely the cri-de-coeur of people unaware they've morphed from key contributors to consumers. Most importantly, I reject her view of the elite and consider them actually the common, in the sense of being increasingly satisfied with being less than excellent. My rejection of her points was as visceral as logical, so we'll see whether I avoid the accusation that I'm merely patching the cracks in my "constitutional and classic American optimism." I'm not exactly providing a disputation of her observations as much as a different reponse to them.

I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley [is] off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with "right track" and "wrong track" but missing the number of people who think the answer to "How are things going in America?" is "Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination."

When have the actors of the day ever known the destination of history, which is built on the bones of those who'd never imagined things could go as they did? Pandemics have occurred, great civilizations have fallen, natural disasters have changed the planet, mass murder of millions have occurred through cruelty and war. If we were ever to discuss history (a contemporary failure which augments this morass of mood) we learn that all these horrors have happened many times over, and yet, people survive to be shocked about them. Because of the direction that time flows, humanity is always charging into darkness. Whether it feels like adventure or doom has largely to do with how robustly you adapt to uncertainty and how you credit your fellow humans as traveling companions.

I mean . . . the whole ball of wax. Everything. Cloning, nuts with nukes, epidemics; the growing knowledge that there's no such thing as homeland security; the fact that we're leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay. A sense of unreality in our courts so deep that they think they can seize grandma's house to build a strip mall; our media institutions imploding--the spectacle of a great American newspaper, the New York Times, hurtling off its own tracks, as did CBS. The fear of parents that their children will wind up disturbed, and their souls actually imperiled, by the popular culture in which we are raising them. Senators who seem owned by someone, actually owned, by an interest group or a financial entity. Great churches that have lost all sense of mission, and all authority. Do you have confidence in the CIA? The FBI? I didn't think so. But this recounting doesn't quite get me to what I mean. I mean I believe there's a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming...It's beyond, "The president is overwhelmed." The presidency (her emphasis) is overwhelmed. The whole government is. And people sense when an institution is overwhelmed. Citizens know. If we had a major terrorist event tomorrow half the country--more than half--would not trust the federal government to do what it has to do, would not trust it to tell the truth, would not trust it, period.

Is existence truly less stable than before, or are we just better informed about a complex web of risks outside our direct control? In technological societies, our lives hinge on developments and devices and people we don't understand and couldn't replace ourselves. Now that masses face undreamt health and longevity through advances in standards of living and medical care, if our pervasive worrying leaves the minutia, it drifts to terrorist cells, climatological change, mercury levels in salmon steaks, sick building syndrome, the sexual predator next door, and on and on. I'm not implying that any of these aren't worthy concerns, just that they aren't all likely, and one can't stay level-headed while internalizing dread about all of them, especially ones outside the purview of one's specific expertise or position. That is the recipe for hopelessness: worry about what you can't do while failing to do what you can.

You must decide to trust generally or not. Either big-G Government (substitute The Corporation where applicable) is a conspiracy of huge numbers of alien beings unlike you who intend you harm, or even the largest entities are made up of folks roughly similar to you in strengths and weaknesses, desires and priorities. To me, the primary danger of anything huge is the dilution and masking of accountability combined with possibilities for hazardous groupthink, but limits on power with support for transparency and individual freedoms help defuse that volatile kind of conformity. Another nuance of modern history- for good or ill- is that no governments have ever had to go through the real-time scrutiny and micromanagement by so many armchair senators and generals before. In the storied past, which we've elided into peanut-buttery smoothness, mistakes were made. People screwed up, failed to show up, just like today. Some blunders were important enough or become known widely enough to wring knuckles over, but humans aren't essentially worse than we ever were.

When I was young we didn't wear earrings, but if we had, everyone would have had a pair or two. I know a 12-year-old with dozens of pairs. They're thrown all over her desk and bureau. She's not rich, and they're inexpensive, but her parents buy her more when she wants them. Someone said, "It's affluence," and someone else nodded, but I said, "Yeah, but it's also the fear parents have that we're at the end of something, and they want their kids to have good memories. They're buying them good memories, in this case the joy a kid feels right down to her stomach when the earrings are taken out of the case."

Holy birthday party for Anne Frank, Batman! Is that really it? Giving her a last bit of joy through cheap accessories since she's as doomed as doomed can be? If you ax me, the trend is hyperindulgenge in the superficial and transient. The terrible, insatiable current need to nurture fledgling esteem through acquisition rather than achievement has made parents into piggy banks and most children uninteresting.

When the American middle class exploded in the fifties, many invested in acquiring the trappings of what used to be thought high culture. Intellectuals were feted on TV, people bought albums and books of things they though were good for them. But few wanted to pay to feel bad about themselves, so what was provided more was the slightly lower rung of high culture which kept descending from there. Now you're "elite" if you've even heard of opera much less sat through one. And even those citizens who didn't have lofty aspirations had money to spend on common entertainment which became ever more lucrative to provide. Huge numbers of people's principal recreation began to come from paying others to exhibit the skills of musicianship, dance, elocution, art, or sports rather than practicing and creating these entertainments on their own. Why learn piano when you can buy an album and the virtuosity is guaranteed? Added to the migration from the creation/participation model of recreation to passive consumption in an era when leisure grew to a larger percentage of John Q. Public's life, many loving parents also started bouncing their offspring over obstacles they would've had to hurdle themselves. Welcome to the first generation of Yankee ennui, man.

And now, as people raise petted, easily troubled, trivial-minded American children in Candyland mythologies of childhood as ultimate destination, denying its purpose as a training ground for adulthood, they are taken aback that these weak-minded dependents (who haven't learned the Life Skills of householding that we teach the mentally disabled) won't leave home and are near-hysterical about selecting a life-ruining college course because they couldn't consult a parent on the umbilical-phone. One whole sentence- gasp, pant.

In my opinion, if our public school system were as good as it ought to be (and should be based on children's capacities), many kids wouldn't need beyond a high school education that conferred solid literacy, math and science, and critical thinking skills. Then we could move onto extended vocational education, especially where things like technology and health care are concerned. Let's not waste our time and cash on those millions of vanilla Communications majors that mean students learn nothing specifically or deeply except how to party with a safety net. Maybe the sad, fearful parents could put some of the adolescent earring money into language lessons, ballet, musical instrument rental, travel, museum passes, terrariums? Okay, anything that teaches knowledge/skills of lasting value/beauty. One thing common to pop CDs, games, celebrities, and fad fashion is that they're disposable and therefore always eventually disappoint. An actor may develop within his understanding of Shakespeare for a lifetime- there's enough substance to sustain. Set your children's intellectual and cultural table with plasticware and paper napkins and wonder why their tastes never develop, why they never advance in breadth or sophistication. You should want them to thrive in the world that's coming at them. You should want them to outdo you. You should. Shame on you if you don't, you insecure monster.

Of Noonan's jawdroppingly silly citation of the forboding of a cocktail-swilling Teddy Kennedy predicting we won't get by without their dynasty, I will not comment except to say that there's a good reason not to have monarchies. Old Joe, the founder of the feast, was a canny guy, a heck of a moneymaker and backroom broker. His sons gained the polish and pedigrees he lacked, but there's so often tremendous dropoff of talent once the first generation has strived, overcome, succeeded. Only rarely do the heirs excel in the same arena. If we could resurrect and ask him, would grandpa Hilton be bursting his buttons or dead twice from shame?

Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

These may be the elites, I suppose, using a certain measure of rarity, but they're never who I've looked to for progress. I do agree many are becoming impotent, especially those whose idea of relevancy orbits the cosmos of 1968. I mean, the journalistic elite? Really. Let's have a trade school for that, too. People without inner hunger and hope don't drive the world forward, but there are revolutionaries shaping the future in this moment.

Here, where our electrons touch, there are people around the globe communicating their pains and aspirations. Here, not in the mediocre press of reactionism and opaque reasoning, are heard global whisperings and mutterings as they grow in volume. Here, we see proved the truth that humans thirst to be free to express themselves, and that unblinking consensus isn't a requirement of coexistence. That technologies are evolving, challenging our ethics and identity but offering amazing potential. That we can discover enough truth about foreign climes and circumstances to sympathize and help in concrete ways. None of us need buy any party's line or vision without verification.

I doubt I've made myself clear, but here I can gratefully edit, update, and repost. If you're not preparing yourself to contribute as well as consume, and if you're not excited about the potential past your own navel, and if you believe the majority of your fellow humans are inherently weaker or more evil than yourself, GET OUT OF THE WAY.


Gary Freedman said...
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April said...

Pumpkins that last! Funkins!

Re: the little bear killer....what the hell is wrong with people?