Thursday, April 09, 2009

The end of excess?

A week or two ago, standing in the check-out line of the third grocery store I had been to that afternoon -- this one because my 10 year-old teen-age daughter had decided that the orange juice I bought at grocery store number two did not have enough pulp for her advanced palette, a trip necessitated by my disastrous purchase of orange juice at grocery store number one that had too much pulp -- I noticed the Time magazine cover to the right. What caught my eye was not the middle story on the top border, "Sticker Shock: Inside the College Financial Aid Game," -- what could that be other than another conventional-wisdom-come-lately acknowledgment that our college admissions and funding process has reached the FUBAR stage; that something should be done about it; but that nothing probably will? -- but the stark cover feature, "The End of Excess: Why This Crisis is Good for America"

Pardon me if I've heard this before. Remember this?

"True, the belief that the United States was a privileged sanctuary, that distant threats could not disturb our lives at home also collapsed that day. And yet, as Americans examine their altered world, as we cope with the economic uncertainties, personal insecurities and even anxieties of what lies in the future, the national mood -- whatever that is -- is shaped by much more than [our recent trauma] . . .

And why not? There were so many other stories and forces directly touching our lives. The wonderful, giddy euphoria of a dot.com wonderland in a "new" economy playground was already gone as bubbles burst and personal investments and 401K plans headed down. As the once high economic tide receded, it would expose what had been lurking beneath the surface: the accounting scandals, corporate financial games and Wall Street cronyism that have poisoned public trust in business and the markets."

These words were written shortly after September 11th, a moment when the mainstream media decided that "America had lost its innocence," as if, in the immortal words of Foreigner, it felt like the first time. But, by my extremely unofficial and unauthorized count, September 11th marked at least the 25th* time that "America had lost its innocence."

Since 1961, the year I was born, America, the Little Bo Peep of great nations and semi-successful empires, lost its innocence during or because of the following events:

Bay of Pigs (1961)
Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
Medgar Evers Assassination (1963)
John F. Kennedy's Assassination (1963)
Gulf of Tonkin (1964)
Vietnam War (1954-1975)
Mississippi Murders of Civil Rights Workers (1964)
Watts Riots (1965)
Bloody Selma (1965)
Summer of Love (1967)
Six Day War (1967)
1968, the entire year (including the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic Convention and more)
Pentagon Papers Case (1971)
Watergate Break-In (1972)
Yom Kippur War (1973) (America went on nuclear alert)
Roe v. Wade (1973)
South Boston Riots (1974)
President Nixon Resigns (1974)
Patty Hearst (1974)
Attempted Assassination of President Ford (1975)

and . . . skipping ahead by a ratio of about 2:1, the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979), Iran-Contra scandal (1986), Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union (1990); Gulf War I (1991), the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center (1993); the Clinton Impeachment (1998), the attack on the U.S.S. Cole (1998).

That's 25 or 26 or 27, depending on how you count. Or 24.*

Either way, 24 or 25 or 26 or 27 losses of innocence before September 11th add up to much more than one. For whatever reason, Americans, by and large, seem to really believe that we are a nation of innocents, periodically victimized by a small number of deranged and wholly un-American citizens who no one would miss if they all packed off and headed to one of the new-a-Stans somewhere in Eastern Europe. Milling about our lawns, chewing the cud with our neighbors, who, of course, we all know well and by name, in and out of each other's houses are we are all the time, waving to the kind-hearted postal worker and making sure that those crazy teenagers down the street aren't overdoing the root beer floats at the local hangout, where the girls are giggling at the boys, who are comparing their tricked-up hot rods with each other, hoping that they'll land one of the gigglers for a ride to the point, where they'll make-out and nothing more, since they know that premarital sex isn't what God wants.

And besides, sex is for sluts, whores and bad boys. Gays, too, because they're predators and mentally ill. Plus, they can't help themselves, unless you want to blame the Supreme Court, which put us on the path to ruin by eliminating school prayer.

Let's be real for a minute: TV Land America exists in TV Land America and nowhere else. As a kid, I used to watch the Brady Bunch when it was in prime time and then after school when it was in re-runs, or what is now called syndication. For a long time, I really thought the Bradys had a lawn made from artificial turf, or, again dating myself, what we called Astroturf, in honors of the surface the Houston Astros played on in the Astrodome, and wondered why we were so underprivileged. It took me sometime to figure out that blended families -- I was part of one growing up -- did not co-exist like the Bradys did, much less like each other all that much. Until I was about 16 or 17, I didn't realize that entire industries existed of people with budgets the size of emerging industrial nations who devoted their time to something called "public relations," "branding," "the consumer experience," "visualization," "image positioning," and other such black arts intended to mislead, defraud, delude, comfort, deny and just plain bullshit as many people as possible about anything in which their clients -- businesses big and small, government agencies, presidents or any politician for that matter, entertainers and athletes, anything or anybody, have an investment. That was around the same time I was preparing to leave high school and start college. Rarely since have I walked, much less run, down the path well-beaten in anything I've ever done, simply because, as I have learned in the interim years, I'm not wired that way. Rather than gravitate to "American Idol," the American Political Science Review or the Billboard Top 40, I instinctively wonder how so many people can possibly be wrong so often. Or worse, wonder why they believe they're possibly on to something.

Nassim Taleb's marvelous new book, "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable," explains our penchant for predictability in a brilliant and delightful manner. Taleb wonders why we focus so much on "explaining" the ordinary and so little on understanding the impact of improbable events. Or, to use his analogy, why are we fascinated so much by white swans and so little by black swans? Why do "social scientists" spend so much time attempting to explain retrospective events without taking into account all the random variables that occur between the point of interest and the current tense (think about the mainstream media's near-obssession with the "Bradley effect" in the past election, when there was nothing at all similar between the "role of race" in a Los Angeles mayoral race from 1982 and the presidential campaign of 2008)?
Events that traumatize, influence and shape the world on a grand scale aren't necessarily predictable; but our need for some sort of comfort level in what we know, to assume that we can know and predict what matters of importance will happen next, takes precedent over the fact that (1) we can predict, in the real sense, much of anything and (2) that whatever we can predict is fundamentally useless.

Journalists, commentators, academics and others who ponder the grand meaning of events big and small possess a collective level of amnesia that simply boggles the mind. Before the current crash-and-burn of the housing market, the financial sector, the dissolution of America's automobile industry, the disappearance of our manufacturing base that has inspired the false belief that we are entering a post-consumer age and returning to our core values of community and simplicity, there were other such moments when our runaway consumption and boundless appetite for more and more and bigger and bigger suddenly came to a sudden halt. Before the greed and avarice of the Bush II years, there was the greed and avarice of the Clinton years, and before that, the greed and avarice of the Bush I years and the greed and avarice of the Reagan years. And before that, and before Taleb, there was Alexis de Tocqueville, who, traveling throughout America in the early 1830s, commented on what he called our nation's "love of comfort."

In America the taste for physical well-being is not always exclusive, but it is general; and though all do not feel it in the same manner, yet it is felt by all. Everyone is preoccupied caring for the slightest needs of the body and the trivial conveniences of life. . . .

In America I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich or whose imagination did not snatch in anticipation good things that fate obstinately refused to him. . . . Love of comfort has become the dominant national taste. The main current of human passions running in that direction sweeps everything along with it. . . . I do not reproach equality for leading men astray with forbidden delights, but I do complain that it absorbs them in the quest of those permitted completely.
And finally:

There is a closer connection than is supposed between the soul's improvement and the betterment of physical conditions. A man can treat the two things as distinct and pay attention to each in turn. But he cannot entirely separate them without in the end losing sight of both. Why is it, then, that animals only know how to satisfy their primary and coarsest needs, whereas we can infinitely vary and continually increase our delights? If men ever came to be content with physical things only, it seems likely that they would gradually lose the art of producing them and would end up by enjoying them without discrenment and without improvement, like animals.

Forget for a moment how an economic meltdown that has displaced millions of Americans from their homes, jobs, access to healthcare and overall mental health can possibly be "good for America," as Time suggests. Only someone immune from the fragile nature of modern American economic life could have made such a statement. The real question is not whether we are preparing to enter a post-material era free of excess; but why so many Americans continue to genuinely profess surprise at the seismic and often devastating impact that big events, sometimes predictable but often not, have on our economic, social and political lives, and how or why we are going to deal with those events differently than we have before.

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