Friday, May 13, 2005

Stories Just So or So So

The air went out of the tire back in the early 70s when a generation of young people suddenly realized that their educations weren’t going to automatically result in a higher status or even necessarily pay the bills. The economy, rapidly cooling down from a once in a millennium growth spurt, simply didn’t have room for so many college-educated people. Besides, there was always something contradictory about the American project of democratizing privilege. The disappointment of so many individuals played itself out in a great many forms of self-destructive behavior over and beyond the obvious trio of drugs, disco, and deconstruction. Much of the continuing political prosperity of the Right derives from a search for psychic compensation for shipwrecked hopes.

Whether you call it a talking point, a meme, or just a commonplace, modern conservatives frequently claim that their liberal opponents are mediocre characters who like the idea of social safety nets because they aren’t up to the bracing struggle of life. Implicit in this bit are the assumptions that the only things worth fighting for are money and perhaps power and, on a deeper level, that fighting is the inevitable form of meaningful activity. Apparently, they find it astonishing that anybody might aspire to something different and perhaps better than wealth or that many people don’t want to obsess about stocks and bonds because they have better things to do. In fact, what we have here is a simply projection. Having renounced ambitions they themselves think are more worthwhile, they detect a failure of ambition in those who have made other choices.

I doubt if even the most of the promoters of the religion of the market really think that there is something particularly wonderful about getting rich. Their avidity is often just the public face of a fear of loosing out and becoming déclassé, a motive that has turned more than one child of well-educated hippies into a CFO. Perhaps that’s why our new billionaires are such notable flops as patrons of the high culture. Unlike other ruling classes, they haven’t figured out how to make an art out of being rich or even enjoy themselves very much. Lefties attack them for their greed, but perhaps even that isn’t quite authentic.

At some point in the future, if there is very much of a future, the mentality of our times is going to be a puzzle. One can understand how the figure of the saint, the sage, the artist, the statesmen, the builder, the warrior, the inventor or the industrialist can capture the imagination of an age. What can you say about a civilization whose hero is the crony capitalist?

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