Sunday, October 30, 2005

Who We Are Instead

In thier song, Trouble Is, the group Jars of Clay say:

My wings don't sail me to the sky,
On my own these wings won't fly,
Jesus told me so.
Still I'm not so sure that I know.

Man, the trouble is
We don't know who we are instead.

This thought seems to encapsulate conservatives, the GOP, and the nation at the moment. Peggy Noonan in a recent column said:

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 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."

While a bit over the top in the impending doom department, she's not too far off the mark. Why is it that this feeling pervades us? We have always lived in precarious times, a look at history always has shown trouble a brewin'. The answer lies in a couple of places. Firstly, the illusion of safety has been ripped away. 9-11 and some unprecedented natural disasters have brought down the last shreds of the illusion. Who can defend against madmen and the might of nature? You can not reason with a zealot or an earthquake. Secondly, our societal mechanism for coping with the things you can not defend against has been unmade. Muticulturalism fights nationalism, selfishness against duty, relativism against truth. These fights cut across party lines, across generational lines, across religious lines. There is not all good and all bad in any one group - when Code Pink stands hand in hand with the burka enforcement squad we know it an odd alignment.

In thier book, The Fourth Turning, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe define this erosion of societal mechanism as the Unraveling. They postulate four cycles on the wheel of societal time: a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis. The High is a time of confident expansion in a new order; the Awakening a time of spiritual explorations and rebellion against the established order. Next, the Unraveling era of building trouble as individualism takes precedence over institutions; finally, the Crisis which ushers in a new society thru a momentous gate in history.

Compare what Peggy Noonan says in her column with what Strauss and Howe say. Peggy says:

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.

Now Strauss and Howe:

During each of these periods, Americans celebrated an ethos of frenetic and laissez-faire individualism... yet also fretted over societal fragmentation, epidemic violence, and economic and technological change that seemed to be accelerating beyond society's ability to absorb it...

During each of these periods, an agressive moralism darkened the debate about the country's future. Culture wars raged, the language of political discourse coarsened, nativist (and sectional) feelings hardened, immigration and substance abuse came under attack, and attitudes toward children grew more protective.

During each of these periods, Americans felt well rooted in thier personal values but newly hostile toward the corruption of civic life. Unifying institutions, which once seemed secure for decades, now felt ephemeral. Those who had once trusted the nation with thier lives were growing old and dying. To the new crop f young adults, the nation hardly mattered. The whole res publica seemed on the verge of disintegrating.

During each of these previous Third Turnings, Americans felt as if they were drifting towards cataclysm. And, as it turned out, they were.

Do you see the parallels? I do. What does this mean? Are we facing an imminent Crisis? Strauss and Howe thought so when they published the book in the late 1990's. They predicted a Crisis period beginning in about 2005. I think they predicted a couple of years too late I think the Crisis began on 9-11-2001. Why then and not the bombing of the USS Cole or the tumultus elections of 2000? Why not the first World Trade Center attack or the SARS panic? Why not the dot com crash? Because 9-11 shook us, defines us, polorizes us and set a chain of events in motion that nothing else has.

Strauss and Howe set out a morphology of how the Crisis era unfolds:

* A catalyst - a groundshaking event (or sequence of events) that produces a shift of national mood.

* a regeneracy - reunification of civic life

* a climax - birthing a new societal order and burying the old

* a resolution - the culmination of the climax that resolves big questions and firmly established the new societal order.

Resolution will bring unprecedented freedoms or unprecedented tyranny. Examine a few of the Crisises of the past: the Civil War, WW2. At each we stood at the bring of freedom or tyranny, already many have likened 9-11 to Pearl Harbor. There is a reason the rhetoric of politics keeps turning to the parallels of WW2 and the specter of facism. We stand at the same brink. No, not the brink, we are full force into the flood of history and on some level we are all aware of it. The Crisis will encompass a generation as the Unraveling did before it, and the Awakening did before the Unraveling.

Peggy Noonan expresses a worry that too many of our national leaders are not going to lead us in the reformation of civic life:

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.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

Perhaps that is so, but the story does not end there. There will be leaders with the courage and tenacity to work through it, and in some respects it may be easier to find these leaders to rally to them and to support them. I speak of the internet and blogs, tools just as Franklin and Paine used newspapers and pamphlets. Out there somewhere a blogger will write the Common Sense of our Crisis. Glenn Reynolds tipped me to Justin Katz at Anchor Rising and I think Justin got it just right:

Ms. Noonan is surely in a better position than I to judge whether this attitude drives the Western elite, but I can't help but wonder whether, similarly, she's more susceptible to elites' false conceits. Perhaps it isn't "the whole ball of wax" that's falling apart, but just the artificial system — long sensed to be untenable — by which the elites, the conceit-full Baby Boomer elites, have managed to secure the "grim comfort" that "I got mine."

Or perhaps we are headed toward "the next chapter of trouble," and it may be trouble from more than merely a limited perspective. But blogs are proving that, if the functional elites are too resigned to that trouble to lead our society through it, the underclasses now have the technology — and the faculty — to pick up the slack. Maybe the sky is falling only to reveal the truer sky beyond, and in its light, we will be better able to respond to the troubles with which life — and history — accosts us all equally.

Basil has working trackbacks again!

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