No exceptionalism to the rule…

Even when confronting striking evidence that something is wrong and that no one has an implementable solution, even when imagining that at least they have stepped outside of political-philosophical gridlock, American pundits, politicians, and popular historians write with unquestioning optimism about what we could do if only.  I would have more confidence they might be right – that the visions they like to conjure up are reachable enough to justify re-doubled effort – if they at least admitted the possibility of impossibility, of insuperable obstacles, of diseases without cures, of all those slings and arrows…

The real problem for both parties is that the old roads and the old destinations don’t make that much sense anymore.  A global economic upheaval is changing the rules before our eyes.  This can play to America’s greatest strengths: our cultural dispositions favoring flexibility, innovation and hard work.  But we will have to reinvent some of our core institutions to do this, drastically reducing the size and cost of our government, legal, health and educational systems even as we find ways to make them much more productive than ever before.  The old progressive elite of Democrats’ dreams can’t lead us into the promised land — but while Republicans know this much, they haven’t figured out what comes next.

…thus the irrepressibly optimistic historian Walter Russell Mead, even while allowing himself to indulge in some short-term pessimism. I share the pessimism.  I suspect that much of the optimism is nonsense, a dangerous illusion, at least as presented.  I know it’s a sin to say so.

I find it entirely conceivable that we cannot do and should not attempt to do what the historian believes “we will have to do.”  What reason do we have to believe that inherited “cultural dispositions” will be enough to carry us through the “upheaval”?  That “reinvent… core institutions” is more than merely sayable (we’ve been saying it for decades), that it’s at all doable?  What if the only thing certain, in many cases likely, in particular cases at all possible, about “creative destruction” is the second half of the phrase? What if there’s, shall we say, a bit of friction between “much more productive than ever before” and “drastically reducing the size and cost”?  Clearly, “much more productive” + “drastically reducing” isn’t a snap.  Otherwise, we’d have snapped it.

What if the “core institution” that needs to be “re-invented” is a core spiritual institution, the very one that inclines us to believe that core institutions are productively re-inventible? Or maybe what makes core institutions (whatever they are) “core” is their relative un-re-inventibility…  Maybe that’s another way of saying the same thing.  And maybe the reasonable conclusion is:  Look, don’t bother trying – it’s not worth it! 

I know that’s not how fitness coaches, motivational speakers, and rising Tea Party demagogues like to operate.  They don’t go around saying, “There are some things you just cannot do, and will only harm yourselves attempting, whether you put your mind to them or not.”  But what if we have too many worthless overpaid motivators, each with his or her special formula for persuading the gullible to grab onto un-liftable weights?  

Proceeding as though abstractions and uncertainties are known quantities might be good for morale, but soldiers with high morale do sometimes suffer crushing defeats.  They sometimes rush in where people with an appreciation for the irrecoverable human costs of what they are attempting would walk calmly or run swiftly in the opposite direction.  Maybe the willingness to assume that “much more productive… drastically reducing” is real prepares us to put an unexceptionably positive face on injustice, on the self-mutilation of the body politic, self-sacrifice on the altar of a hallowed “way of life” that, at least in the terms we commonly understand and discuss it, may itself be “the problem.”  Maybe “productive… reducing” is wishful thinking as well as an oxymoron, in other words no more than ideology, a convenient mask for imposing the costs of inevitable national decline disproportionately, on selected scapegoats, on externalized others for as long as we can get away with it, and on the increasingly disenfranchised and dispossessed lower and middle classes.

Throughout my adult life, it’s been a cliché of political discussion that mainstream politicians refuse to treat voters as grown-ups, refuse to admit that we “face hard choices.”  Maybe “facing hard choices” is necessary, but just a first step – nothing really to get very proud of.  Could be more grown-up than what we normally do, but not especially laudable.  Maybe what’s grown-up is facing a hard lack of choices, a certainty of hard experiences, of promises to remain forever unkept, and then to figure out what can be honorably and justly still be done anyway.

Maybe if we had demonstrated a feeling for tragedy, our happy endings would be more believable.  That we cling to the latter and call it our exceptional national character suggests that a lot more character-building may be in order.

4 comments on “No exceptionalism to the rule…

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  1. As I have pointed on more than one occasion , I have been following Mead since he was a transplanted Southerner with a Yale degree, writing “Mortal Splendor” his jeremiad on the dystopian prospects of the GOP, and the likely backlash, labor unrest, terrorism, and an government response, which he suggested included killing reporters, death squads and states of siege, in reaction to a long military incursion. Curiously this came out right before the fall of the Soviet Union, he later went on in Esquire, as your typical Democratic flak, with the curious twist that he wanted us to buy Siberia from the Cash strapped Russians. After 9/11 he became a very nuanced expositor on Jacksonian democracy, and
    the consequences of this conflict.

    Now I take issue with the idea that the Tea Party will demand sacrifices, and surely as soon as they make those plain, the commentariat will pounce on them, meanwhile the 800 Grizzly in the Room, the Tax Reform Commission, will make their decision, apparently involving eliminating every tax deduction, known to man

  2. @ miguel cervantes:
    Can’t say I care for your characterization of Mead and his works, but maybe you didn’t notice that I was mainly using him as an example.

    the Tea Party will demand sacrifices, and surely as soon as they make those plain, the commentariat will pounce on them

    The Tea Party does not have the ability to produce meaningful specifics, much less interesting specifics. It has at most the ability to express non-specific dissatisfaction, an attitude that becomes tedious around the same time that it reveals itself to be useless. On the other hand, to whatever extent it pronounced itself satisfied, it would undermine its reason for existence – you might even say it would cease to exist to the extent it’s satisfied. For these and other reasons, the politicians whose base is in the Tea Party have little interest in actually achieving anything. Their game will likely be to obstruct compromise, or even minimal government functionality, but avoid being pinned down, and find someone else to blame while decrying the unwillingness of anyone to take responsibility.

    On this level, the Tea Party more resembles a New Year’s party or a birthday party than a political party. That was perhaps inherent in the historical model. The Boston Tea Party was an event, not a political program, philosophy, or faction.

    Eventual reaction among Tea Partiers and fellow travelers to the “Fiscal Commission,” aka the “Deficit Commission,” (that’s what you meant, right?) will be telling. They’re supposed to report by December 1 at the latest. The “fisc” is supposed to the whole enchilada, the main reason for the TP’s existence, the main purpose of the Republican sweep, right?

  3. I was actually being charitable of how Mead has evolved, over the years I’ve been observing him, The Fisc is a bunch of time serving
    establishment hacks, well Alan Simpson doesn’t quite fall in that category, who will not solve the current problem, and create new
    ones. You got your ‘welfare over jobs’ governor congratulations,
    although there may actually be one Republican in the cabinet, I speak of Steve Cooley as Atty Gen,

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