Tina K. Russell

August 31, 2009

American nihilism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:44 pm

David Brooks:

We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.

Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. America’s G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than France’s. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.

This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Great Gradualist – NYTimes.com.

Unfortunately, this is the essence of America, and what I want people to know when they stereotype us. We’re not lazy; we work too hard. We put too much stock in numbers, be they GDP, net worth, or our personal account balances as measures of our self-worth. We’re a nation hopped up on epinephrine, jumping from place to place, never enough time for our friends and our families. In fact, we idealize the person who never has enough time to relax, the jet-setter, the fast-track executive, the determined career woman. We never stop to think about what would actually make us happy; by that time, we’re retired, and firmly in the grip of old age. (We’re also in nursing homes by then, because we don’t have a concept of extended families.)

I find Brooks right and wrong in a lot of ways. He’s right in that he’s nailed down our problems, but he seems to idealize them. He speaks of our GDP per capita being higher than France as though GDP was ever meant to be a measure of well-being, or that GDP per capita, as an average measure, can ever be used to make generalizations about individuals (it can’t). We’re obsessed with these lifetime numbers, these scores, believing them to assess, somehow, how well we’ve done in life. It’s not only untrue, it’s dangerous.

Where Brooks is wrong is in assuming that Americans, by and large, are happy with this. I think most of us would be willing to let the government share some of our many burdens, so as long as they don’t start telling us what to do. I think the growth of the New Age movement, disgusting as I find it, shows a willingness to find meaning and wholeness beyond our boardrooms and bank accounts (though I don’t think squeezing an hour of yoga into all our other commitments really counts as enlightenment). I really do love America’s rambunctious, somewhat obnoxious culture; otherwise, I might not still be here. We just never seem to reflect on what we do well, our brilliant engineers and high-yield cultural exports, what we do poorly, such as our crumbling infrastructure or the miserable public educations we give our children, or what we need most, such as a sense of meaning independent of GDP or performance bonuses.

I love America, but we’re fundamentally broken, and instead of celebrating it we ought to get around to fixing it.

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