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There are lots of ways to lament America’s current financial and cultural dilemmas. We borrow to satisfy our entitlement appetites; we do not fully develop our natural riches, especially gas and oil on federal lands, as if regulating is more important than producing them; we do not honor the law, seeking either to overturn it through an activist judiciary or simply bypass it by executive orders (or ignore it out of politically-correct, ends-justify-the-means smugness). There is a general sense that there are no consequences to much of anything these days: radios blare ads about how to get out of mortgage debt, IRS debt, credit card debt (as if “they” put a gun to our heads to borrow); the farm bill provides for nearly 50 million on food stamps, many who by past standards would not qualify, and gives direct payments to agribusiness at a time of record-high commodity prices. One earns more disdain by trying to enforce immigration law than by breaking it.
Behind these symptoms are lots of larger pathologies. Postmodern relativism — itself a natural outgrowth of Marxism — has infected even the primary schools, as truth and right are not absolute but become fluid and depend on matters of race, class, and gender. High technology has given us all sorts of stuff that fooled us into thinking that our ability to text message or play video simulations means that somehow we are educated or exceptional when we are not. Enforced sameness is now the role of government run by technocrats who are exempt from their own equality-of-result ideas.
And yet we are still not quite at the root of our problem, since all of the above derives from an ungrounded citizen. Too many of us grow up without any need of physical labor, much less enduring the monotony of hard work, and so do not respect those who clean our toilets or produce our food or cut our timber—or think we should ever have to endure such an indignity ourselves. We know nothing of nature, and therefore romanticize it rather than develop a guarded respect for its fury and cruelty (I wish that smug San Franciscans really would vote to blow up Hetch Hetchy as some propose, and then learn what happens when 85 percent of their water supply vanishes, and with it much of their green energy — recycled water in Pacific Heights, lights out at 8 PM on Nob Hill?). And we do not develop the tragic view inherent in an active physical life, where all the technology in the world and good intentions and ‘right’ thoughts do not prevent a gas refinery from exploding, a grape crop from rotting a day before harvest, or a mine from collapsing without warning. Quite simply, there are no longer enough self-reliant, independent citizens left to remind the majority that our present complexity is neither assured nor our birthright. I wish we had just a few hundred thousand more small hardware owners and wheat farmers and a few less Facebook executives to question the trends and assumptions of the homogenized majority.
It’s hard to admit that in times of financial turmoil much of our sense of decline is not because there is an absence of fast food, too few flat-screen TVs, or the inability to buy sneakers, but rather because there is an inability to keep acquiring and enjoying these things at a geometric rate. We are borrowing trillions from the Chinese, 400 million of whom have never seen a Western doctor, as we create vast new entitlements like Obamacare.
The decline of the family farm and the family business explains much, as Jefferson warned us. Children of the elite not only do not feel they have to work at distasteful jobs, but have no idea how labor contributes to the viability of their own family. Something is wrong when agribusiness claims they need guest workers, but the unemployment rate among youth of all races often exceeds 20 percent. To drive through a rural central California community at 10 AM is to see hundreds of young males not at work—even as we are told there are scores of jobs that go unfilled.
I don’t think this is just an idle agrarian rant, because we see the symptoms of society’s sense of something missing almost everywhere: the fascination not just with the farmers’ markets, but with those who raise and sell produce at them; the desire of metrosexuals to outfit with pricey work clothes, heavy hiking boots, 4-wheel drive cars, snow tires, and rugged coats, as if the suburbanite is eagerly headed out to work on an oil rig, or climb on a John Deere; the growing dread that the present system cannot go on, which leads the homeowner to stock up on food and emergency staples; the explosion of gym and workout centers, not just to keep in shape, but to look as if one had the muscles of a railroad worker or lumberjack; the fear and respect for the shrinking muscular classes (as if the kitchen remodeler or Mercedes mechanic is doing something as esoteric as brain surgery and may charge too much out of spite at the more privileged clueless). The attraction to someone like Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie I think owes in part to the fact they do not look or talk like the usual blow-dryed, nasal-speaking bureaucrat. I suppose the end of the U.S. is when we all end up speaking and acting like a Jay Carney.
To sum up: Politics aside, I prefer the world of George Meany to Tim Geithner; or of Gary Cooper to Matt Damon. The former showed a little wear, the others none at all.