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Nov 08, 2005


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will spotts

I'm going to say something that may seem completely out of character . . . I mean, I thoroughly agree with all of the negative observations about our culture, and I could add quite a few to the list. But this only tells half the story.

For every negative observation about the lack of American character, I can give counter examples of good trends, positive developments, interesting cultural developments. Even what is derided as low culture has moments of brilliance.

I'm not saying that the overwhelming narcissism, therapy, and consumer junk is not prevalent. Just that focussing solely and unsympathetically on that creates a jaundiced view of people.

I will concede that we are lazy . . . but I'm not sure that's historically abnormal. People, particularly people acting in groups, have always been lazy.

So why the tangent? I have always reacted badly to elitism -- when I display it or when I encounter it. Notice the observer speaks of generic "Americans" by which Lasch (and to an large degree Rosen) mean people unlike themselves. Ironic, given that Lasch tended also to rail against elitism.

(This is similar to why I object to the clergy / laity distinction. In spite of the estimations of many "opinion leaders", I see great things happening among the so-called laity. True we tend to focus locally; true we don't always grasp the "big picture"; true many of our efforts are not the most efficient. We are not organized, not used to dealing with the apparati of power, and, in our current structures, oppressed by what can only be described as an elite.)


Will, I believe the type of narcissism and anxiety that the quoted author refers to is perhaps most pronounced among the American elite (upper and especially upper middle class). The children of upper middle class families often experience tremendous pressure to succeed (especially from their parents), and yet that pressure cannot help but seem arbitrary and decontextualized. What I think perhaps best characterizes American life today is its overwhelming joylessness. I don't think of Americans as lazy. Rather (and this is a confession) we are work- and shop- and entertainment-aholics, making money and seeking out "pleasures" more out of anxiety and a weird sense of duty than out of joy and love. There are no doubt many fortunate souls out there who have escaped this tedium, but I for one have not always had the strength to avoid it.

In some ways the mobile academic and business elite is the best candidate for anxiety and unhappiness, since they lack the richly contextualized familial and communal relationships that are one of the most important sources of human fulfillment.

Michael Kruse

But Will, if everyone were as smart and caring as the elitists, just think what a "better" place the world would be? **grin**

I know what you mean. I am also aware that in writing about very complex social issues there is "a rock and a hard place" at work. On one the one hand you run the danger of over simplfying in order to make a point about a particular dynamic. On the other hand you run the danger of being so qualified in your presentation that your point dies a death of a thousand qualifications.

I try to cut those writing in these areas some slack. But then again, I am such a smart and caring person. **grin**

I agree about your observations that any analysis is a mixed bag. I think one the strengths our society is our level of freedom combined with diverse cutlures. It provides the opportunity for improvised solutions to emerge. While we can always find downward trends we can always find people improvising against those trends.

will spotts

Matt -- I agree that your observations about joylessness are accurate. I just don't know that there is a characteristic (entirely negative) condition of "Americans" or even of the demographic sub-groups mentioned.

Lazy was meant solely in the opinion forming and intellectual sense. (Most marketing techniques would not work if that were not the case.) Lazy was a bad choice of words.

Mike -- I really like the last 2 lines in your comment. It's not that I'm an optimist *God forbid* . . . I mean, I'm mostly a Calvinist . . .. But I have been very surprised at the ingenuity of people in situations I'd have thought had forgone conclusions.

Michael Kruse

Good stuff, Matt. Thanks.

Your words ring true about the pressures placed on children of the middle and upper middle class. The anecdotal evidence I hear from teachers, students, and parents at the wealthiest high schools in the Kansas City area is disturbing. I know of one parent who transferred their daughter (straight A student) out of these schools because she was actually beginning to develop physical ailments from the stress she experienced. Sadly I think many parents view their children as extensions of their own egos. It is about conspicuous achievement and one way to demonstrate that is by showing what a model child I have.

I think there is a deep hunger for purpose among the affluent. Living without purpose is unbearable so we fill our time with distraction to avoid facing it (work, family, achievement, wealth, etc.) But as Bono sings in Walk On, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.”

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