NOTE: this blog is pretty untidy and rambling, and for that I apologize. I need to publish some writing this weekend, so I will put this one up now and hope to get back to it someday soon to shape it up! Skip past whatever seems redundant, tangential, or misguided! And thank you for reading, as always…
I was reading No Country for Old Men, the Cormac McCarthy novel that was very successfully adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen in their movie from a decade ago. McCarthy writes (in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell):
Here last week they found this couple out in California they would rent out rooms to old people and kill them and bury them in the yard and cash their social security checks. They’d torture ‘em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broke. Now here’s what the papers had to say about that. I quote from the papers. Said: Neighbors were alerted when a man run from the premises wearin’ only a dog collar. You can’t make a thing up as that. I dare you to even try.
McCarthy has this to say at the end of the book:
I think I know where we’re headed. We’re bein’ bought with our own money. And it ain’t just the drugs. There is fortunes bein’ accumulated out there that they don’t nobody even know about. What do we think is goin’ to come of all that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has. Can it buy this one? I don’t think so. But it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It’s not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was. There’s always been narcotics. But people don’t just up and decide to dope theirselves for no reason. By the millions. I don’t have no answer about that. In particular I don’t have no answer to take heart from.
That is pretty interesting stuff. I think the book was okay; the movie was bordering on great. Certainly this reviewer liked it a lot and clarifies a few things worth the time. A snippet is: “We’re given the choice: to dream of an unattainable, just world, or wake up and see the terrifying randomness of reality.” That dark and untidy aspect of the book/movie is interesting, but what I want to focus on is the idea of what is wrong with America—and when it began, and who is responsible.
Cormac McCarthy’s character Sheriff Bell is a man who is feeling too old—too “from a bygone era”—to continue in law enforcement after being faced with the gratuitous violence perpetrated by uber-sociopath Anton Chigurh. He worries about what is wrong with America. McCarthy has Bell say the following, for example:
I told a reporter a while back, young girl seemed nice enough. She was just tryin’ to be a reporter. She said, Sheriff how come you let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway, I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin’ Sir and Ma’am the end is pretty much in sight. I told her: It reaches into every strata. You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin’ around out in the desert dead in their vehicles. And by then it’s just too late.
Many an older, male, law-enforcement-type, conservative, Southern, Christian person in this country is quick to lament how society is changing—for the worse. Whether it has always been so—the elderly feeling society is “off-track” and elegizing aspects of the past they miss—or a product of modern society with its progressive extremism and money values and globalization and lack of Christianity is a question.
Folks who would wish to turn back the clock (and their female counterparts who are of the same ilk) tend to bristle when they think of “kids today” or how things are going in society. They poo-pooh plenty of societal goings-on, tending to sound cranky while doing it. These people feel too slow to keep up, too smart to tolerate all the b.s. in society nowadays. They worry and criticize and check out.
Here is a very funny take on old codgers played to marvelous effect by SNL’s maestro, Dana Carvey—for what it’s worth!
It’s not just a right-of-center phenomenon, since I too think that more progressively-minded people can lament ways in which society has changed (though, ostensibly, these individuals are relatively much more focused on the ways in which society is being prevented from changing, and seeing the lamentable and the regressive in that). Progressives are also responsible for, as Bill Maher would point out, being very glum, myopic, and cynical about the history of—and the present state of affairs in—the United States. They stake out hills on which they are willing to die, yet the hills seem to be really pretty questionable (pronouns, for example). Pronouns and matters that matter to a very small percentage of the U.S. population are fine and all—maybe socially justice-oriented—but not everyone gets to have a cross to bear about which they try to dominate the conversation on social media and in the commons. Progressives have high principles, but often get derailed. Now, they would claim that it is conservatives and the pollical system and this very country that drove them to the brink, but I think we all need to take some responsibility for spurning victimhood and eschewing atomized goals and concerns in favor of the whole country.
But when you hear someone claim, “What is wrong with society? I just don’t get it. It didn’t used to be like this. We need to get back to the good old days!”, they are probably reminiscing and reflecting longingly about recalled societal characteristics of the quasi-mythical 1950s—before blacks started causing so much trouble, or women got so many abortions, or kids started changing their genders (or whatever the ceaselessly aggrieved crowd claims). I use the phrase quasi-mythical 1950s because let’s face it, it had some good and some bad about it, but when conservatives look back on it, I tend to think they sugar-coat and, no pun intended, mentally whitewash it.
I could possibly be accused of letting progressives slide, but let me just be really clear about how far afield from what I consider proper norms and traditions and propriety I consider Trump and his (probably) 50,000,000 devotees. I probably sound like I’m repeating myself—harping on the “cult of Donald Trump.” But clearly, with fifty million followers, and with designs on probably trying to overturn or subvert future elections (and issues like voting rights, and respect for the other, and so on), we are in a “RED ALERT” situation. Thus, can I really be accused of belaboring this point?!
To put a fine point on it: Trump has been an absolute farce when it comes to patriotism and the protection of tradition. Like a broken clock, he’s right twice a day, but by and large he gets everything wrong because it is filtered so as to exclude goodness, justice, truth, and wisdom. He only cares about money, prestige, and power. Cormac McCarthy’s sheriff Bell couldn’t hardly come up with a more anti-American individual than Trump.
Just to name 1% of his egregious breaches of propriety, ethics, and normalcy, I would remind the reader he literally said of the military brass, “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?“ Really.
And he called then-Air Force pilot John McCain a “loser”, soldiers in World War I “losers”, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff “losers”. You can’t make this shit up!
He attempted a coup, and most Republicans still claim they believe that he was cheated out of the presidency in 2020—an astonishing lack of judgment and rationality, yes—but also a willingness to usher in a brave new world of selfishness, inanity, authoritarianism and vengeance. These mostly white, Christian, authoritarian-in-personality, aggrieved individuals are stuck in victimhood and anger—and only some of it is in any way justified (as examples: legitimate concerns about economic issues such as the death of the steel towns in prior decades, or the wholesale corruption of virtually all politicians).
That bimbo Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, elected by fools and cultish followers of ideology in Colorado, actually said, “ I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.” I’m not kidding.
That disgrace of a woman is emblematic of a horribly reactionary group of politicians on the Right. Not unlike the far-right insurgents from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid‘s Tale, or Orwell’s 1984, these shysters would remake the entire character, norms, and laws of America (given the chance). Those in power certainly have tried.
Before I share how I might be willing to agree with the guy whittling on his rocking chair, the grandma doing her knitting while watching her stories, or the Sheriff Bell’s of the world, let me note that there is a certain irony in all this. That is: if cultural conservatives would have spent far less energy holding up the Bible and calling that the ideal guide to society, and spent less money on regressive political candidates like Reagan, Orville Faubus, and Joe McCarthy, and resisted progressive legislation in the areas of equality before the law, progressive public education, and criminal justice reform then we wouldn’t be where we are today! That is, they either intentionally (though hate and closed-mindedness and hypocrisy) resisted societal progress, or they unintentionally (through benign neglect, ignorance, and self-concern) allowed “the powers that be” to orchestrate an anti-progressive agenda (have you heard of the Koch brothers?). And yes, I do think a type of Democrat exemplified by Bill Clinton (called the Blue Dog Democrats, or those who were part of the Democratic Leadership Council (link) played a role in holding the line against progress. They sold out unions, jeopardized the stability of the earth’s climate, and generally cozied up to corporate interests.
I imagine that 80% of the folks who moved to The Villages in Florida—known to be a hot spot of Trumpism and other forms of lunacy—think that many aspects of society that ideally should be vigorous and functional and timeless are anything but. And whereas I can find plenty of disagreement with those quintessentially cantankerous conservative codgers, I want to strike a slightly different tone and express some commiseration.
So I believe it is fair to try as hard as possible to make common cause with these cultural conservatives about some of the ways in which individuals in society are wayward, misguided, lost, and confused. I don’t agree with book banning, abortion outlawing, gerrymandering, extracting every last drop of oil and cubic meter of natural gas, overturning the United States government, worshipping a cultish, mentally ill demagogue—you get my picture. However, clearly we have let some genies out of the bottle, and opened a Pandora’s Box—to mix metaphors. But there are areas about which cultural conservatives and I can agree.
Okay, so if times are a-changin’, how do I agree with cultural conservatives? In other words, in what ways would I agree that society is off-track, wrongheaded, or has simply run amok? Let me quote George Packer for a little context:
In or around 1978, America’s character changed. For almost half a century, the United States had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of the Roosevelt Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.
Packer adds (in his article titled “Decline and fall: how American society unraveled“), “Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did.”
I, too, feel that American institutions have really let the people down. A scholar I admire, Gar Alperovitz, wrote, “Without institutional connections, individuals swim in a lonely political sea, ready to be preyed upon by the likes of Trump. They also are a critical form of underlying political power–which is why conservatives from Ronald Reagan to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker have worked to undermine them.”
Yes, I would hasten to point out that cultural conservatives have been working against the nature and the characters of American institutions for a long while—what amounts to anti-progressivism, yes, but also iconoclasm. I’m thinking of “starving the beast” (link), undermining bulwark institutions like the Department of Education (link), moral majority type of hypocrisy (link), and of course since Trump, folks on the Right have been trying to replace America with a more violent, hate-oriented, Christian- and white-nationalistic government that is not that different from Margaret Atwood’s haunting dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (link). This link validates how pernicious a man Rush Limbaugh was—and what a weasel, hypocrite, and rabble-rouser he was at heart. And in one of the all-time most glaring acts of hypocrisy of the Right, the man who wrote a book called The Moral Compass (William Bennett) turned out to, arguably, be a moral degenerate (link). The stories of bullshittery and chicanery on the Right range from Oliver North to Ronald Reagan to Dennis Hastert to Ginni Thomas to Alex Jones to Mark Meadows to various sexual scandals by those in power, but none are more pernicious than those which attempt to feather the nests of those with power and forsake those in need. This is where the dark-souled Koch brothers really shined. Notoriously, the Congress and the Reagan Administration oversaw the categorization of pickle relish as a vegetable in kids’ school lunches (link). The hard-core fringe of cultural conservatives can be a beastly bunch—which is all the more galling since 98% of them are ostensibly Christians!
As cultural commentator David Callahan put it, “For all their invocations of God, it seem that the right’s moral missionaries had only read every other page of the Bible—ignoring the incessant warnings in both testaments about the evils of becoming obsessed with riches and growing callous toward the less fortunate.”
The Right had better get its act together, for the chickens coming home to roost in the 2015-2022 era—exemplified beautifully by the callous, immoral, white supremacist, fascist farce Donald Trump—could spell its end. Whether it is replaced with a more Lincolnian, Teddy Rooseveltian version of conservatism or a more dystopian, morally bankrupt one than what we’ve been experiencing in the last decade is anyone’s guess… (link).
Ok, sheesh, my keyboard is smoking. Clearly, the moral hypocrisy, self-dealing, myopia, and rank partisanship that characterizes the political Right sticks in my craw. I grew up watching Newt Gingrich screw with American institutions and stymie progress, I knew about the Southern Strategy since I was a college student (link), saw the Willie Horton television ads, and I’m fairly sure that Mitch McConnell has signed a deal with the devil! So I don’t give these anti-patriotic n’er-do-wells any quarter. I don’t think they deserve it. Trump is not altogether different from his predecessors, just a more noxious and obnoxious (and vocal!) version… He is channeling all the hate, the vitriol, the grievance—and it’s tearing at an already-fraying social fabric. It pisses me right off.
So, back to the stuff about which I agree generally with not the lunatic fringe, the dark-hearted denizens of hate, but normal folks who watch Fox and sports and wonder why they live in a trailer. And no, I’m not talking about folks who sit around watching Fox and golf and are angry that they have to pay taxes for all those public schools—they need to have “A Christmas Carol experience“ and reform their ways (in my opinion). These well-heeled, country club types know darned well what’s up; I’m talking about folks who have lost a job, who never went to college, who have experienced major hits to their meager paycheck due to inflation, who watched jobs go overseas for 40 years, and who generally/legitimately worry about making ends meet. The ones who don’t have enough money and other resources to be okay if the storms keep coming… These are Tea Party/MAGA types and though they are now one small step from Q-Anon and insurrection, they are not completely wrong or responsible for their own degradation and decline. Yes they are being used by Republicans in high positions (e.g., the Southern Strategy, Trump, etc.) but they were also sold down the river by corporate-friendly Democrats decades ago… (oh and here is the nature of the phrase sold down the river, and guess what—like much in American history it’s dark and racial in nature). Perhaps I will change the idiom to sold a bill of goods….
I get much of where conservatives are coming from. They feel as though they are being left behind by progress and material prosperity; they worry that things aren’t fair and that the future is in jeopardy. They see the mass shootings and consider it to be evidence of a society totally out of kilter (not about guns, incidentally). They see college as relatively unaffordable and they hear that colleges are taught by Berkeley-educated hippie types and attended by elitist liberals and effete politically correct students in man buns and Birkenstocks. I too am not a big fan of affirmative action, and am not into the whole pronoun thing. I think it is preposterous that when some sly opportunist like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopolous, or some alt-Right jerkoff like Stephen Miller or Alex Jones, wishes to speak on a college campus that they many politically correct students feel it is an outrage. Heck, these folks are not at all experienced in the ways of the world but are sure that comedians who say this or that ought to be banned and cancelled and ostracized.
To all this I say, Conservatives, I get it, you’re scared; you feel looked down upon; you worry about where society is going. There really are huge divisions in society, and none is bigger than the urban-rural chasm. Frankly, liberal-conservative is now more of an incendiary dichotomy than black-white, or Christian-atheist or Christian-Muslim (well, I’m sure about the first one but not so sure about the latter two!). In fact, as one can see from the popularity of Mehmet Oz or Herschel Walker as Senate candidates, conservatives are willing to accept all comers—as long as they are willing to do battle with the hated liberals. This is largely a lack of critical thinking, but also years and years of lies and deceit on the part of folks like Rush Limbaugh.
Liberals tend to worry about mass incarceration/innocent people being railroaded by a corrupt judicial/law enforcement system, and racism, and Trump-style fascism than conservatives. They wish for a more robust and fair nationally-administered system of education (not less), and they are very concerned about environmental devastation compared to conservatives (whom they see as relatively ignorant/unconcerned/part of the problem). I see these things for sure.
But just in general, I fear that morally, America has always been somewhat off-kilter, but it has gotten worse. I tend to think that objectively there are these values and virtues which are good and useful and worthy—and yes, they came from the long history of Western Civilization. I don’t think that progress is finished, in that Jefferson and Franklin were exemplars of 18th-century Americanism and yet were very flawed individuals. And yet, Washington was flawed, Voltaire was flawed, Newton was flawed, and Tom Paine was imperfect, too. Hell, Einstein was flawed, and so was Gandhi. Obama and George Eliot and Winston Churchill were not above reproach.
The eminent scholar Harold Bloom wrote, “We are destroying all esthetic standards in the name of social justice” and I think he is 75% correct. Another Bloom (ALLAN) wrote that, “Fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise … specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine.” And here is an incredibly important point made by Allen B.:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.
All this is to say that I’m not defending the spirit of progress, science, globalization and open-mindedness that marks Western Civilization, but I am saying that there are certain values and virtues that just are not being respected like they ought to. The better way to describe these things than “Western values” or “quintessential American values” would be humanistic values, humane values, and the values of the wise. They are lofty, laudable, prosocial, reliable ways of being in the world. The stuff of which equal justice under the law, conservation of natural resources and earth-centered ways of life, and harmony between different peoples are made. I’m referring to things such as respect, honor, virtue, tolerance, wisdom, truth, character, self-sacrifice, love, caring, empathy, righteousness, hard work, and ingenuity. These are really American virtues at their best.
You’re not going to see these virtues from Rudy Giuliani, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Sarah Palin, Louie Gohmert, or Lauren Boebert. Mass shooters with their 2nd Amendment rights, and racists with their sense of superiority and exclusivity will not exemplify these values and virtues, and those who agitate about their “rights” being taken away by the government due to COVID restrictions, school board misguidedness, or gun restriction advocates tend to be like the rooster who crows and crows but only says one thing.
So, again, I fear that morally, America has always been somewhat off-kilter, but it has gotten worse. We’re just not moving on climate change like we need to; some of us are trying to overthrow the lawful election of Joe Biden even now; some folks are sure they are entitled by natural law or the Bill of Rights to have as many—and whatever type—of firearms they can dream of. But I can understand and commiserate that kids today are lost in technology and political correctness; politicians are basically bought and sold by corporations and the very wealthy; drugs like marijuana, alcohol, and opioids are disturbingly rampant in society now; a general tolerance of insincerity/cheating/immorality seems to be a plague on society more so than in times past; poverty is a massive problem and good blue collar jobs have been harder to find in the last 50-75 years.
George Packer was onto a very important aspect in the moral/social degradation of America. He writes:
It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.
David Callahan was once a scholar with the think tank and social progress engine, Demos. He wrote in his wonderful book, The Cheating Culture:
“Changing the social and cultural fabric of our society will be no easy thing. A focus on personal freedom and material well-being is deeply engrained in our national culture. There is nothing wrong with these traits—except when they grow too powerful, rationalizing our worst impulses and dividing people from each other.” (link)
He also posited as long ago as 2003 that, “While America never has been the fabled classless society of myth, it’s managed a close approximation of this myth at different moments. We’re not in such bright moments right now. Instead, we’re starting to feel like a corrupt banana republic—one of those places where a rapacious oligarchy sets the moral tone by ripping off the entire country and those below follow suit with corruption of every conceivable kind.”
Callahan’s main message is that, in his words, “I see three changes as especially connected to the rise in cheating: individualism has morphed into a harder-edged selfishness; money has become more important to people; and harsher norms of competition have spread while compassion for the weaker or less capable has waned.”
One bit of good news in this regard is that conservatives do get, I think, the fact that the way money influences politics in America causes great corruption to be legal, and structural, and systemic. If voters could agree on something with an 85%+ degree of concordance, it would be getting politics cleaned up and corruption/cheating/political immorality greatly reduced.
I believe that cheating and other allied types of immoral behavior bother the heck out of conservatives, and they rightfully irritate progressives, too. In this sense, it is well to view the situation Americans find ourselves in from a top-down perspective, not a left-right one. That is, if American institutions are being undermined and subverted by anyone, it would be the political class, the media establishment, the for-profit/private/elite universities, right-wing talk radio and cable and Internet propaganda, and the moneyed interests that keep all this afloat. I don’t think conservatives realize how corrosive and destructive wealth inequality is in this country—it is far worse for the deteriorating soul of America than are abortions, gun restrictions, or gender/sexual issues.
A few other folks who share my appreciation for this concept, in my opinion, are Jared Bernstein, Howard Zinn, Ezra Klein, Noam Chomsky, Charles Blow, Frank Bruni, Robert Reich, Gar Alperovitz, Paul Wellstone, Tomas Piketty, and Bernie Sanders. I apologize if my names are too male, too white, or too “early 2000s” for you. Regardless, I find The Economic Policy Institute and the Roosevelt Institute to be inspiring, as well.
My wife said this wonderful thing, which I quickly wrote down! “I wish people who are so scared of the government taking away their guns were just as interested in education and critical thinking.” Amen to that.
I will leave you with a quote by each of the individuals I just referenced, and invite you to search for your own quotes using the free Wisdom Archive, right here on Values of the Wise:
“No, we will not balance the budget on the backs of working families, the elderly, the sick, the children, and the poor, who have already sacrificed enough in terms of lost jobs, lost wages, lost homes, and lost pensions. Yes, we will demand that millionaires and billionaires and the largest corporations in America contribute to deficit reduction as a matter of shared sacrifice. Yes, we will reduce unnecessary and wasteful spending at the Pentagon. And, no we will not be blackmailed once again by the Republican leadership in Washington, who are threatening to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States government for the first time in our nation’s history unless they get everything they want.” (Sanders)
“Eighty percent of Americans literally believe in religious miracles. Half the population thinks the world was created a couple thousand years ago and that fossils were put here to mislead people or something—half the population. You just don’t find things like that in other industrialized societies.” (Chomsky)
“What is important is how closely we look today at what is done to human beings, what criteria we use for “progress.” We are accustomed to measuring the state of the nation by the numbers on the stock market rather than by how many children die of malnutrition.” (Zinn)
“This complex and contradictory relation to inequality largely persists in the United States to this day: on the one hand this is a country of egalitarian promise, a land of opportunity for millions of immigrants of modest background; on the other it is a land of extremely brutal inequality, especially in relation to race, whose effects are still quite visible. (Southern blacks were deprived of civil rights until the 1960s and subjected to a regime of legal segregation that shared some features in common with the system of apartheid that was maintained in South Africa until the 1980s).” (Piketty)
“There is an aspiration that binds us. It is the dream of justice for a beloved community. It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to develop his or her full potential.” (Wellstone)
“Trump has found—or has always had—a winning populism perfectly suited for this moment in our history, when the anxious, scared, hateful and callous desire an unapologetic voice that has the backing of actual power. Trump’s magical mixture is to make being afraid feel like fun. His rallies are a hybrid of concert revelry and combat prep.” (Blow)
“The essential challenge is political rather than economic. It is impossible to reform an economic system whose basic rules are under the control of an economic elite without altering the allocation of political power that lies behind the control.” (Reich)
“From Ferguson to Flint, it’s clear from thousands of broken communities across the country that the current American system is troubled and challenged at its very core. The wind of history is no longer at our backs. Confident narratives of progress and equality are giving way to the triage demands of austerity, muddling through from one crisis to the next, with each “recovery” lowering the expectations of the next generation while the wealth at the top continues to concentrate.” (Alperovitz)
“Extreme individualism dominates the way we talk about the most important aspects of our economic lives, those that reside in the intersection of our living standards, our government, and the future opportunities for ourselves and our children. The message, sometimes implicit but often explicit, is, You’re on your own. Its acronym, YOYO, provides a useful shorthand to summarize this destructive approach to governing.” (Bernstein)
“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition, that can force us to change our minds. We will justify almost anything or anyone so long as it helps our side, and the result is a politics devoid of guardrails, standards, persuasion, or accountability.” (Klein)
“I’m profoundly concerned beyond that about all the ways in which we ignore what’s obvious or deny what has been clearly demonstrated because it’s inconvenient or because it challenges our tribalism or because some alternative belief better fits our existing worldview and we prefer to cling to that. This happens with climate change, with education, with immigration. This has always happened, but I do get the sense that it’s happening more and more. We have the tools, within us, to safeguard our health and improve our country and world. That’s our great blessing. We have equally powerful habits that work against them. That’s our curse.” (Bruni)
BONUS QUOTE by social critic William Deresiewicz: “Families are scared, and for good reason. Social mobility has stalled. The global playing field is getting ever more competitive. The middle class is hanging on by its fingernails, and the upper middle class seems harder than ever to reach. The future, since 2008, has looked more daunting, especially for young people, than at any other time in memory.”