Monday, May 14, 2007

"I Got Mine, You Get Yours"

Is the Trolley Coming Off The Tracks?

Peggy Noonan

I was filling up my Honda Element the other day, which only has about a 16-gallon tank, and I noticed that it was costing about $10 more than it was just a couple of weeks ago. Last year, before the elections, we were looking at $3.00 per gallon and everyone was in an uproar over Exxon's record profits, and everyone wanted investigations about price gouging, etc.... but then the prices dropped somewhat in advance of the elections, and the furor died down. Now they're up again. We've apparently been inoculated against $3.00 per gallon, and some people say we'll be looking at $4.00 sometime this Summer. I'm hearing that in some parts of California they are already seeing $3.79 per gallon of premium.

Life is full of surprises. One never knows what to expect, at least at my level of wisdom. I thought I knew what to expect before I got married, but as it turned out, a lot of the things that I thought were going to be easy turned out to be quite challenging, and a lot of things I thought were going to be difficult actually turned out to be quite easy and natural. It has been somewhat similar raising children. In terms of raising kids to be respectful, helpful, and responsible, in terms of being sexually modest and restrained in their speech, style of dress, the kinds of movies they watch, and the music they listen to, in terms of being aware of the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol, and drug abuse, etc.. it has actually been quite easy. Easier than many commentators would expect you to believe. What we have found more challenging, however, has been to instill a sense in them that puts the affects of money and affluence in their proper perspective. We live in a highly-sought-after metrowest suburb of Boston. My father-in-law has a cottage on Nantucket. Although I'd describe our lives as solidly middle-class, our kids have constantly been surrounded and bombarded by the trappings and status of wealth. Our kids laugh it off cynically if not a little bit hollowly at those who need "bling", yet the affects can be insidious on all of us. I think there are good reasons why Jesus spoke much more about the pitfalls of wealth than he did about sexuality. It wouldn't be so difficult except for the fact that many of their friends can have absolutely anything they want. Money is no obstacle, and self-control and self-denial are seldom seen in the repertoire of behaviors modelled by their peers. I'm not talking about bad kids in any way, just kids who have been sheltered and kept far away from certain realities about the world.

Last Saturday morning, I was driving one of my sons to his baseball game at a school in a particular tony section of town. I was a little bit awestruck to be confronted by the occasional sight of 3,000 square foot houses that were being levelled in order to put up 4,000 and 4,500 square foot houses, and it seemed that every 50 yards or so was a landscaping truck parked at the side of the road next to a hard-working crew of Central Americans who were either chasing large lawnmowers around or shovelling hundreds of yards of bark mulch under the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. It couldn't help but occur to me that when the Iraq War started, oil was at around $22.00 per barrel, now it is up over $60.00. We hear much these days about global warming, the eventual tapping out of oil reserves, tensions around oil that lead to war, and a huge crisis of illegal immigration. Patriotic young men, largely the product of red state, Toby Keith America, are fighting, sweating and bleeding in Iraq... and I'm looking around this neighborhood and I'm thinking, what is going on? I mean, really, what the hell is going on?

Nothing but petulant envy on my part? Maybe you could say so. It doesn't mean a lot to me, having stuff, but having lived faithfully by the ethos and dicates of my Church, I do wonder sometimes not only how I can ever pay for my children’s college educations, but also how to house all of them without them having to be piled on top of each other all the time. It all seems so out of reach when put together. You could say that perhaps I need to do more working and acquiring rather than blogging. OK, fair enough. I can't help but thinking, however, that something is seriously broken in this society and how we relate to one another, and that we are headed for a hard reckoning. In his latest book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (highly recommended), John Dominic Crossan makes reference to an October 27, 2005 editorial by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan called A Separate Peace. America is in trouble--and our elites are merely resigned. A bulk of it makes reference to the task of the presidency being too big for anyone to handle anymore, but it also tackles the topic of whether or not those on the top of the heap have resigned themselves to a country and world that can't be fixed, and have gated their minds as well as their communities. Some excerpts:

It is not so hard and can be a pleasure to tell people what you see. It's harder to speak of what you think you see, what you think is going on and can't prove or defend with data or numbers. That can get tricky. It involves hunches. But here goes.

I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it's a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with "right track" and "wrong track" but missing the number of people who think the answer to "How are things going in America?" is "Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination."

I'm not talking about "Plamegate." As I write no indictments have come up. I'm not talking about "Miers." I mean . . . the whole ball of wax. Everything. Cloning, nuts with nukes, epidemics; the growing knowledge that there's no such thing as homeland security; the fact that we're leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay. A sense of unreality in our courts so deep that they think they can seize grandma's house to build a strip mall; our media institutions imploding--the spectacle of a great American newspaper, the New York Times, hurtling off its own tracks, as did CBS. The fear of parents that their children will wind up disturbed, and their souls actually imperiled, by the popular culture in which we are raising them. Senators who seem owned by someone, actually owned, by an interest group or a financial entity. Great churches that have lost all sense of mission, and all authority. Do you have confidence in the CIA? The FBI? I didn't think so.

But this recounting doesn't quite get me to what I mean. I mean I believe there's a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming...

A few weeks ago I was chatting with friends about the sheer number of things parents now buy for teenage girls--bags and earrings and shoes. When I was young we didn't wear earrings, but if we had, everyone would have had a pair or two. I know a 12-year-old with dozens of pairs. They're thrown all over her desk and bureau. She's not rich, and they're inexpensive, but her parents buy her more when she wants them. Someone said, "It's affluence," and someone else nodded, but I said, "Yeah, but it's also the fear parents have that we're at the end of something, and they want their kids to have good memories. They're buying them good memories, in this case the joy a kid feels right down to her stomach when the earrings are taken out of the case."

This, as you can imagine, stopped the flow of conversation for a moment. Then it resumed, as delightful and free flowing as ever. Human beings are resilient. Or at least my friends are, and have to be...

Do people fear the wheels are coming off the trolley? Is this fear widespread? A few weeks ago I was reading Christopher Lawford's lovely, candid and affectionate remembrance of growing up in a particular time and place with a particular family, the Kennedys, circa roughly 1950-2000. It's called "Symptoms of Withdrawal." At the end he quotes his Uncle Teddy. Christopher, Ted Kennedy and a few family members had gathered one night and were having a drink in Mr. Lawford's mother's apartment in Manhattan. Teddy was expansive. If he hadn't gone into politics he would have been an opera singer, he told them, and visited small Italian villages and had pasta every day for lunch. "Singing at la Scala in front of three thousand people throwing flowers at you. Then going out for dinner and having more pasta." Everyone was laughing. Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy "took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age.' I asked him why, and he said, 'Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.' "

Mr. Lawford continued, "The statement hung there, suspended in the realm of 'maybe we shouldn't go there.' Nobody wanted to touch it. After a few moments of heavy silence, my uncle moved on."

Lawford thought his uncle might be referring to their family--that it might "fall apart." But reading, one gets the strong impression Teddy Kennedy was not talking about his family but about . . . the whole ball of wax, the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.

And--forgive me--I thought: If even Teddy knows . . .

I think those who haven't noticed we're living in a troubling time continue to operate each day with classic and constitutional American optimism intact. I think some of those who have a sense we're in trouble are going through the motions, dealing with their own daily challenges.

Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

You're a lobbyist or a senator or a cabinet chief, you're an editor at a paper or a green-room schmoozer, you're a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief, and you're making your life a little fortress. That's what I think a lot of the elites are up to.

Not all of course. There are a lot of people--I know them and so do you--trying to do work that helps, that will turn it around, that can make it better, that can save lives. They're trying to keep the boat afloat. Or, I should say, get the trolley back on the tracks.

That's what I think is going on with our elites. There are two groups. One has made a separate peace, and one is trying to keep the boat afloat. I suspect those in the latter group privately, in a place so private they don't even express it to themselves, wonder if they'll go down with the ship. Or into bad territory with the trolley.

16 comments:

crystal said...

My sister told me she heard on the news that the three most over-priced places to live were San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento (I'm in Sacramento). New houses are being built near me for sale at almost a million dollars each. It's insane.

Jeff said...

Crystal,

My understanding is that the Frisco area has the highest home prices in the country.

Just a side note... I've never been much of an Al Gore fan, but I did see An Inconvenient Truth recently, and did find it compelling. Houses built up to 4,000 square feet and more might be one of the first things we need to look at.

Steve said...

My neighbor just listed his house for $989,000 - and there are scores being built around the area at that same price, or close to it. That's a lot of money; yet just down the road there are folks living in beat up old trailer homes.

A couple nights ago I watched one part of a series on PBS called 'Status Anxiety'. It was hosted by Alain de Botton, who wrote a book of the same name. www.alaindebotton.com/status.asp if you care to read more about it. The kernel of his point, I think, is that personal freedom & democracy encourage this sort of competition to have more than the other guy - more status, bigger house, more bling, etc; and that your worth is measured by your worldly success. It's a side-effect of an egalitarian society. So perhaps the elites you speak of are driven to inaction by that nagging anxiety?

We're worried too much about our own station in life and not enough in the general welfare of society and those who are 'the least' in society. There's too much self-analysis, too much focus on taking care of number 1 at the expense of others & other things. And, I think that it's driven by the turning away from 'traditional values' (ugh, can't believe I said that but I have no other good term for it) and towards self-gratification, self-interest, self-promotion, self-spirituality and so on. The worship of 'self' - I could go on... but better stop before I get too wound up ;)

Mike McG... said...

Thanks, Steve. Great stuff! Here is what particularly caught my eye:

"A sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough."

Not to belabor or to pile on re: an issue (too?) much in the news, but this is why the whole saga of the Edwards' 28,000 square foot home is so very tragic. Here is the only presidential contender *really* willing to address the momentous issue of poverty in America...and yet he obviously doesn't 'get' the "relative deprivation" component of American poverty or he wouldn't be flaunting his wealth.

There was a phrase in Into Great Silence that really got to me: "What do we have that we were not given?" We aren't 'entitled' to stuff; it should be there for the sharing.

Peace, Mike McG...

Jeff said...

Hi Guys,

Thanks for the remarks.

Steve, Botton's series was excellent! I posted about it and quoted him on it at some length back here.

Well, this is the vexing age-old problem mankind has faced, isn't it? How to have egalitariansim and equality without freeloaders? I heard an interesting program on NPR the other day about the privatization of some Kibbutzim that were on the verge of going under.

We can either decide as a society (or as humankind) to cooperate or to compete. If we choose competition as the basis, there will be excellence and creativity as well as great inequality, upheaval, and deprivation. If we cooperate (in the socialist sense) there will be more equality, more levelling, but also more sloth, mediocrity, and stifling of creativity. How to find the right mix?

Liam said...

Hi Jeff,
I haven't really had time to comment, but I enjoyed this and the last post very much.

cowboyangel said...

Another great post Jeff. So much to comment on.

You know, I grew up in a household where the Apocalypse was ever-present. It's taken most of my adult life to get out from under that heavy, heavy cloud. Each day is a struggle for me to be positive. But I'm trying.

Is the trolley coming off the tracks? Well, I know two good antidotes when one is feeling that way. One is to live in New York City. There's absolutely no good reason why New York hasn't crumbled into the harbor. You get the feeling that at any moment someone's going to see a loose brick somewhere, pull it out, and the whole city's just going to collapse. The infrastructure - outside of the nice parts of Manhattan - is horrible. People seem ready to blow at any moment. The speed and stress are amazing. Walking through Penn Station at rush hour, I feel like a gazillion molecules are bouncing off of each other. It seems like everything is spinning faster and faster and getting ready to disintegrate. ["She's breaking up, she's breaking up!"] Yet, somehow, the city keeps on going. There was a two-week pause after 9/11, but even that didn't last long. In other words, even when you think it's all going to fall apart, it can keep on going for a long time out of some mysterious momentum.

Second, reading history makes me realize what a bunch of wimps we are. So many people in so many places at so many periods in human history have gone through (and are going through) things that are infinitely worse that what we experience in the U.S. But the world kept turning. Think about the Civil War in our own country. The amount of devastation, death and destruction was incredible. But here we are. Our problems are nothing compared to so much of history. Imagine trying to live in Baghdad right now. The trolley may be coming off the tracks there. But here?

On the other hand, I do believe you reap what you sow. We've done certain things to get where we are as a country. Getting and keeping power is always closer to the Godfather than it is to being Christlike. There are repercussions. As St. John of Liverpool said: "Instant Karma's gonna get you."

I also think we've underestimated the spiritual consequences of the war we've unleashed on Iraq. It's not surprising that we're feeling uneasy. War is not something to take lightly. It's become background noise in many ways, but there's a tremendous amount of spiritual stress involved.

And, if you ask me, the current administration exudes a sense of failure, incompetence and corruption. No matter how they and the Right spin it. When the head is rotten . . .

But I don't think it means everything is going to hell in a handbasket.

Let's just say that adjustments are going to have to be made. We probably won't like all of them.

Liam said...

One thing about the dichotomy between competition and egaltarianism: I think they can exist side by side, it's just a question of what the rules are for the competition. A safety net does not equal socialism, and right now our society is unfairly tilted towards the financially powerful -- the ultra-wealthy as a class and the most powerful of corporations.

I agree with many of the points Peggy Noonan made, but I find it ironic that she's making them. As one of the principal architects of the rhetoric of the "Reagan revolution," she's one of the people responsible for two damaging ideas that have led in some ways to the dissolution of the cohesiveness of our society. One is "the market is always right," and the other is "government is the problem, not the solution." While a respect for the market and a concern about bureaucracy can be good things, Americans in general have become convinced that the extreme position stated in those two phrases is teh basic truth, and they believe in it religiously.

The result is that our apparent "market economy" is biased towards the powerful who do not always create real wealth for the society. That's why despite rising profits and CEO salaries, real wages for most Americans have not kept up with inflation. Worship of what we believe is "the market" has wrecked havoc with our health care system, and if we don't fix that, it will tank our economy.

People seem not to remember that periods of amazing growth in the last century accompanied massive government projects and high taxes on the wealthy. The New Deal, WWII, and the GI bill created a society that had much more of a level playing field (in some ways -- at least for white people) than we have now, and it did not stiffle creativity. Quite the opposite. It also created real wealth for the majority of the population.

I don't want to imply that our society or policies were perfect at that time, but in some ways we have gone downhill.

If the trolley manages to run over a couple of sacred cows, it might not come off the tracks.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

Rome

Paula said...

Off topic: Jeff, I tagged you with a three books meme. If you have time, of course.:-)

Jeff said...

William,

Very true in what you point out in your observations about New York, and I suppose that is a "large scale microcosm", if you will, of the resilience of the human spirit and of humankind. Funny, when you start getting to be my age, that you see well-absorbed lessons forgotten that have to be relearned all over again(such as Viet Nam and Iraq), and that you see the cyclical nature of things, right down to the children of your friends staring to look and act like your friends all over again.

I think you're right, we do have this knack for rejuvenation and survival, but I think it is also true that for the first time, we really have the demographic and technical means to destroy the environment if not the whole planet and life on earth if we don't find a new way to start doing things. We no longer have the luxury of falling into the same kinds of mistakes that we made before and rebuilding.

Instant Karma! :-) Just heard that song the other day. Listened to the lyrics a little closer than I used to.

Jeff said...

Liam,

I couldn't agree more with your observations. I think you have your finger on it pretty well, and I felt the same way in putting together that FDR thread.

Checks and balances are always a good thing. I'm a big believer in them. Power can be abused just as easily from the left or the right. It just seems to me right now that EVERYTHING is weighted too heavily in the interests of business and corporations, which should not have the same "rights" as individuals. I'm no socialist, but I do believe in a safety net and in collective bargaining. The labor movement in this country, and throughout the world, needs a desperate shot in the arm.

I read an interesting quote the other day, something about Republicans wanting to go back to the mores of the 1950s, and of the Democrats wanting to work there.

Jeff said...

Hi Paula.

Wow! Whittle it down to 3 books? That's a tall order... I'm going to have to think very hard about this one. :-)

Jeff said...

Winnipeg B,

Rome

Ominous parallels, do you think?

Deacon Denny said...

Jeff --

Excellent post! I also enjoyed the comments, most of which were really well written.

I share the feelings. Joan and I lived a life of voluntary poverty for a while, having the first three of four children and living in the Seattle Catholic Worker house for five years. I never really thought that we could wind up owning our own home, but we have, somehow. But now? Our youngest graduates from college this year... and I don't see how any of these four will be able to buy a home.

That's just one symptom. The national debt seems to be completely out of control. Most young people I talk with say that they don't believe that Social Security will be around when they retire. In Seattle the traffic and road infrastructure is getting so bad that there are large proposals for spending huge sums of money for roads, viaducts, and bridges ... and yet, in 25 years, will there be very many private automobiles on the roads?

I would like to see what happens in the next 50 years, because it will be so different, and probably surprisingly different. But a good part of me isn't so sure I'd like to see it.

Jeff said...

HI Denny,

Fascinating post. I'd like to read someday about how you raised children while working at a Catholic Worker house. Did I read that right?

Young people sure are up against it when they try to get started these days. Student loans to pay off and the high cost of housing. Kids who live in the interior head for the coasts because of the lack of opportunities at home, but the coasts are so expensive too. I'm not sure what the answer is.