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.