Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 9, 2009


Sam Smith

Cultures rise and fall like the stock market, only it takes longer and no one has come up with a really good index to tell you what's happening. My guess is that American culture has been in a bear market since sometime around 1980, with the fiscal bear market only catching up to the larger reality in the last year or so.

These days you can clearly sense the cultural collapse just by watching our inability to deal with the fiscal one. To be sure, our leaders in politics, academia and the media are determined and decisive but then so are a lot of inmates in mental institutions. What's lacking is logic, pragmatism, imagination, and common sense. Instead, they toss out trillions like confetti and call it policy.

And it's been going on a lot longer the current crisis. For example, one of the reasons we got into this mess and can't get out is because we've turned so much of life over to lawyers and MBAs. Practical business people (as opposed to marketers parading as such) seem non-existent in Washington, wise economists are ignored and the simple lessons of history aren't even considered.

Further, our leaders seem tone deaf. There is little consciousness that to get the economy moving, people at every level have to feel it's moving. Things have to happen and they have to be visible. Like new buildings, new businesses, new jobs.

There's a lot of talk about FDR but Roosevelt did it differently. He didn't use a banker or an MBA to get things rolling; he actually used a social worker, Harry Hopkins, who created more new jobs in four months than Obama promises to create (or "save") by 2011.

The Works Progress Administration built or repaired 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 of highways and roads.

Nothing like that is even contemplated this time around.

Obama, however, is not the cause of the problem; he is merely another product of it. He is just the head guy in a society that has lost the ability to get things done or fixed.

I once wrote a book called The Great American Political Repair Manual. While the title was still under discussion I got a call from my editor who said a couple of her colleagues had problems with it. One thought that because of the word "repair" it might be put in the automobile section of the bookstores. The other said that "repair" sounded too much like work. I replied, "Oh yeah, I forgot. You folks in Manhattan don't repair anything. You just call the super."

The problem today - 12 years later - is that there is no super to call to repair America.

There are two major alternative prognoses for such a time. One is that the stock market analogy is correct and we will indeed rise from our fall. The other is that it's actually much worse: that we are in a state of cultural dysevolution and America will never again be what it once was.

The arguments for the first prognosis include not only the history of past fiscal crises but the similarity between the time in which we live and those eras that historians call "great awakenings," times of obsession with religion over reality that were followed by things like the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and the progressive politics of the last century.

There seems to be a yin and yang to this: our politicians fail us and so we turn to God, forgetting the part about rendering unto Caesar that which is his business. After awhile, say like right now, it becomes apparent that God isn't going to keep your job for you or pay your cable bill. So there's a drift back to politics.

For example, the past few American decades have been run in part on the premise that gay marriage and abortion are more important than pensions, healthcare or jobs - and that so-called family values, as defined by a bevy of self-appointed priests and pols, are more important that home values.

The fiscal crisis and other reminders of reality have already done a good job of challenging all that. The gay marriage dispute has taken a major turnabout, thanks to some judges and the Vermont legislature. The Reverends Rick Warren and Reverend Jeremiah Wright have both proved more of a liability to Barack Obama than a blessing. The percent of youth in Canada, where it's easier to be honest about such things, claiming no faith at all has risen from 12% in 1984 to 32% today. And a new Rasmussen Poll finds that those Americans under 30 favor capitalism over socialism by only 37% to 33%.

Our president and supposed agent for change reflects none of such changes, but, as in the stock market, it's often the small cap companies that lead the way. As noted here during the campaign, Obama could just be a reverse Carter: instead of paving the way for the rightwing revolution that almost destroyed us, he could be the transition to something much better.

That's the cheery prognosis. On the other hand, what has happened may be permanent just as with the ancient Greeks or the Mayans. Bear in mind that humans are the only species that, with malice aforethought, ignore, disable or destroy the advantages of biological evolution. Thus we have moved from Gutenberg presses to text messages, from Bach to American Idol, and from weapons capable of killing only one at time to those that can explode the whole world. We have moved from survival of the fittest to survival of the Twitterist, and from dependence on DNA to dependence on MBAs.

There is no index, or even scientific theory, to plot the costs of such a course, but if the current crises of economics, ecology and culture are reasonable indicators, it makes biological determinism look pretty good and certainly an improvement over the advice of Tim Geithner, Tom Friedman, Glenn Beck or the Washington Post.

In fact, almost every elite institution - politics, academia, think tanks, the media - has failed us. These institutions have destroyed our national environment, constitution, integrity, reputation and communities.

To reverse what is happening, we must create strong alternative ideas and hardy alternative institutions and communities, a counter culture that rejects the myths of Washington and Wall Street just as, in the 1960s, a generation put the establishment on the defensive or in the closet.

This won't happen easily. The establishment has become far more skillful at defending its turf - using everything from fake town meetings to greater illegal spying. But there's another even more discouraging problem: the acceptance of helplessness by so many of those one might, in other times, have been expected to lead the rebellion against the catatonic confederacy of those in control.

A particularly painful example is the support of the Af-Pak war by those who still boast of their liberalism. This is a war - after Obama adds his most recent announced troops - that will bring us to the same status as we were with Vietnam in mid 1965 when a visible anti-war movement was already underway. Why such silence now? Are liberals on their way to extinction, too?

In any case, we need to act, but independent of those responsible for the mess, those exculpating them, those offering remedies that are mere manipulated shadows of the failure, and those engaged in misleading or misguided organizing on their behalf even if with purportedly noble intent.

There is no salvation to be found in the Democratic Party, in Obama or in more ranting about how bad Rush Limbaugh is. We need a loud and clear agenda - with things like single payer, no more imperial wars, public campaign financing and an economic policy that helps real people and not just bankers and hedge fund hustlers. We need to be at odds with both the criminally egregious and their ineffective or unintentional enablers.

The collapse of American culture was an inside job. Its cure is to be found on the outside, in a counter culture that is clear and worthy in its goals, eclectic in its alliances, and which builds community, recovers integrity and helps us to sing again. If we can't save our culture, we can at least create a new one.


Blogger xilii said...

I don't know if American culture has collapsed so much as it has atomized. We seem to live in a period of anomie, and even if individuals take the existential step of defining their own purposes in life, they're still isolated. How can you create a counter culture when what you're countering is so vague?

Just my $0.02.

April 9, 2009 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why such silence now? Are liberals on their way to extinction, too?" The problem Sam, is not that liberals are extinct it is that they are not the solution. A wise man once said that it takes 40 years from a progressive to become a conservative if his ideas don't change. Liberals are just that. When I think of liberals, what comes to mind is snooty Manhattanites sipping wine, attending U2 concerts and loving Bono, and basically just being RICH (or rich AND ignorant) people who PRETEND to care about the world when in fact they don't. They just talk big talk (if even that much) and do nothing when it is possible that they might be affected. A new word needs to be created to describe a progressive movement that needs to sweep the world before it is too late. Before society has decayed to such a point that there is no going back. Perhaps we can call ourselves just progressives, egalitarians or anti-capitalists but liberals is a dead term. Liberals want liberal economies, they want free markets and ultimately liberals are just conservatives who pretend to care about others and ultimately that is worse because it is dishonest.

April 9, 2009 6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

Phil Ochs

April 9, 2009 7:37 PM  
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April 10, 2009 4:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rent stabilized apartments in Manhattan are still $1,000@ month compared to about $200 or so @ month in 1980. A counter culture does not have a shot at rising from the ashes with a mayor like Bloomberg who has sucked the blood out of the city.

April 12, 2009 8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Counter-culture from Manhattan? Haha, the thought is ridiculous. The closest I saw to a counter culture in Manhattan was a bunch of rich kids dressing funny. No counter-culture will arrive there. The snobbish Manhattan culture isn't conducive to progressive or egalitarian thought. Everyone there thinks they are so great and splendid because they live in Manhattan. OO la la. I really fucking hate Manhattan.

Manhattan is shit and it's people are shit. I hate living in NYC (in a neglected outlying borough). This whole city is rotten and hellish.

For an example of how evil NYC is, I'll tell you a story I experienced recently. I was taking the subway late at night in Manhattan. I was sitting in a corner trying to avoid the monsters that you often see within NYC subways. A young man entered the subway, he seemed sick and unwell. He was also crying. At some point the despondent young man vomited onto the floor of the train. At which point, the monstrous "counter-culture" youngsters started laughing and pointing. They looked like demonic hyena-human hybrids. That is what NYC is all about. Laughing at other's misery, snootiness, arrogance and ultimately boredom because everything here is conformist, boring and anti-social.

April 12, 2009 11:46 AM  
Anonymous wellbasically said...

"Trading Places" with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd was an anachronism... most bets are not on the weather report and its effect on the orange crop. The thief would be stealing the Fed's report on what to do with the currency according to the state of big banks. The price of oranges changes far more because of alterations in the value of the dollar than it does because of the weather.

The disconnect is between actions and results, between work and prosperity. The richest people in our financialized era are those who bet on the rise and fall of numbers unrelated to natural predictable phenomena.

New York is the center for this behavior as it produces less and less but benefits more and more. The postmodern movement in the arts blossomed when the financial disconnect reached the cultural centers, and artists stopped making claims for any quality at all in their work. You are much better off presenting yourself as an opportunity to be bought low and sold high before your own personal bubble pops.

You are an anachronism therefore if you work hard and expect to be rewarded in some relation to your achievement. A writer I respect claimed that this was due to the break between the value of our money and the physical standard in the early 70s. That break occurred because wise men thought they knew better how we should act economically. That's hardly new however and hardly limited to economics, and hardly limited to conservatives.

April 12, 2009 10:52 PM  

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