Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Anatomy of Climates

I’ve commented once before on climates of opinion here, a subject now under intense examination. An article in the New York Times this morning, for example, wonders “Is the Anger Gone?”—and harks back to the sudden collapse of McCarthyism. The day-old Tunisian upheaval tells me indirectly what kind of climate of opinion must have been seething there. A few days ago I had occasion to review my memories of a visit to East Germany—and the feel of that place came back: so very different from the aggressive progressivism that then ruled the west.

It’s natural to represent such climates as in some ways mysterious. An unsentimental dissection of the thing suggests that climates of opinion simply sum up what most people observe and/or experience and the manner in which observations and experiences either are (or in the case of Tunisia were not) accurately reflected in the public media. The sheer cumulation of events, small and large, and the sheer repetition of the same words everywhere, in the media and then echoed back from the media at the water cooler, produce a climate, a kind of consensus describing not only how things are “in general” but also the trend that “things” are following.

I find it easy to explain the collapse of McCarthyism. In the early 1950s America was on the verge of the most potent economic expansion in its history, about to explode in a veritable storm of physical inventiveness that would culminate in the electronic age of the 1990s. Communism was not a viscerally felt threat on Main Street. The trauma of World War II was receding, not increasing. McCarthy’s crusade was, well McCarthy’s—supported by relatively small interest groups whose reach into the general public was not extensive. The times were relatively good, hence the poison of projected hate did not reach many. The public was immune.

The current climate, let’s call it the Climate of Confrontation, has much more to do with deep, pervasive economic phenomena (to steal a Marxist explanation) than anything else. The great success of that half-century—from McCarthyism to the bust—could not be perpetually maintained, not when the god of that era, Technology, was undermining jobs, globalism was shifting occupations overseas, and excess wealth sought innovative ways of taking the risk out of monstrous gambles—with hedge funds and the like. The terrorist attack in 2001 was, for the governing elite, a god-send, you might say. It introduced a wonderful distraction to a very major looming problem—namely the need to create a new economy for the U.S. population not dependent on constant, aggressive growth that, in its achievement, simply erodes the jobs of those who are supposed to maintain it. We’ve embraced the war on terror as a new mission—now that the god of Progress was trampling out the vintage of its living worshippers. The period since 9/11 has been a vast, monstrous over-reaction, and in fighting multiple wars and quasi-wars (Yemen, etc.), we’ve failed to transform the economy to support those conflicts but, instead, have been urged to continue valiantly consuming.

This sort of incoherence was absolutely bound to produce the climate of confrontation—because these moves are contradictory. World War II at least restored employment. The War on Terror is still eroding it. The world war had a clearly visible vector. The War on Terror appears to have no end. After losing eight million jobs in 2008 and 2009, we’ve managed to recover one million in 2010. Civility—however desirable and laudable—is not a solution to the very major problem of incoherence in our culture. And we will not solve it by media “confrontations” in which, no matter what the issue, two spokespeople must be faced off to argue the matter as heatedly as possible to maintain the ratings of Personalities.

The anger will disappear, I propose, when we start getting word of people in our extended circles getting jobs and rescuing their threatened mortgages—when fire departments start to hire rather than lay off—when taxes start rising—when our infrastructure starts being fixed, and something is done to mute down the obscene violence in our television shows and the computer games our children play.


  1. This is very right, I think; stable climates of opinion in a large population are produced by things that cause steady pressures all everywhere -- and economic pressures are nothing if not everywhere. Civility is like fixing things with band-aids and mother's kisses -- of course, there are plenty of times where it is good to have those, but as a remedy it only goes so far.

  2. Most interesting...
    I must think about this some more, a lot more...