Friday, January 21, 2011

Cheer, Whining, and Realism

It’s difficult to tell jokes expansively in an air raid shelter when bombs are falling. Brigitte and I are old enough and came from far enough away actually to have experienced the mood in such places directly. Indeed we’ve also lived in Germany, both of us briefly, at the very end of Word War II and saw the consequences of super-inflation with our own eyes—the second round, not that of the 1920s. In my own case it was a kind of Kodak moment. Mother had dispatched me to the bakery (no, I’m not actually kidding) with half of a cigarette; the baker immediately put it into his mouth and lit it. Then he gave me three freshly backed rolls—and we, the children, ate them for breakfast that morning. On the way to the bakery, which was just half a block away, I saw a cardboard box filled with Reichsmarks. The wind was lifting them out of the box and blowing them down the street.

Mind you, no particular virtue attaches to having lived through interesting times, but it does leave a mark. It makes you grow up faster and reinforces a certain stance to life. In that environment I actually knew of families that sent their children out to collect cigarette ends the Americans left behind after Patton’s Army arrived. Not my parents. But humanity is extraordinarily adaptive—and also quick to sweep such things under the rug and to forget them the moment pressures ease up. In times like those cultivated public behaviors like “positive attitude,” “stiff-upper lip,” “cautious optimism,” “grabbing the gusto,” etc. were most noticeably absent. These had been replaced by a kind of straight-forward realism. In people who had acquired and actually internalized cultural values, these values still restrained and shaped behavior; but those who had not acted without shame or restraint.

I mention these experiences because quite visible cracks have now appeared in our society and continue to spread. This heralds difficult times—and in times like that it’s also time to become realistic. The actual trigger for this post is a story in the New York Times suggesting that movements are now afoot to enable state governments to declare bankruptcy, if not literally then at least functionally. The result of such a move would be to deprive retired state workers of their pensions and of state bond holders of the value of their bonds. The Times puts it delicately thus: “Still, discussions about something as far-reaching as bankruptcy could give governors and others more leverage in bargaining with unionized public workers.” Precisely this sort of thing, if widespread enough and combined with other shocks, like massive unemployment or run-away in- or deflation, produce draconian changes in government, like the Nazi regime in Germany.

Fifty years of economic and technological expansion, an ideology of progress, feeble-minded notions that reality is being radically transformed, have left enough of a residue so that the prevailing notion is that this too shall pass and—furthermore—without extraordinary or unusual change or sacrifice. The problem-solution pairing has taken too much of a hold. This suggests that any situation whatsoever is capable of resolution by changing the mechanics through legislation or opinion-molding. By feeble-minded notions above I have in mind ridiculous ideas blabbed by gurus and entrepreneurs in the late 1990s that needing to make profits was no longer a real requirement; daughter Monique used to collect news clippings like that because, in the future, she thought, nobody would believe that this sort of thing had actually been said. Another Internet myth—“The New Price is ‘Free’”—belongs in that category as well—as does the notion that a nation can fight wars without constraining consumption and raising taxes.

It really is important to heed George Santayana’s quip to the effect that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He said that, I’m told, in Vol. 1 of The Life of Reason. Most people alive today are too young to have the memories of a past still alive in our memories. Hence it is actually a positive act to dig them out for a bit of display.

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