I’ve been in a funk recently — one that is apparently shared by Peggy Noonan, who recently wrote an poignant essay entitled A Separate Peace. She sees a loss of confidence that Americans have in ‘the whole ball of wax’ — their own society:
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 believe there’s a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.
Ms. Noonan’s essay is wistful, as though she is sensing the passing of a long era. Her finger is on the pulse of our society’s elite. She accounts for their resigned attitude in the fourth year since 9/11:
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.
…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.
Among the elite, Ms. Noonan relays an anecdote about Senator Ted Kennedy, as told by Christopher Lawford, Senator Kennedy’s nephew, in his book ‘Symptoms of Withdrawal':
…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.’ “
And there we have the Old Order, nursing their drinks and watching the sunset. “Who knows about the coming sunrise,” they lament, looking confused. And so it is confusing — none of us see the sunrise to come. We only see the sunset. We remember the warmth of the long day. We knit together pleasant memories and the certainty of past convictions, admiring the clarity we once had.
I think both ‘sides’ within the West — left and right, European and American — really are after the same thing: to preserve what they have. That’s fine — but it’s hard to buy into the whole multiculturalist scheme as anything other than a ploy to pacify the restless masses, caught in today’s cultural crossroads, intersecting in more and more places. It’s just not idealistic in the least. And similarly, the exportation of democracy into the heart of the Islamic world is ultimately a bid to save ourselves, by taming the Beast in the sands abroad. I’ve worried that President Bush isn’t really the liberal in conservative’s clothing I hoped he might be. Perhaps he knows more than we do about an intractable Arab mindset — but I detect that his heart isn’t really into nation building and spreading democracy to the dark side. That was my vote in the last election. For a while since the election, I accepted President Bush’s reticence. But lately, Project Democracy seems dispirited, and thin. It seems to be under siege from all sides.
Ms. Noonan concentrates on American institutions and our waning faith in them. But disenchantment is broader than America. She spoke about the presidency — not just the president — as possibly being unable to live up to the complex demands that focus upon that office. That perhaps the institution of the presidency itself cannot hold the rudder. I worry as much, and more broadly so: perhaps all the institutions that humanity has hammered-out over history — the ones still officially running things — are teetering on irrelevance and decline in the face of historical forces. Perhaps disenchantment is a global phenomenon, fueled by many things that are unique to this emerging era.
Many global institutions face similar disarray as American ones, heaving through great change. The United Nations is not above profiteering and corruption; indeed, the UN might be the the textbook case proving that multicultural institutions are the most susceptible to corruption. The European Union makes its bid for ruling Europe as a statist socialist empire with a constitution that reads like a retirement plan — and Europeans are distancing themselves from it. And what ever happened to NATO? Sure, it’s still there, but for what, exactly? Do you thank your lucky stars every night that NATO will be there to pull your derriÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¨re out of the sling if things get thick? I didn’t think so.
The Chinese Communist Party faces rising discontent; charges of corruption, graft and incompetence are a growing chorus across that huge, restless nation. The Catholic Church is humbled by an exposed history of child abuse which has dented its moral authority; the new Pope is reacting, trying to clean his house of gay priests, as if that were the same thing as child molesters. Islam, which has historical periods of tolerance, is caving into the fire breathed by its radicals, in a sign of its own internal disarray. Everywhere, once great cultures and nations are intimidated by their own coarse colonial histories, seeking penance, obsessed with recompense — made timid when they need to be bold in the face of great challenges.
And of course, there’s America’s own self-doubt and confusion. Perhaps there is no such thing as homeland security, as Ms. Noonan wonders. Perhaps we’re overextended. Perhaps the majority of us don’t really believe that the Arab world can rise above it’s hatreds. Perhaps America has too many commitments abroad and too many commitments to special interests. Too many promises to keep, and not enough money to keep them. Perhaps in our cold civil war we’re outspending ourselves like we outspent the Soviets.
People perceive that the world is a caldron of misery, lapping at their front doors. Immigrants are everywhere. Many sacrificed to get this far — only to do our laundry, build our houses, mow our lawns, walk our dogs and nurture our children. Our society would stop cold without their labor. And no doubt some of them are mad. They want theirs too. All we do is push paper around and drive SUVs, as far as they’re concerned. They’re not Ms. Noonan’s elites, but they write history too.
Smugness abounds. I read no end of blogs whose authors exude the certainty of their political convictions. Perhaps it’s called for. And yet, leadership is lacking, and tentative. Out of all the bold posturing, the righteous declarations, so few qualify or want to wear the general’s stars.
The whole ‘2,000 Dead Americans Milestone’ thing is a case and point. Out of all the positioning by Kos and LGF, and a host of similar places, I never really developed a sense of remorse for these 2,000 dead Americans — from anyone. To me, their spat only illustrated the possibility that our soldiers’ sacrifices might be in vain. Niether side persuades me that they’re anything close to empathetic for the families of these dead soldiers. I only see score cards, and points to be made. Sad.
Ms. Noonan identifies our fidgeting elite — having stockpiled their bullion, now sequestering themselves in fortresses whose ramparts must thwart the historical tides to come. She says they’re resigned, many seeing no real future that they can affect. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps the old guard really is starting to sense they’re out of the game. But perhaps, as well, she’s fixated on the old guard, while a new guard incubates in places like the Blogosphere.
As we literally go to war to nation-build — attempting to undo tribal cultures and endow Iraq and Afghanistan with their first constitutional governments — our best and brightest at home (and abroad, for that matter) are laying the groundwork for new generations of social network tools that build what amounts to, well, tribes. I can tell you that the blogger Cicero has much to do with this activity, working on innovative, high-level interfaces for highly advanced social networks. While I work away on GUIs that lower barriers between people who want to socialize, I’ve been thinkning a lot about how technology defies the idea of borders. Barriers are lowered, whether we like it or not.
Lowering barriers can be a very good thing. Social networking is beginning to rewrite how youth culture defines itself, which has less to do with race than for older generations. Today’s youth group themselves according to lifestyles, music, movies and pastimes. They call themselves Blaxican, Mexipino or Chino-latino. Our government and elite still obsess over racial identities, while technology and interracial marriage are helping erase those distinctions. How could that be a bad thing?
But while old borders are lowered, I wonder if new ones are raised. I wonder if all this social technology will just tribalize our society into a myriad of globalized subcultures. It simply might be unavoidable. In so doing, people might come to de-emphasize the validity and necessity of nationhood. It’s too early to say, and there’s not a thing that can be done to stop it. But I think sovereignty is on the wane in the long run — and what’s happening on the Web today is the seed. Just a hunch.
What Ms. Noonan is not seeing or understanding is that, yes, her base is shrinking before her eyes, but it will be supplanted by something else. It’s going to be a difficult process, I think. I myself might be hard at work developing the tools and spaces for social networking, but I can’t tell you how broad the social implications will be five, ten, or twenty years out. But I think societal transformation will be profound, and not what anyone expects.
With respect to the Peggy Noonans of this world, who I share a lot of solidarity with, I can only relay an image I have in my head. It’s of a King and his son, the Prince. They go for a walk outside their castle on the hill, overlooking the vast plains of the kingdom. The sun is setting, and geese are honking overhead, flying south for the winter. It’s the end of a long, resplendent day. The King puts his arms over his son’s shoulders, sighs, and tells him: “Son — someday, none of this will be yours.”
I think that’s where Ms. Noonan’s at. She’s from a generation that saw great things in itself, and in its nation. What comes next is beyond comprehension. We’re in flux — change only seems to bring about more change, over and over again. Older people want to hang on to what they have, perhaps more so than keep up with the times. I empathize — I know that none of us on the cutting edge should be so smug as to think we’re past getting cut by it ourselves. Compounding innovation exacts a heavy toll, and can leave many people behind. None of us can say what the outcome will be.
Ms. Noonan is wittnessing and lamenting the passage of an era — one that needs to pass by. It’s hard, because we are a part of that era. Looking to a waning era’s elite for consolation is understandable, but it will not ease the bewilderment. New worlds are being built, while old ones fall. Somehow, we have to be brave, put away the photo albums, and engage this flux.