The other night at dinner a Democrat (who’s also a lawyer) started talking about growing up in a small town then stopped in mid-sentence and said, You know, that world no longer exists; then, a few mornings later in the News and Observer columnist Froma Harrop wrote about the TV program Mad Men’s aura of nostalgia:
“Children in ‘Mad Men’ are neatly dressed and taught etiquette. Girls don’t wear nail polish, bare their navels or display cleavage in high school. The division between child and adult is still a valued concept. Eighth-graders don’t have sex lives, and parents think that being mature is a good thing. The family dinner hour survives every marital breakup…this is a show for grownups fascinated by a mannerly America not yet turned to chaos by the social upheavals to come.”
My Democratic lawyer friend is past 50 with no empathy at all for ‘Tea Partiers’ attending Glenn Beck rallies, but Froma Harrop may have put her finger on the one thing he and Tea Partiers have in common: They’re both looking at the past, then looking at the world around them and asking, What happened?
And these days if you’re past fifty it does seem like what is happening is social chaos – your assets have vanished, greed has ravaged Wall Street, the politicians have run amuck, your marriage has turned out to be a bigoted institution since gays can’t marry and if you oppose building the mosque in Manhattan you’re bigoted again.
Years ago when I was in high school at the beginning of one school year the history teacher walked into the class room the first day and announced our wisemen and scholars had discovered a better way to study world history: We were going, he explained, to divide into six ethno-centric cultural groups and instead of judging, say, the Hindus as we always had (through the biased eyes of WASPs) we were going to recognize other cultures and religions as just as noble and true as our own.
At the time it seemed like a grand, enlightened idea to be freed of our prejudices so no one stopped to ask what demons we might set loose when we declared the words spoken by the prophets were simply reflections of their own peculiar set of ‘relative values’ or that the apostles creed was simply a ‘situation ethic’ which was morally no better and no worse than others.
Exactly where the roots of the modern ideology of ‘diversity’ begin has been lost to history but they surely run back through that high school class. And at first blush ‘diversity’ sounded like a wonderful idea. It was all but impossible to argue against. And, today, arguing against it will provoke a firestorm of scorn. But, that said, over the last nearly 40 years ‘diversity’ has surely turned out to be one of the great levelers of history. It’s flattened long accepted ideas, ancient creeds, whole cultures and a good part of Western Civilization. It glorifies no value so much as a ‘tolerance’ – which means almost anything anyone wants to do is morally justified as long as they don’t stoop to blowing us up or flying airplanes into buildings.
And over time diversity opened the door to a second great leveler: Globalism. And what it leveled was the American middle class. A second generation of wise men – Harvard professors and Wall Street ‘Masters of the Universe’ sold us the gospel of free trade by promising working Americans it was a sure-fired way for them to obtain unheard of prosperity, and the temptation was just too much to resist. But, today, it looks like the fruits of globalism may leave most Americans paupers.
We thought free trade meant the needy masses of Africa and Asia were going to do the grunge work of sweating in factories making textiles and furniture while we were all going to be working in nice air conditioned offices in happier high-tech jobs. Instead, globalism put the American middle class in direct competition with a billion Chinese workers who are delighted to do just about anything an American would do and do it for a dollar an hour.
The multi-national corporations moved jobs to Mexico or China and made a killing but middle class income stagnated and now a good part of it is out of work – so people have taken to the streets demanding the politicians come up with a cure for their pain which brings us to a third great leveler: Demographics.
In those small towns middle class Americans like my Democratic-lawyer friend grew up in years ago most people shared the same religion (even if, perhaps, they didn’t practice it but so faithfully) and elected officials were boringly white and male with the odd exception of a woman now and then.
But look at our legislatures fifty years later. They’re a true measure of the demographic changes in the American electorate. Now it is easier for a woman to get elected than a man. There are districts designed to elect African-Americans. In Congress we have a Black Caucus, Asian Caucus, Blue Dog Caucus, Gay (and Transgender) Caucus, two Hispanic Caucuses and a Tea Party Caucus. There was a program on C-Span the other night sponsored by the Caucus of Muslim Congressional staffers. Today politics is diverse. And balkanized into clusters of white men, soccer moms, unmarried young women, senior citizens, African-Americans, Hispanics, Protestant fundamentalists, Christian non-fundamentalists and people with no real religion at all. Today the mayor of New York has half a million Muslim constituents.
And each group has its own political agenda which usually has to do with money – as a result politics has become the art of groups allying with other groups to get 51% of the vote so they can elect leaders who will take money from other people to give to them.
Politics has become the ‘great grab’ and the system works with near perfection: Today roughly half the population is paying taxes and the other isn’t. And more people are receiving checks from the government (for everything from Social Security to medical care to food) than anyone ever imagined 50 years ago.
So where does this leave us?
What do we do culturally when our faith is so watered down we no longer believe there’s enough truth in the Ten Commandments to post them on courtroom walls? What do we do economically if globalism is a bust? And our politics has degenerated into the art of the great grab?
The levelers have grown powerful but the question my Democratic friend asked wasn’t asked in despair – it was asked in dissent. And in politics, What happened? is a profound question. People will argue and pray and debate over it until they find an answer. Then they will ask a simpler question, What do we do? Next there’s one moment of pure ambiguity, like before a sea change, then the political tides begin to flow and no one can tell where they lead but they’re too powerful to ignore.
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