Disparate Threads?

Some friends of mine are in the process of moving out of their home.  Their grown children don’t want their antiques – too much trouble.

My own tastes run to readily comprehensible things that reflect the artistry of others, but generally require a bit of tending. Sterling silver, mechanical clocks and mahogany furniture; pianos, bicycles and representational paintings. Bookcases full of printed books that I have read or hope to read.

When these things were in style, so were my views on individual liberties, personal responsibility and purpose.

***

Who will need to own a car when plentiful, self-driving Uber-style vehicles always await our electronic signals? Who will need a hotel room when Airbnb evolves to the point at which appropriate rooms are available on command to people at all socioeconomic levels, systematically vetted for their use – and vice versa? Why own property at all when you can safely rent with perfect efficiency? Just as, for many people, books are no longer tangible things (or, for that matter, book-length reading “a thing”), so too, as significant assets become seamlessly shareable, we will need or want to invest our personal capital in fewer of them.

The Internet is making the world vastly more efficient by commoditizing almost everything.

***

When, in 1990, I left my first full-time job after ten years for another opportunity, my father expressed his disappointment about my decision. In his day, a good job was a kind of implicit social compact – you were loyal to your employer and, to the extent possible, the corporation was loyal to you. Those attitudes – which were already fading at the time of  my decision – are now more-or-less officially being interred by the gig economy, in which an increasingly large percentage of us work as independent contractors. Few young people today – the ones who have jobs, that is – either give or expect much in the way of loyalty to/from their employers. Time is sold in ever-shorter increments.

Further, for most people, work is becoming ever-more specialized; one price of increasing economic efficiency is that the narrowest skill sets – the ones that are the products of a laser-like focus, if you will – are more likely to bring success than broader, more balanced characteristics. Another is that prospective employees are more efficiently identified by formalized credentials than demonstrated character, so it’s harder for the uncredentialed to get on the ladder, let alone climb it.

***

While the world becomes more efficient, most of us understand less and less about how the things around us actually work.  Food comes from a grocery store. Houses are warm, dry, air-conditioned and – of course – plumbed. We travel under the power of internal combustion or jet engines; we communicate over and are entertained by devices – to which we tether ourselves – that might as well be magic to 99.999% of humanity, myself included. We expect – and often demand – that miraculous cures, to say nothing of feel-good medicines, will be provided to us by “the system”, meaning somebody else. We speak of rights that are not to personal freedoms but to things produced by others.

Today’s aesthetic is defined by an illusory simplicity, enabled by electronics that vanishingly few of us understand. And we wonder why more and more of us have mental health issues. The anxiety of incomprehension can engender a sense of helplessness and rage.

***

Although my tastes in decor are distinctly anachronistic, I do not pine for yesteryear. For most people, material circumstances and lifespans have improved enormously in recent decades. The near-instantaneous sharing of information through the Internet has enabled amazing economic advances while sowing destruction in the previously more readily-comprehensible patterns of life and work. We cannot – and would not willingly – give up the advances, so we must come to grips with our changed circumstances.

***

Many commentators have pointed out – correctly, in my view – that America’s middle class is shrinking. In the past, poor people like my grandparents came to this country with the expectation that if they worked hard and saved, their children would be better off than they were, and their grandchildren better off still. There was no limit to what they thought their offspring could achieve. And those immigrants were mostly right – successive generations did get richer, and there was lots of social mobility, upward and downward. America was widely seen as the land of opportunity.

Our is now a land of great wealth, but less the land of opportunity than it used to be. I don’t think most middle class Americans now expect their children and grandchildren to rise in proportion to their efforts. Suddenly, the game is less comprehensible; indeed, to many it seems rigged. Hence the anger that president Trump’s campaign tapped into – and of the “antifa” and Black Lives Matter leftists who want to burn it all down in the name of class or color solidarity.

For all its wealth, our society will come apart if we are unable to once again coalesce around a vision in which individual efforts and good character are widely understood to be generally rewarded – naturally, as it were, rather than by government edict. Above all, we must see ourselves as one people, united not by class, race or religion in necessary competition with other classes, races and religions, but by a vision of personal freedom, mutual respect and the rule of law. E pluribus unum, to coin a phrase.

We are not a collection of tribes that happen to cohabit in a particular geographical space; we are a nation held together – or not – by common values. In this time of technological change and dislocation, the risk that we will lose sight of those values is severe – which is why, in my view, it is particularly important that we rebuild an understanding of the Enlightenment-inspired thinking about our individual rights and responsibilities that midwifed the creation of this great country.

***

The things we have or to which we aspire often have symbolic as well as functional value. Some call to mind a direct relationship between efforts and results; others create the illusion of a magical disconnectedness. The distinction between the two goes a long way toward explaining my unfashionable tastes: I think that if we are to create a better future we need to remember and understand the achievements of the past.

 

M.H. Johnston

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