American Anomie?

To an extent that I have only come to appreciate with the passage of years, I was born in the shadow of World War II. As a boy in the 1960s, that war seemed like ancient history to me; my father had fought in it, but refused to speak about his wartime experiences, so all I had for perspective about that actually recent history were patriotic war movies of the sort that haven’t been made since that time. In those movies, our guys wore the white hats and they always triumphed, albeit generally at a poignantly felt cost. 

To my father and others of his generation, no doubt war memories, many of them horrid, were all too fresh – the thirteen years between the war’s end and my birth must have seemed like the blink of an eye to them – shorter than the time between 9/11, which I remember with searing clarity, and today.

The sixties were also a time of great cultural ferment – civil rights, assassinations, fears of nuclear Armageddon and the beginnings of serious protests against the Vietnam war. As the decade progressed, I became increasingly aware of those changes, but none of them dimmed my sense that ours was the greatest country that the world had ever seen, and that we would work through our problems and shortcomings and establish a better, brighter world for ourselves and our children, just as our parents had done. Any other perspective was unthinkable in light of the experiences of our elders, who had sacrificed a great deal to protect the American way of life in the face of the existential challenges of the twentieth century’s tyrannies. 

My own parents had mirrored our country’s story in microcosm. They had both been born poor by today’s standards; they had been the first in their families to go to college and they had – with a bravery that seems astonishing today – brought seven children into this world, secure in the confidence (which later proved justified) that they could provide all of us with better opportunities than they had ever had. In short, it looked to me as if the world was inexorably getting better, and that America led the way.

To many if not most people I know, the future no longer looks so bright, and our nation’s sense of specialness seems largely a thing of the past. 

In a very real sense, the idea of American cultural anomie is absurd. The fact is that the whole world – and especially America – is immensely wealthier today than it was fifty years ago (and if you don’t believe that, go read Factfulness by Hans Rosling). America has led the way in technological innovations and great progress has been made in dealing with most of the social, political and geo-strategic issues that were rising to the surface in my boyhood. 

So why aren’t Americans feeling both more contented and ebullient about the next generation’s prospects? Why do so many of us feel, with Tony Soprano, that our generation came in at the end of a good thing?

As I have pondered those questions, I have come up with some possible explanations that seem plausible, if individually incomplete – a catalogue of woes, if you will. Among them are the following:

1) America’s global military and economic pre-eminence is fading fast, 

2) We are bitterly divided along political, social and geographic lines,

3) We are on a fiscal path that is – correctly – widely understood to be unsustainable, making future social disruptions likely,

4) Our population is rapidly aging – which will exacerbate our fiscal problems – and we are not producing enough children to sustain the existing population without immigration,

5) Public schools are widely perceived to be worse and colleges vastly more expensive than they were 50 years ago, making individual advancement – or even replicating what my generation did – much more difficult for succeeding generations,

6) Instead of celebrating the history of our country, popular culture is focused on our nation’s actual and alleged failings, 

7) Individual character, achievement and self-reliance, once hallmarks of American culture, increasingly take a back seat to collective victimhood status in the competition for advantage,

8) Even the Bill of Rights is under sustained assault as “progressives” seek to limit the “unalienable” individual rights, originally perceived as God-given, that defined us as a nation,

9) Many people have abandoned the very idea that progress can or should be measured in terms of human well-being or personal liberties. If you believe that Climate Change is going to irreversibly destroy the world in a dozen years or so (as the UN has been proclaiming for decades), babies, individual liberties and economic progress might well look like bad things, and finally,

10) As appreciation for our nation’s unique, unifying ethos (“We hold these truths, …”) is replaced by competition among groups – often based on involuntary and immutable characteristics – the sense of a universal American identity fades; we are left with narrower, darker paths.

With the important exception of the first of these issues – which was inevitable given America’s unique and unsustainable advantages resulting from the Second World War – these partial explanations all flow from decisions that have arisen out of value judgments made in the context of a rapidly changing culture. 

And I believe, though I certainly can’t prove it, that the wholesale abandonment by our culture’s leaders of the Judeo-Christian perspectives on man’s rights, and his obligations to other men and to God, that provided the foundation for our country and the civilization it arose out of, is the backdrop to the decisions that are depriving our culture of its defining purpose. 

The good news is that it’s not too late. If our parents’ generation could beat the Nazis and stare down the Russkies, we can at least refocus ourselves on the values without which there would be no America, and won’t be one if we let them go entirely. 

Happy Easter.

M.H. Johnston    

5 comments to American Anomie?

  • Ken  says:

    You could lead a Passover Seder with this one too Dr J. Happy Easter.

  • Doug  says:

    Nice piece. Happy Easter Mark!

  • AJT  says:

    Excellent summary. I’m of your age cohort, and it all rings true. Whether we can turn it around, and how–well, that’s a topic for another post. Happy Easter.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    I hope and pray that it is not too late.

    Thank you, and Happy Easter, Mark.

  • Eric  says:

    Also a child of a veteran in the 1950’s. Thanks for your summary and hopeful note.

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