Thursday, October 22, 2015

Does America Need a Mission?

David Brooks thinks we have lost our way:
In the 1990s, the central political institutions radiated confidence, derived from an assumed vision of the post-Cold War world. History would be a slow march toward democratic capitalism. Nations would be bound in peaceful associations like the European Union. The United States would oversee a basic international order.

This vision was materialistic and individualistic. Nations should pursue economic growth and a decent distribution of wealth. If you give individuals access to education and opportunity, they will pursue affluence and personal happiness. They will grow more temperate and “reasonable.”

Since 2000, this vision of the post-Cold War world has received blow after blow. Some of these blows were self-inflicted. Democracy, especially in the United States, has grown dysfunctional. Mass stupidity and greed led to a financial collapse and deprived capitalism of its moral swagger.

But the deeper problem was spiritual. . . .

A group of well-educated men blew up the World Trade Center. Fanatics flock to the Middle East to behead strangers and apostates. . . .

The establishments of the West have not responded to these challenges by doubling down on their vision, by countering fanaticism with gusto. On the contrary, they’ve lost faith in their own capacities of understanding and action. Sensing a loss of confidence in the center, strong-willed people on the edges step forward to take control. . . .

I only have space to add here that the primary problem is mental and spiritual. Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.
Brooks speaks for a lot of people who want to be part of big things, who want to understand the world according to some simple paradigm, who want to feel that nations and even the whole world are acting out some grand plan with a deep moral purpose.

It all makes me very queasy. Sure, the world could use more morality and some other improvements, but all talk of missions and crusades makes the hair rise on the back of my neck. What I want in my life is, I think, none of David Brooks' business. Maybe the queasiness so many people in post 1970 America feel about movements and revolutions and what-all explains some of liberalism's recent failures; maybe if we believed more fervently and wanted more to be involved, we would do better at changing things. But we don't.

Whenever anybody talks about crusades and missions, I think about these lines from Milan Kundera, about a Czech woman living in Paris in the 1970s:
A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans condemning Soviet imperialism. She liked the slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade.

When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. "You mean you don't want to fight the occupation of your country?" She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand. Embarrassed, she changed the subject.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Brooks speaks for a lot of people who want to be part of big things, who want to understand the world according to some simple paradigm, who want to feel that nations and even the whole world are acting out some grand plan with a deep moral purpose."

A part of larger things? A simple paradigm? A grand plan and deep moral purpose?

That's precisely what the Fascists offered the discontented citizens of Europe, to great acclaim and enthusiastic support. It's what Revolutionary Communism offered to much of the world in the second half of the 20th century as well. And it's even what "Greed Is Good" Capitalism promised us.

At some point, humanity has to accept the truth. There is no grand plan, nor deep moral purpose. The world cannot be understood according to a simple paradigm. And there aren't truly any "big things" - just endless processions and complex agglomerations of countless small ones.

As Carl Sagan put it:

"We long to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident...

...The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.

If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal."