America’s Cultural Bear Market

Cultures rise and fall like the stock market, only it takes longer and no one has come up with a really good index to tell you what’s happening. My guess is that American culture has been in a bear market since sometime around 1980, with the fiscal bear market only catching up to the larger reality in the last year or so.

These days you can clearly sense the cultural collapse just by watching our inability to deal with the fiscal one. To be sure, our leaders in politics, academia and the media are determined and decisive but then so are a lot of inmates in mental institutions. What’s lacking is logic, pragmatism, imagination, and common sense. Instead, they toss out trillions like confetti and call it policy.

And it’s been going on a lot longer the current crisis. For example, one of the reasons we got into this mess and can’t get out is because we’ve turned so much of life over to lawyers and MBAs. Practical business people (as opposed to marketers parading as such) seem non-existent in Washington, wise economists are ignored and the simple lessons of history aren’t even considered.

Further, our leaders seem tone deaf. There is little consciousness that to get the economy moving, people at every level have to feel it’s moving. Things have to happen and they have to be visible. Like new buildings, new businesses, new jobs.

There’s a lot of talk about FDR but Roosevelt did it differently. He didn’t use a banker or an MBA to get things rolling; he actually used a social worker, Harry Hopkins, who created more new jobs in four months than Obama promises to create (or “save”) by 2011.

The Works Progress Administration built or repaired 103 golf courses, 1,000 airports, 2,500 hospitals, 2,500 sports stadiums, 3,900 schools, 8,192 parks, 12,800 playgrounds, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, and 651,087 of highways and roads.

Nothing like that is even contemplated this time around.

Obama, however, is not the cause of the problem; he is merely another product of it. He is just the head guy in a society that has lost the ability to get things done or fixed.

I once wrote a book called The Great American Political Repair Manual. While the title was still under discussion I got a call from my editor who said a couple of her colleagues had problems with it. One thought that because of the word “repair” it might be put in the automobile section of the bookstores. The other said that “repair” sounded too much like work. I replied, “Oh yeah, I forgot. You folks in Manhattan don’t repair anything. You just call the super.”

The problem today – 12 years later – is that there is no super to call to repair America.

There are two major alternative prognoses for such a time. One is that the stock market analogy is correct and we will indeed rise from our fall. The other is that it’s actually much worse: that we are in a state of cultural dysevolution and America will never again be what it once was.

The arguments for the first prognosis include not only the history of past fiscal crises but the similarity between the time in which we live and those eras that historians call “great awakenings,” times of obsession with religion over reality that were followed by things like the American Revolution, the abolition movement, and the progressive politics of the last century.

There seems to be a yin and yang to this: our politicians fail us and so we turn to God, forgetting the part about rendering unto Caesar that which is his business. After awhile, say like right now, it becomes apparent that God isn’t going to keep your job for you or pay your cable bill. So there’s a drift back to politics.

For example, the past few American decades have been run in part on the premise that gay marriage and abortion are more important than pensions, healthcare or jobs – and that so-called family values, as defined by a bevy of self-appointed priests and pols, are more important that home values.

The fiscal crisis and other reminders of reality have already done a good job of challenging all that. The gay marriage dispute has taken a major turnabout, thanks to some judges and the Vermont legislature. The Reverends Rick Warren and Reverend Jeremiah Wright have both proved more of a liability to Barack Obama than a blessing. The percent of youth in Canada, where it’s easier to be honest about such things, claiming no faith at all has risen from 12% in 1984 to 32% today. And a new Rasmussen Poll finds that those Americans under 30 favor capitalism over socialism by only 37% to 33%.

Our president and supposed agent for change reflects none of such changes, but, as in the stock market, it’s often the small cap companies that lead the way. As noted here during the campaign, Obama could just be a reverse Carter: instead of paving the way for the rightwing revolution that almost destroyed us, he could be the transition to something much better.

That’s the cheery prognosis. On the other hand, what has happened may be permanent just as with the ancient Greeks or the Mayans. Bear in mind that humans are the only species that, with malice aforethought, ignore, disable or destroy the advantages of biological evolution. Thus we have moved from Gutenberg presses to text messages, from Bach to American Idol, and from weapons capable of killing only one at time to those that can explode the whole world. We have moved from survival of the fittest to survival of the Twitterist, and from dependence on DNA to dependence on MBAs.

There is no index, or even scientific theory, to plot the costs of such a course, but if the current crises of economics, ecology and culture are reasonable indicators, it makes biological determinism look pretty good and certainly an improvement over the advice of Tim Geithner, Tom Friedman, Glenn Beck or the Washington Post.

In fact, almost every elite institution – politics, academia, think tanks, the media – has failed us. These institutions have destroyed our national environment, constitution, integrity, reputation and communities.

To reverse what is happening, we must create strong alternative ideas and hardy alternative institutions and communities, a counter culture that rejects the myths of Washington and Wall Street just as, in the 1960s, a generation put the establishment on the defensive or in the closet.

This won’t happen easily. The establishment has become far more skillful at defending its turf – using everything from fake town meetings to greater illegal spying. But there’s another even more discouraging problem: the acceptance of helplessness by so many of those one might, in other times, have been expected to lead the rebellion against the catatonic confederacy of those in control.

A particularly painful example is the support of the Af-Pak war by those who still boast of their liberalism. This is a war – after Obama adds his most recent announced troops – that will bring us to the same status as we were with Vietnam in mid 1965 when a visible anti-war movement was already underway. Why such silence now? Are liberals on their way to extinction, too?

In any case, we need to act, but independent of those responsible for the mess, those exculpating them, those offering remedies that are mere manipulated shadows of the failure, and those engaged in misleading or misguided organizing on their behalf even if with purportedly noble intent.

There is no salvation to be found in the Democratic Party, in Obama or in more ranting about how bad Rush Limbaugh is. We need a loud and clear agenda – with things like single payer, no more imperial wars, public campaign financing and an economic policy that helps real people and not just bankers and hedge fund hustlers. We need to be at odds with both the criminally egregious and their ineffective or unintentional enablers.

The collapse of American culture was an inside job. Its cure is to be found on the outside, in a counter culture that is clear and worthy in its goals, eclectic in its alliances, and which builds community, recovers integrity and helps us to sing again. If we can’t save our culture, we can at least create a new one.

SAM SMITH is the editor of the Progressive Review, where this column originally appeared.

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Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.

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