July 9, 2021 (from www.rationaloptimist.wordpress.com)
Attending Albany’s July 4 fireworks is always thrilling. This year’s was especially celebratory, with the pandemic (mostly) behind us, as well as (for now) that other unspeakable vileness. Though my exultation was tempered by remembering 600,000 dead.
Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill reflected on this celebration of America — and where we are at. Some on the left see the country as irredeemably unjust and rotten. And the other side, while wrapping itself in a flag of patriotism, is in revolt against modern America’s actuality — likewise rotten in their eyes. “[S]o rotten that a presidential election could be stolen in plain sight . . . No authority or reported fact can be trusted. This democracy is a sham.” Both sides actually think that, for incompatible reasons.
So, queries Churchill, what is there to be patriotic about or celebrate? However, he says, “[t]he good news is that most Americans don’t feel that way. Most know that claims of a stolen election are untrue. And most recognize that this country is uniquely wonderful, exceptional even, despite its division and continuing injustices.” A “glorious, messy, loud, eccentric, restless, frustrating, exhilarating, sprawling and magnificent country.” With “so much to love, so much beauty and freedom and dynamism, all of which helps explain why people from around the world remain so eager to join us. And America, undeniably fairer and more just than it was even decades ago, is getting better.”
That’s what lifts my heart on July 4.
The next day’s David Brooks column took a different tack. We’re having an epistemic crisis; one might say it’s basically truth against lies. Which is so, actually, but Brooks steps back to see a bigger picture. With two great reservoirs of knowledge. One is factual. But the other contains the stories we tell about ourselves: “who we are as a people, how we got here . . . what kind of world we hope to build together.”
Some, Brooks notes, think our system of producing factual knowledge is breaking down. However, he says, “Trump doesn’t get away with lies because his followers flunked Epistemology 101,” but “because he tells stories of dispossession that feel true to many of them.” On the other side, says Brooks, the “woke” lefties “aren’t censorious and intolerant because they lack analytic skills. They feel entrapped by a moral order that feels unsafe and unjust.”
The real problem, he writes, “is in our system of producing shared stories. If a country can’t tell narratives in which everybody finds an honorable place, then righteous rage will drive people toward tribal narratives that tear it apart.” And he notes that current ideological warfare over school curricula (the right trying to whitewash our history, the left painting it black) show “how debauched and brutalized our historical storytelling skills have become.”
Brooks concludes: “It is unfashionable to say so, but America has the greatest story to tell about itself, if we have the maturity to tell it honestly.”
At home after the fireworks, we watched one of those climate change documentaries saying humanity is cooked. Yes, we face severe challenges. But people have managed to thrive in the Arctic and the Sahara — without modern scientific knowledge. Don’t tell me we can’t cope with changing climate.
It’s not just America I love, but all humanity. A species put here naked and with nothing, except brains. And oh how we’ve used them, in a stupendous undertaking to make good lives. Spectacularly successful. America its highest embodiment.
So why the “all consuming cynicism” that Churchill says isn’t rational? Reading his column made me think of Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice. One thing it explains is the “adaptation effect.” People attaining improved circumstances come to take them for granted as “the new normal,” rather than riding on Cloud-9. Focusing not on what they’ve gained, but instead the next desire — and feeling dissatisfied till it’s achieved. Also called the “hedonic treadmill.”
So too, all the progress American society has made — and indeed all the titanic achievements of human civilization — are likewise taken for granted. Pocketed with only fleeting appreciation. And we thunder at the cosmos, with shaking fist: what have you done for me lately?