Monday, June 11, 2007

Why Worry About That? Because We Can

Ethnoracial tensions were far worse in the America of the decades before World War I than now. The former was the time of lynching, of widespread acceptance of the theory of eugenics and its corresponding belief that immigration was causing national dysgenesis, of explicitly racial attacks on Chinese workers by American labor unions and of explicit discrimination against Asians of all kinds by the American immigration authorities.

And yet it is now, not then, when the clamor for multicultural respect, for equal representation in the canon, for respect for cultural differences, is most salient. The idea that respect for diversity should be a major national dividing point was nonsensical decades ago, when the tensions between groups were much worse. Similarly, despite environmental pollution being much worse decades ago than now, it is now that minor threats such as minuscule pesticide residues in food draw so much worry from people who earn their living worrying about such things. By any reasonable measure we are materially better off, and better off in terms of control over our own destiny. So why has the roster of things to worry about – global warming, how to zone cities properly, whether we’re too fat – and the language of crisis used to discuss it worsened so dramatically?

The Cato Institute has published a new book by Brink Lindsey that attempts to answer this question, called The Age Of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. In it, bolstered by data from The World Values Survey, he notes that America, like other rich countries, has solved the primary problems that have always plagued humanity, especially of starvation and shelter. (He might have also added freedom from conquest.) Having done that, we have turned our attention to what the WVS calls “self-expression values” – emphasizing in our politics issues that are as important for what they announce about us to the world as they are for their own sake.

Whatever the consequences of CO2 emissions, or militant Islamism, or the millions of Americans without health insurance, or the poor performance of Americans in school, they pale next to man's big problems, which we have solved. We thus turn our attention to issues of much less consequence. In Mr. Lindsey's view, we worry about obscenity and cultural decay and the like because we can. Alas, symbolic politics, being statements about the self, are those least prone to compromise. Classic political thinking, in which the normal distribution of public tastes plus competitive politics leads to solutions in the center, is unsuited to self-expressive politics, where any give is taken as a sign of personal diminishment. Despite their lower stakes, the politics of mass prosperity are angry and irreconcilable.

But not to worry. It could be worse. And has been.


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