Or, possibly, not.
The second possibility—so an ancient mariner reflects—arises from a sea change in our culture. It could be that more than half of us—a fast-rising proportion—don’t understand “serious” the way it was understood until half a century ago. The loose, lax, louche United States of 2012 seems dissimilar in important respects to the country that chose Dwight D. Eisenhower for president.
A week after the Nov. 6 debacle, the post mortems go on: the if-only’s and why-didn’t-we’s, the slams on Mitt Romney, the moans over Superstorm Sandy and the putative treason of Gov. Chris Christie.
Quite a lot of this is valuable and worth hearing. The mariner’s glittering eye fixes all the same on the question, how the blankety-blank could half us have set any store at all by the promises of a candidate more gifted at misrepresenting economic arguments than at actually putting Americans back to work?
Generalizing about half the electorate and its motives is risky, but ignoring trends in the culture is no public service either. The ancient mariner feels bound to blame the culture of flip-flops and no neckties, the culture of tattoos, muscle shirts, divorce, illegitimacy, “shackin’ up,” gape-mouthed ignorance concerning basic facts about the nation’s history, Starbucks on Sunday in preference to the church pew, sports doping, the appearance of four letters words in public discourse (do you hear me, Mr. Vice President?), semi-literate public school teachers, scared-to-death principals, group entitlements, and Jon Stewart as national oracle; the culture, in short, of personal indulgence, where ideas, including urgent ones, are likelier to draw hoots and heckling than provoke thoughtful discussion.
Want to know what kind of culture ours really, truly is? The kind that for a time sent Fifty Shades of Gray, Fifty Shades Freed, and Fifty Shades Darker–exquisite romps through the wonderland of Bondage–to the peak of the best-seller lists. Which exquisite fact is best appreciated by trying to remember the last time a novelist with the occupations and skills of a Steinbeck or a Faulkner enjoyed such esteem.
How, it is inquired of the mariner, does any of this bear on the late election? Through state- of- mind considerations, is the answer. A lax culture–I think it would be hard not to reckon with the mental and moral laxity of American culture in the 21st century–sets more store by that which comes easily than by that which comes hard.
The old Puritans, whatever their defects, and they had many, preached a gospel of holding back until the right moment; of working and waiting, not to mention invoking divine blessing. The old culture was generally serious. Ease and indulgence could wait. You couldn’t have your way the minute you decided what that way was. You had obligations, moreover, to others: family, in particular. Words like “duty” were abroad in the culture; and “responsibility;” and, on the flip side of that, “disgrace” and “dishonor.” How many in 21st century culture–besides particular Wall Streeters, joined, ironically, by a career man of honor, David Petraeus–encounter public censure any more? A culture of indulgence tries hard not to rein in a thing called personal expression.
The personal is what we live for. This makes everything in politics personal–especially, these days, the perception that a-bunch-of-redneck-preachers-want-to-take-away-my-contraceptives. (Which of course I want the government to pay for!) As an American of the 21st century, I want my government-paid medical care, I want my full, unreduced Social Security 30 years from now. Yeah, and those 1 percenters the president always talks about–“millionaires and billionaires.” Can’t we make them a little bit more like me?
Sure. No sweat. The Republican millionaire with his pre-modern ways of interpreting the vision of America–let’s spurn his suit. The Democratic millionaire–a flip-flops kind of guy, who likes people to have what they like; there’s a 21st century American leader for you and me. Alas.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is reprinted with the author’s gracious permission.