Friday, June 13, 2008

Our Greatest Loss: A Loss of Balance

I have just read Andrew Keen's latest blog post, "The America that we want back," with great interest, particularly since it emerged that many (if not all) of the "we" in that post are not Americans. I do not mean this in a pejorative, let alone sarcastic, sense: Whether it began with our winning our Revolutionary War or with the ratification of our Constitution, American has been perceived, particularly by Europeans, as a "grand experiment" in government; and given the historical record of volatility of social systems, particularly those which are constituted rather than simply "emerging" (for better or worse) out of existing practices, the endurance of our system for over two centuries probably deserves to be recognized as an accomplishment. Thus, I both believe and sympathize with this paragraph near the beginning of Keen's post:

Over a tapas lunch [during the Direct and Interactive Marketing Global Forum in Barcelona], one guy, a very senior Catalan marketing executive, confided in me. "The America we all know, the America of innovation, the America that continually reinvents itself, " he asked with a childish hopefulness. "Is that America dead? Can Obama reinvent America?"

Keen's own answer to these questions is not particularly optimistic:

The mistake, I fear, is to expect too much of Obama. The one area most resistant to change in America is politics. Change, real change, in America is going to come through business, technology and education. That's where we have to look for Emerson's beginnings, projects, vast designs and expectations. But the America political system has become so ossified that it will take more than a sweet talking lawyer to transform government into the core engine of American innovation.

That first sentence reminded me of when I first started writing about Barack Obama not too long after launching this blog. In was in a post entitled "Secular Messianism;" and it involved a theme that I revisited on several occasions. I later developed that theme in a post in which I explored the hypothesis that the "American way of life" had led to a general infantilization of the American population. Thus, the attribution of messianic powers to a Presidential candidate was nothing more than a consequence of this infantilization:

To live as an infant in the face of the practical trials of reality is to believe, as an act of faith, if necessary, that someone (the father figure in that "beautiful paternalistic dream") will always be there to take care of those trials. Put another way, the infant lives without any sense of responsibility under the conviction that there will always be a deus ex machina to set things right. This is why so much of the current Presidential campaign seems to be based on appealing to what I have called the "Secular Messianism" of the electorate. Going beyond governance to everyday life, this form of infantilism was also embodied in the Eloi of H. G. Wells' Time Machine.

Thus, I think that what Europeans perceive as the "death" of America may have less to do with the "ossification" of the political system and more to do with the cultural values that now support all of our institutions, whether they involve politics, business, technology, or education. Indeed, it may very well be that the current state of our economic health (which certainly bodes ill for any signs of "reinvention" in the institutions of business, technology, and education, let alone politics) is probably a reflection of that general infantile lack of responsibility.

I first floated this hypothesis in discussing the consequences of the world the Internet has made, which puts me in sympathy with the subtitle of Keen's Cult of the Amateur book, "How Today's Internet is Killing our Culture." However, with the death of Susan Sontag I have been drawn to her attacks on consumerism; and I have begun to wonder whether or not the Internet has been only a predisposing cause of the cultural rot through its capacity to escalate our capacity for consumerism, not to mention globalize it. Thus, going back to the conclusion of my original "Secular Messianism" post, the rot was there long before the Internet. The rot was there when Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" was such a success on television that Chayefsky was never again allowed to write for network television:

Marty's "sin," as it were, was that he was able to solve his problem through his own devices rather than buying some deus ex machina consumer product; and advertisers just did not want any more stories like that being told on television, particularly if it turned out that viewers liked them!

In that respect I have to say that I find it very ironic that the subject of Keen's introduction should be "a very senior Catalan marketing executive." After all, this is a guy who earns his (probably pretty impressive) salary off of consumerism; and his very existence is a sign of the extent to which the spirit of consumerism is as strong in the European Union as it is in the United States (even at a time when Americans can barely afford to buy anything any more). Thus, I share Keen's pessimism; but my reason runs far deeper than his. It will take an awful lot of audacity to pull us out of our addiction (which is what it is) to consumerism; and I suspect that will be far more audacity than even Obama had in mind!

Is there a way out? Personally, whatever my feelings about consumerism may be, I have no problem with private enterprise. However, I believe in the need for a balance between private enterprise and that concept of "public trust," which in the past I have associated with quality journalism. As I wrote yesterday, I feel that this latter concept is in real jeopardy; but, in a government founded on a principle of checks and balances, I also feel that it is the only way in which we can keep private enterprise in check from dragging us even further into our addictive dependency on all that stuff they want us to consume. Since the post in which I last discussed this concept had to do with Eric Schimidt's latest thoughts [sic] on Google, online display advertising, and newspapers, my guess is that this role of public trust is not long for this world and that Keen's chickens of an Internet ruining our culture are coming home to roost!

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