David Brooks on the decline of the West:
When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.
But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call "expressive individualism." Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine. Before long, self-exposure and self-love became ways to win shares in the competition for attention. Muhammad Ali would tell all cameras that he was the greatest of all time. Norman Mailer wrote a book called "Advertisements for Myself."
Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. To scoop up just a few examples of self-indulgent expression from the past few days, there is Joe Wilson using the House floor as his own private "Crossfire"; there is Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards to give us his opinion that the wrong person won; there is Michael Jordan's egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech. Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don't even notice it anymore.This isn't the death of civilization. It's just the culture in which we live. And from this vantage point, a display of mass modesty, like the kind represented on the V-J Day "Command Performance," comes as something of a refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world. It's funny how the nation's mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.
Part of this is Brooks critique of the past half-century, or rather half-critique. From Brooks' perspective, the problem is that Sonia Sotomayor didn't go to school in 50s or early 60s, not that her chosen school didn't admit women in the 50s and 60s. Likewise Brooks doesn't cite the immodesty of George Wallace declaring eternal segregation "in the name of the greatest people to trod this earth," he cites the immodesty of Muhammad Ali. The response offends Brooks. The conditions that produce the response, less so.
That's because the conditions are, themselves, built on American immodesty. I'm thinking of Jack Johnson winning the championship, and modest Americans launching pogroms against their fellow immodest Americans. I'm thinking about Birth of a Nation's defense of treason, and a sitting president offering his immodest endorsement. I'm thinking about a country, circa 1850, whose politicians lorded over one of the last slave societies in the known world, and immodestly argued that it was a gift from God.
Even Brooks view of the "Greatest Generation" is myopic. In 1948 Strom Thurmond authored the segregationist Dixiecrat charter, while immodestly fathering a daughter with a black women. In 1946, Isaac Woodward, a veteran of World War II, was beaten and blinded--while in uniform--by South Carolina police. The police were prosecuted, but the jury acquitted them, and a court-room full of Americans broke out in immodest applause.
This is history through the veil, again. It's virtually impossible to be a black person and believe that Americans were somehow more humble in the past. Our very existence springs from an act of immodesty. I can't even begin to imagine the Native American read on this one.
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