Comfortable America

Fred Reed explains the character of our postmodern society.

One hears much admiration from politicians of the American “national character,” by which seems to be meant the aggregate of prevailing values of the majority of the population. I gather that Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance. One thinks of Daniel Boone or Marlboro Man.

In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything.

When we as a society look in the mirror we see the nearly mythological heroes of our past. Politicians see themselves as modern George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns. Feminists think themselves successors to Susan B. Anthony while Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson believe they are following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois.

Take away the mirror and wipe the scales from our eyes and it becomes clear that we fall far short of our historical heroes. Each generation has confronted the issues of the day, but I fear that this one will not. We have become too comfortable to step out of our everyday lives.

The existence of the World Wide Web has created the most potentially knowledgeable generation in world history. Even the poorest American can read news from a thousand sources, encyclopaedic articles on a million subjects, and the inane babble of a billion people. We could spend so much time reading that we forget to live, in fact.

We do not know fear. My great-great-grandfather’s generation had to work the earth in order to survive. My great-grandfather’s knew the reality of complete and utter loss through the Depression, while tyranny threatened the entire world nearby. My grandfather’s generation lived with a real fear that entire cities might be obliterated with nuclear weapons.

What do we know? We are afraid that the government might not have enough money to mail us checks when we grow old. We fear that our neighbor has more digital television channels than we do. We scream at protest rallies because there is a chance a government agent might read our emails.

We have grocery stores that never close. We have an expanding bureaucracy that provides meaningless jobs to people who know no world outside of their white-collar office. We have rules and regulations, acts and codes, all to keep us safe and secure and obedient. The Man comes around and extracts a fine if he can think of a legal reason to do so. Society is a tightly controlled framework. We are moved about on strings by a few elite puppeteers.

C.S. Lewis wrote a short treatise about the Men Without Chests. Plato explained that the head controls the belly through the chest. Sigmund Freud would say that the ego rules over the id through the superego. It means the same thing. Our animal passions are governed by reason. Yet we as a society are being constantly molded over time into subservience.

As Lewis says:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

The comfortable walls of a modern office is a prison compared to the wide open spaces of a worldwide frontier. Sure, modern life is safer. Our life expectancy has skyrocketed, infant mortality is rare, and we have conquered many diseases that once killed millions. Yet is this worth what we have lost?

If asked what kind of future awaits us, many would guess that it will resemble George Orwell’s dystopia of 1984. That is, a supreme party controls the populace with constant supervision, threatening the people with death for the slightest transgression, while maintaining an endless war in order to provide a reason for its own power. Yet I do not see this happening.

No, the future is that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The institutions of antiquity such as marriage and family will be destroyed. The ruling class will keep the common man content with endless pleasure and constant distraction. We will be a people ruled by our bellies, or our id as Freud would say. We are almost there, can you not see it?

Gone is the man who can take care of himself. Gone is the family that can uproot and move into an unknown land to start anew. Gone is the community that is self-sufficient and united. Life has become so comfortable that we cannot even notice that we are dying like a withering vine.

But who cares. American Idol is on.

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