Very Good Paragraphs

Two of them, this time. Pretend there’s no paragraph break. From Adam Gopnik’s review of declinist literature in the 12 September 2011 New Yorker:

Despite their title [of That Used to Be Us], the authors [Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum] seem, for instance, determined to avoid the obvious point that one American who shares their outlook and ambitions in almost every detail—who hates partisan wrangling, doubts the wisdom of big foreign wars, proposes a faith in a brisk mixture of private enterprise and public guarantees, accepts the priority of rebuilding our infrastructure—is the President of the United States. If he’s been frustrated, it’s not because of some vague “systemic” political paralysis. It’s because, as he has been startled to discover … there is another side, inexorably opposed to these apparently good things. The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestant hates the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. Friedman and Mandelbaum wring their hands at “our” unwillingness to sacrifice our comforts on behalf of our principles, but Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don’t have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible.

The reasons for these feelings are, of course, complex, with a noble reason descending from the Revolutionary War, and its insistence on liberty at all costs, and an ignoble one descending from the Civil War and its creation of a permanent class of white men convinced that they are besieged by an underclass they regard as the subsidized wards of the federal government. (Thus the curious belief that a worldwide real-estate crisis that his the north of Spain and the east of Ireland as hard as the coast of Florida was the fault of money loaned by Washington to black people.) But the crucial point is that this is the result of an active choice, not passive indifference: people who don’t want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for. As a recent study in the social sciences shows [PDF], if energy use in a household is monitored so that you can watch yourself saving money every month by using less, self-identified conservatives will actually use and spend more, apparently as a way of showing their scorn for liberal pieties…. The kind of outlook that Friedman and Mandelbaum assume is somehow natural to mankind and has been thwarted here recently—a broad-minded view of maximizing future utility—has, from a historical perspective, a constituency so small as to be essentially nonexistent. In the long story of civilization, the moments when improving your lot beats out annoying your neighbor are vanishingly rare.

One thought on “Very Good Paragraphs”

  1. Man, it just keeps coming. “You kids think you’re stressed out from too much homework? ‘Stress is what you’ll feel when you can’t understand the thick Chinese accent of your first boss out of college,’ Friedman and Mandelbaum taunt. (This horror of the Asian boss is a recurring one in the American imagination—in ‘Rabbit at Rest,’ the final indignity for Harry Angstrom is the Japanese boss who comes in to shut down his Toyota franchise and can’t pronounce his ‘l’s.) Never mind that the nationality of the boss would not make a bit of difference to your pocketbook; apparently, it would denote a loss of status is we worked for foreigners with their thick accents instead of having them work for us, with ours.”

    Let me never get on the business end of an Adam Gopnik skewer.

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