Lughnasa and the Harvest Moon
Caveat: Got carried away here. Stuff that’s important to me, but long.
Alienation is killing Americans and Japanese. The age of American despair. American life expectancy has dropped again. This is what life without retirement savings looks like.
Nope, not me. Headlines from articles I noticed over the last couple of weeks. Part of the story is told in the three factors most related to American decline in life expectancy: obesity, suicide, and drug overdoses. Summed up: living lives of quiet desperation.
In Japan the kids have disappeared and left the country to the old folks. People die alone. Unnoticed. Unseen. Unknown.
Ross Douthat, NYT conservative columnist and a voice I listen to, has this paragraph in his article, The Age of American Despair:
“…the simultaneity of the different self-destroying trends is a brute fact of American life. And that simultaneity does not feel like just a coincidence, just correlation without entanglement — especially when you include other indicators, collapsing birthrates and declining marriage rates and decaying social trust, that all suggest a society suffering a meaning deficit, a loss of purpose and optimism and direction, a gently dehumanizing drift.” Douthat, NYT, Sept. 7, 2019
Douthat also says, and I agree with him, that: “Despair as a sociological phenomenon is rarely permanent: Some force, or forces, will supply new forms of meaning eventually.” op cit
He’s a Roman Catholic and a conservative so his hope will be that religion and traditional institutions like the family can reassert their culture shaping roles, provide forms of meaning relevant to this crisis.
Another conservative writer, David Byler, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that conservatives have already won the culture war. His argument rests on the positive opinion Americans have of the police, the military, and the continued strength of marriage, the family, and religion. These core institutions, beloved of conservatives, are ok, he says, and prove that conservatives have “the winning hand” in the next election.
Can this despair can be handled by leaning into the familiar, the tried, the true? Seems unlikely to me since marriage and the family, religious institutions exist now, are readily available, and yet the despair rises. And, neither the military nor the police can answer because their roles are defensive, reactive to social forces. They’re not shapers or builders. They’re enforcers after the fact.
I see this despair as a disturbing inflection point created by a world in dramatic transformation. Interlocked global economies. Populations shifting locations, putting immigrant pressure on receiving societies and draining resources from the sending ones. A planet shifting from one climate regime to a less forgiving one for humans. Nativist and xenophobic politics which express the despair through anger, rage at the other upsetting democratic institutions worldwide.
I appreciated Douthat’s reminder that despair is rarely permanent. New forms of meaning will arise, as he projects. But from where? Not sure I know.
Scott Nearing, economist and author of a favorite book of mine, Living the Good Life, proposes a mixed economy. The issue is not one, Nearing argues, of a single economic model to rule them all. Rather, we should be making decisions about what aspects of culture belong to which economic model. Roads and infrastructure, schooling, law enforcement, the military, the legal system operate within a socialist model where we all chip in to assure ourselves of educated children, decent roads and bridges, protection against criminals and foreign enemies. Selling cars, fast food, jewelry, books, bicycles and the like operate within a capitalist model. But what about affordable housing and medical care? What about support for the unemployed or the victims of Schumpeter’s creative destruction?
As in Nearing’s approach to economics, I believe the answer to the despair engendered by a transforming global culture lies in a mixed political response. That is, we need to support some institutions conservatives love: marriage, the family, law enforcement, and the military because they are core to a sense of social security, a feeling of safety. Let’s set aside religion for now. We don’t have to support those institutions in the same way conservatives would. That is, we can favor marriage between persons who love each other while recognizing the non-binary nature of human sexuality. Similar thoughts can apply to the other three.
But, these institutions exist in political and economic contexts that have profound effects on their well-being. Is housing affordable? Is there work for you that pays a living wage? Can you get the medical care you need when you need it? What it will be like for you when you retire? Can you retool yourself for a new career? Are your children receiving the sort of education they need to thrive?
Let’s return now to religion. And, the arts. Bread and roses. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Rose Schneiderman, an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union of New York. Bread and Roses wiki
Positive changes to the economic and social conditions of oppression are, said another way, critical and necessary; but, they are not sufficient. The spirit must be fed, too. Everyone has a right to realize and live out their ikigai.
What religion does, at its best, is help folks develop a coherent view of life’s meaning and create a support system to help them realize it. At its worst religion pretends to have found the only meaning and creates a phalanx of enforcers for that view.
The arts also feed the soul. But they are often kept behind an elite curtain wall of high ticket prices, imposing museum corridors, and a presumed sine qua non of education to appreciate.
If we’re looking for areas outside the rough and tumble of politics for dealing with despair, both religion and the arts can play significant roles. It is here, I believe, that new meaning will arise, will begin to integrate world economies, help us adapt to climate change even as we fight its worsening, enable us to see the other not as a threat, but as a potential new friend, fellow worker, marriage partner.