American culture feels dangerously stuck and stilted these days. Many of our best and brightest look for all the world as if they were standing at the tail end of something, equipped with resources fit for a bygone reality, at loose ends in this one. In a perfect bit of performance poetry—who says mass societies can’t be poetical?—we keep cycling through the halls of leadership a cast of tottering, familiar, reassuring grandparents, who spend their tenures insider-trading and murmuring hits from the old boomer songbook, desperately hoping that no cameras are running when they nod off, just a skosh, into their salad, or tip over their mountain bikes, ever so gingerly. Our president turns eighty in November, and he is vowing to run again. We have no new ideas for America. The best in our culture lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (approximately). A soft apocalypticism seems to be in the water.
What can this exhaustion be? How can a country so wealthy, so educated, armed absolutely to its teeth, find itself so at sea, inadequate to the challenges of a new century? We are, in 2022, in the midst of more than a political crisis. It is, rather, a slow-motion götterdämmerung—the creeping expiration of an illicit, secret god who was supposed to have died some decades ago.
Cultures are marvelous, literally unfathomable things, rooted in deep beliefs and values but stretching uncountable tendrils to every corner of a community—teaching us how to pray, die, and hold a fork—while also gathering in the sun and air that allow those deep values to live and grow. For all its marvelous complexity, any given culture, even one like ours that pretends to mere, universal humanity, is one thing and not everything. It can process much, adapt to much; if it is healthy, it can grow around or through any number of chainlink fences. But it cannot do simply anything. Sometimes a culture comes up against realities it cannot coherently respond to. Sometimes a culture gets stuck.