On this day after the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union; in this absurdly long American electoral season when the presumptive nominee of a major political party threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of an international order created after the most devastating war in human history; in this world in which nationalist sentiments are being brought to a boil by ranting opportunists who seek to turn a sensible patriotism into virulent chauvinism; in this age when the possibility of a decent global comity of nations is being threatened by fearmongering and the most abject zero-sum thinking—at this moment, in short, when the best lack sufficient conviction and the worst truly brim with passionate intensities, I feel shame for those generations (my own boomer one, as well as those that followed) that have variously enjoyed the incalculable benefits of the relative security and prosperity bequeathed to them by those who fought through and prevailed in that now-distant war and who, afterwards, went about building, if often imperfectly, a set of institutions and ideals intended to avert the recurrence of a similar global catastrophe.
We legatees may, in good will, differ strongly on what is good or bad about the order that was left to us. And many of us have pitched in and done our parts to sustain and improve it, even at the highest cost. But for all that we have done, too many of us have fallen short in what we should have done, through failures of commission or omission.
Of such failures, the worst may have been the selfishness and self-indulgence that contributed to the rise not just of the Me Generation but also of a more enduring cult of the self, one that comported all too neatly with the dominant consumerist and therapeutic strains of our national (and then our increasingly global) culture.
This failure might properly be laid at the feet of middle-class boomers, the earliest and fullest beneficiaries of the postwar order, raised in the secure idyll of the fifties and early sixties, coming to think that anything or any experiment was possible, yet believing, far too uncritically, that we would always have a secure and predictable world to return to if our experiments failed. I say this not in self-loathing or in disparagement of the good that came out of the pushing, testing, and venturing—including the contributions to the long-overdue victories in civil rights for people long denied those rights—but in honest reckoning with the harms that were done through the excesses of so much heedless thinking and doing, heedless, above all, of how so much self-indulgence might give rise to a culture of self-indulgence, and of the harms that such a culture might inflict on the larger—and not so privileged—society.
Those harms have come to roost, in the growing fragility of institutions, families, and communities, and in the loss of faith in the values that shore up such institutions. As we lost a sense of the importance of human ties, first in our families and communities and then in our nation, and as this loss engendered a further decline of confidence in the world beyond our own individual heads, the nation’s leaders and elites came to be viewed as what Daniel Bell called “a class apart,” out of touch with their fellow citizens, out to serve their own interests above all others. (The growing suspicions of these elites and the meritocratic system that creates them is the subject of the forthcoming summer issue of THR, “Meritocracy and Its Discontents.”)
Throughout an increasingly fractured nation—and not just America, but other Western nations—too many citizens felt that they were being left behind, left out, even cast aside, in the name of a booming global prosperity from which only the privileged elites were benefiting. If the postwar order was only a neoliberal construct built upon technocratic schemes to maximize free trade and commerce to increase productivity and growth—and, above all, to increase the wealth and privilege of the cosmopolitan elite at the top the global casino economy—then were resentment, distrust, and fear not bound to be the eventual and growing consequences?
This, I realize, is far too sketchy an account of our failings, of why we have come to such a scary pass in modern history, when gaping social and economic divisions are not just weakening trust within nations but also destroying comity and aggravating tensions among them. My account only gestures toward the deepest cultural failing: namely, the erosion and neglect of beliefs and ideals (including the very idea of truth) that sustain our institutions, from the most intimate and local to the most distant and global. The price of ignoring that cultural failing—not only for the world our parents left to us but for the one we hope to leave to our children—is far too great to imagine. But the signs and warnings should be clear.
Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.