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Peggy Noonan and the American Spirit

August 7th, 2010 - 3:42 pm

I’ve been reading Peggy Noonan’s latest, and it grieves me to find that I’m not convinced. I’m crazy about Peggy, and I have learned a lot from her, but it turns out that we actually live in different universes, and we believe very different things about America. Nothing very surprising there, you will say, and yet there were two themes in Peggy’s weekend ruminations that surprised ME.  A lot.

First, Peggy says that the biggest political change in her lifetime is that “Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did.” I’m not at all convinced that Americans expected things to get better and better, uninterruptedly for the past 200-plus years. I doubt that most Americans felt that way during and after the Civil War, which was, after all, the bloodiest war in the history of the world to date. And I know, first hand, that lots of Americans were awfully gloomy during and after the Second World War.

Nor, it seems to me, were the Depression years particularly upbeat.

I was born a few months before the attack at Pearl Harbor, and my parents often told me that they wondered for many years if they had done the right thing by bringing a child into such a terrible world. Even in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, I daresay that most Americans were deeply concerned about the future, including the American future. Earlier today, in our synagogue, a very wise Rabbi reminisced about his bar mitzvah in 1940. He painted a picture of dark gloom, which to be sure was felt more strongly in the Jewish community than among the Christians, but it was extremely widespread.

It seems to me that it took quite a long time to recover national optimism. As I recall the ’50s, the main themes in popular American literature, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Catcher in the Rye and the “beat” literature of Kerouac and his confreres, were full of alienation, not of “God it’s great to be an American, and our kids are going to have it better than we do.”

I went to college in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I wasn’t at all sure that things were likely to get better in the coming years. My high school guidance counselor told me to forget about going to my number one choice, because of the tiny Jewish quota, most all of which went to legacy applicants. It all worked out, to be sure, but I think my parents were surprised, even though things were certainly easier for me than for them.  Until recently I haven’t had to worry about the country falling apart…

I think there was a brief moment during which Americans deluded themselves into believing that we were part of an irresistible progressive march into the future, until we finally brought an end to history. That particular derangement syndrome, which is very closely linked to a near-epidemic of narcissism, has now thankfully come to an end.

Point Two:  Peggy says

I started noticing in the 1980s the growing gulf between the country’s thought leaders, as they’re called—the political and media class, the universities—and those living what for lack of a better word we’ll call normal lives on the ground in America. The two groups were agitated by different things, concerned about different things, had different focuses, different world views.

But I’ve never seen the gap wider than it is now. I think it is a chasm. In Washington they don’t seem to be looking around and thinking, Hmmm, this nation is in trouble, it needs help. They’re thinking something else. I’m not sure they understand the American Dream itself needs a boost, needs encouragement and protection. They don’t seem to know or have a sense of the mood of the country.

She’s got the substance right, but not the dates. The gulf between the intellectuals and politicians on the one hand, and “normal Americans” on the other, probably goes back to the first settlements in the New World. It most certainly did not originate in the 1980s, and to prove that all you have to do is pick up a book written back in the early 1960s by a distinguished Columbia University historian, Richard Hofstadter, called “Anti-intellectualism in American life.”  When I first read that book (an elegant lament about Americans’ traditional lack of esteem for intellectuals), I agreed with Hofstadter that this was a very bad thing. It was only later in life that I realized what a good thing it was, and how fortunate we were to have withheld high status from professors and politicians. But however you may feel about intellectuals, Hofstadter’s thoughtful book will certainly show you how old and how deeply rooted anti-intellectualism is in our country.

Peggy is entirely right when she says that our intellectual and political leaders have no sense of the mood of the country. But that is not new.  The new thing is that such types have now acquired an outrageous amount of power, and they are doing their damnedest to make us pay for our lack of adulation.  That’s what the big fight is all about these days, and is likely to be about for several years.

Thankfully, our DNA is healthy:  we’re fighting back against the revenge of the intellectuals (it’s the nucleus of the tea party movement); we know that if our children are to have it better than we do, we’re going to have to fight for it. And Americans love a good fight.

I’m not sure Peggy does.  I hope so.

UPDATE:  Welcome Instapunditeers.  How did we make it through the day before Glenn Reynolds?  Really!

UPDATE II:  Welcome Rebellion News!  I gotta check that out…cause there’s rebellion and rebellion…

MORE:  Welcome Newsbeat1 folks.

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