Elizabeth Scalia, aka “The Anchoress,” describes Roger Cohen’s piece in the New York Times titled “The Great Unraveling” as “an exquisitely-written dose of reality.” Regarding America in the age of Obama, Cohen describes it in Dickensian terms; “It was a time of weakness”:
The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.
Elizabeth responds, “It is, finally, perhaps a time of dawning realization that the centers are not holding; old orders are in extremis; new orders are in capricious adolescence”:
The troubles briefly enumerated in this sobering op-ed are only the most obvious issues. They are the pebble tossed into the pond, rippling outward in ever-widening circles — expanding to include a unique “time” of global crisis: governments failing at every level, everywhere; churches are divided, their freedoms challenged; citizens are distracted, dissatisfied and distrustful, their election mechanisms in doubt; schools are losing sight of the primary mission of education; families are deconstructed and the whole concept ripe for dissolution; respect for human dignity is doled out in qualified measures; there is a lack of privacy; a lack of time to think, to process and to incarnate; a lack of silence.
It sounds terribly, terribly depressing, yes. Who wants to read that? Who wants to think about that?
Sadly, this is essential reading; this is essential thinking.
Fair enough, but consider the source — over the past 12 years, the New York Times, when not going on benders on the evils of golf courses and air conditioning, and publishing outright fabulism, has, more recently, published pieces calling for the end of the US Constitution, and mocking the “fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity” of its presidential candidates — only, upon further review, to discover that these extreme worldviews are Catholicism, Lutheranism and Mormonism, bedrock religions of America’s history. Its leading journalists have publicly called the citizens of the American midwest “The dance of the low-sloping foreheads” and filed William S. Burroughs-style stories of openly experimenting with drugs. And of course, in 2008, it went all-in to champion a man who was clearly not ready to be president, to the point of actively burying potentially damaging stories about him and refusing to run op-eds from his opponent.
In the 1920s, there was only one H.L. Mencken, mocking democracy and religion as outdated and the American people as the “booboosie.” In the 1960s and ’70s, there was only one Hunter Thompson, similarly calling America “just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
But as James Lileks wrote, shortly before Thompson committed suicide after a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse, Thompson was “the guy who made nihilism hip. He’s the guy who taught a generation that the only thing you should believe is this: don’t trust anyone who believes anything. He’s the patron saint of journalism, whether journalists know it or not.” A major city newspaper can’t staff itself full of wannabe Menckens and Thompsons, and then blindly wonder why a great unraveling is occurring.
Menken and Thompson were at least bracing original voices for their times. In contrast, as Matthew Continetti wrote a few months ago when the then-recently fired editor Jill Abramson posed in a well-circulated publicity photo (including on the cover of the crosstown rival New York Post) wearing a trucker cap, wife-beater T-shirt, boxing gloves and tattoo, her former paper is, to paraphrase Martin Mull’s old joke about show business, high school with money and power:
Gossipy, catty, insular, cliquey, stressful, immature, cowardly, moody, underhanded, spiteful—the New York Times gives new meaning to the term “hostile workplace.” What has been said of the press—that it wields power without any sense of responsibility—is also a fair enough description of the young adult. And it is to high school, I think, that the New York Times is most aptly compared. The coverage of the Abramson firing reads at times like the plot of an episode of Saved By the Bell minus the sex: Someone always has a crazy idea, everyone’s feelings are always hurt, apologies and reconciliations are made and quickly sundered, confrontations are the subject of intense planning and preparation, and authority figures are youth-oriented, well-intentioned, bumbling, and inept.
What made Jimmy Carter’s Malaise Speech in 1979 so doubly pathetic was his assumption that “liberalism” was the sole political ideology in America and his epistemic closure in not understanding why it turned insular and withdrawn. With Cohen’s essay today, which assumes that “the great unraveling” is somehow occurring without blaming “Progressivism’s” role in both desiring it and influencing it, the Times has had a similar Malaise moment as well.
And note Cohen’s conclusion:
It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”
Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.
Who is teach Kipling to American kids these days, when he has so many strikes working against him from academia’s point of view: (1) European (2) Male and (3) pro-Colonial and pro-Empire Building and (4) Racist?
Exit Question for both Pinch Sulzberger and Roger Cohen: Regarding Ukraine, Iraq, Europe, Africa, and the other regions mentioned in Cohen’s article — why should America do anything about them, when they’re “the other guy’s country; we shouldn’t be there?”
Related: “Interesting to see the writer dimly grasping the reality of cultural decay, but unable to face the badthink thoughts needed to understand what’s going on.”
Oh and finally, given Cohen’s Dickensian “it was a time of…” leitmotif in his article, recall the first words spoken at the beginning of the classic “Epic 2014” video, which a decade ago predicted how the Times’ increasing sense of dissipation would eventually play out:
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