August 2, 2012

"We unfortunately have a lot of people, who not only don't know history but don't think they need to know."

Dan Rodgers’ Age of Fracture : A Different Country Now

Daniel Rodgers, the Princeton historian, and his Age of Fracture put a striking new frame around our nagging Tony Judt question: “How Fares the Land?” No, he’s telling me, you’re not crazy: the country changed! Profoundly. But the break came in theory before it showed up in practice, he demonstrates. It’s about our culture as much as our politics. And the deep shift is traceable through everyday words — choice, time, self, responsibility, desire — across a wide terrain of ideas about markets, law, power, identity, gender, race, and history.

It’s too simple to say: we fell apart. But “disaggregation” is the recurring word for the remapping of our minds. The progress has been from grand to granular; from macro to micro not only in economics, from Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman, but in literary theory and our sense of who has “agency”, from coalitions to invididuals. Our flag waves over a social landscape shrunken in every dimension, as Rodgers writes: “diminished, thinner, smaller, more fragmented, more voluntary, fractured, easier to exit, more guarded from others.” It feels in this 2012 campaign like a society desperate for a larger sense of itself.

How Market Metaphors Seized the American Brain is one thread of the story, and it’s not entirely new. But Rodgers makes delicate and original connections with care and clarity — when he speaks, for example, of the implications of Francis Fukuyama‘s catchy essay title from 1989: The End of History:

One of the interesting things about our current time is a loss of being able to think sequentially, to think slowly, to think about things happening over a relatively gradual, incremental sense of time. How does this happen? In part it’s about market ideas that move into our everyday language. We think of satisfaction coming instantly, of people making choices very very quickly. Fukuyama’s notion [was] that Marx, Hegel, the great 19th Century historians and the long march of History, the inertia of the past, the shaping power of institutions — all that could be assigned to the past and we could now do what we wanted; we live in a world of freedom, and of choice. The notion of turning Iraq around on a dime comes straight out of this. And our impatience with the current recession as if it should have turned around on a dime, because we want it to end! … We unfortunately have a lot of people who not only don’t know history but don’t think they need to know, or would be hindered by too much knowledge of history… And of course within U.S. history there’s a long strain of imagining that Americans will avoid the mistakes of others; therefore that they don’t really need to know too much about the past. We’ve lost a certain realism about history that was stronger in the middle of the last century — much stronger.

Daniel Rodgers with Chris Lydon at Princeton, July 27, 2012

I find Rodgers fresh and fascinating on presidents and their language. Ronald Reagan is clearly the pivot of the era and a final-cut master of phrasing and delivery — a light-hearted guy who made the turn from JFK’s “long twilight struggle” to “morning in America.” As he actually said: “Here it’s a sunrise every day.” Reagan was an anti-Communist who in fact drained the Cold War vocabulary and substituted “self-doubt” as the nation’s worst enemy. But he was not a prime mover, Rodgers is telling me. His gift was “not to shape but to gather up and articulate this new way of understanding the nation, as a place that didn’t really need to worry about limits, didn’t need to worry about structures. It needed to feel better about itself. It needed to get on with it. It needed to recognize the heroes in its ranks. And that would do it. Have a nice day. God bless America.”

Under George Bush’s fumbling stewardship, Rodgers says, 911 was the turning point that “didn’t turn.” The word “sacrifice” made a fleeting comeback in the moment of shock, but it was dissipated by a credit-card war. Barack Obama made his great debut in 2004 with an anti-fracture speech — we’re not Red States and Blue States, we’re the United States; and his “Yes, We Can” had the ring of old social movements. But Obama has been timid in office, Rodgers observes. The economic catastrophe that brought Democrats back to power has packed “an emotional wallop, but only a policy whimper. The movement in ideas has been barely discernible,” particularly in contrast to the ferment and experimentation of FDR’s New Deal.

And still Rodgers’ final note is cheerful. In our “Citizens United” context of auction-block democracy, I am wondering: could the spirit of the Progressive Era reforms in the early 20th Century get traction again? “Yes,” Dan Rodgers insists. “In fact the Progressives were up against a plutocracy, as they called it, that was just as striking, just as self-confident, just as aggressive as the one we have now. They didn’t work in the same media climate, but one of the most important points of the Progressive reforms was to get wealth out of politics. They did it by the direct election of Senators. They enacted our first serious estate taxes and our first progressive income taxes against a very, very well orchestrated and exceedingly well-financed opposition. It can happen.”

What lingers with me, finally, is that Daniel Rodgers has introduced an Alternative Villain into his revelatory account of our times, Age of Fracture. It’s none of the usual suspects in politics. No, it’s 30 years of the “small is beautiful” post-modern university-based Theory Class that so sliced and diced our identities, and seems to have missed many big forests (plutocracy!) for the little trees (“rational choice”), and devalued the deeper human connections among all of us lonely shoppers. And then they wiped out History, which is to say memory. How strange that while we were entertaining ourselves with the End of History theory, we may have stumbled, with that blindfold on, into the merciless historical fate of empires, and never saw our comeuppance coming.

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