Monday, September 26, 2011

They Who Would Rather Sweat in Squalor

During an unpleasant few moments of an otherwise pleasant visit to Powell's Books, I suffered through almost the whole of the text printed on the jacket of Thomas Friedman's latest book about America's decline. I am not surprised to be confirmed in my suspicion that the book's central argument is weak -- or rather, weak in a familiar way. Adam Gopnik observes that Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum

... present every problem as one confronted by a uniform "we." ... But that's not the case here. Friedman and Mandelbaum want their countrymen to face the future without first facing the facts about their countrymen: this is the country that a lot of "us" want. ... The reason we don't have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it's that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. ... Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don't have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible. ... [T]his is the result of active choice, not passive indifference.
We have the public policies of the representatives we collectively elect, and the anti-government, anti-tax ranters are alarmingly numerous and readily conspicuous -- unless, it seems, you're Tom Friedman or Barack Obama, unaccountably stuck in the precious idea that these people don't exist, or if they exist, don't operate any of the levers of power, or if they exist and operate the levers, don't really aspire to what they explicitly aspire. Or something.

Memo to dolts: look around, and check the mirror. The hidebound monsters who would prefer to sweat in squalor actually exist, they hold power, they want to hold more power, and they mean what they say.

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