Back in the 1830's, a young French aristocrat returned from a nine month journey across the young United States and wrote a two-volume set of reflections on his trip. One of the great gifts of Democracy in America is the introduction of so many themes for understanding who we are as a people. De Tocqueville, while curious about so much of our national life, was not impressed with what he saw as the potential of our burgeoning capitalist society for stripping meaning from the life of the people. His warnings proved prophetic, and have been cited and repeated, and sometimes even elaborated without the later author understanding their source, so full and deep has his critique entered our national psyche.
In the New York Times, Harvard philosopher Sean Kelly offers a defense of our middle class life that strikes me as flawed in any number of ways (not the least of them a positive citation of the egregiously awful David Brooks).
The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.This pluralistic emendation to a cursory summary of suburban values is a pangloss on what more sensitive commentators - the article begins with Nietzsche, but also Jonathan Franzen (the inheritor of John Barth among others who view suburbia with a jaundiced eye) - which, I believe, misses the point critics (not least of them Nietzsche) continue to make. It isn't that these commitments aren't real, or unimportant, or animating for a life lived in their shadow. Rather, they are a life lived small. The aperture narrows and narrows until all that seems to be left is the flow of day-to-day, with meaning ascribed to it without any reference to any larger framework.
Except, of course, capitalism provides the framework within this denuded Weltanschauung, insisting that "solidarity" is best limited to those we encounter in our daily round. Political action for change is outside what capitalism sets as the conditions of possibility. Religion becomes the enforcer of this complacence, tracing a narrative of moral conformity and final reward in a mockery of capitalist accumulation.
This is not to say our encounters with those immediately present to us are not important, even necessary to our living a full life. Yet, while necessary, they are not sufficient. The authors who first encountered suburbia after the Second World War, and their spiritual offspring, saw in the enforced conformity, the by-laws of neighborhood groups and gated communities, an acquiescence that left the greatest generation staggering under a burden of commitments that stripped any identification with the larger society.
As that life is less and less tenable due to our current economic straits, we are finding ourselves more and more unable to articulate a vision of commitment precisely because for too long we have been told that "what you see is what you get", and we haven't been given any help in seeing beyond our immediate surroundings. The result isn't agitation for redressing our political and economic grievances. Rather, it is the Tea Party, the Birthers, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. We are given targets for rage rather than tools to shape a passion for fixing our ills.
We are reaping the fruits of the prophets of the simple life in suburbia, and we are finding them to be rotten, inedible, unable to sustain us in extremis. Our churches no longer give us a view of the common life as shared suffering for a better world for all; our politics is no longer responsive to the needs of the people; our corporations long ago ceased being run by the owners (the stockholders), being managed in absentia for their supposed benefit. Where are we to turn for help?
Sean Kelly? I think perhaps not.