Americans are already too inclined to believe in their own righteousness. Their tendency toward what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘the perpetual utterance of self-applause’ often leads them to make foolish mistakes. They certainly don’t need theologians telling them that their good intentions entitle them, over the inevitable objections of billions of their would-be subjects, to appoint themselves the world’s benevolent despot.
A volatile mixture of arousal and shame, attraction and disgust may partially explain why the Duke University undergraduate who was recently outed as a porn actress has become the target of vicious verbal abuse online. With 70 percent of men aged 18 to 24 admitting to watching porn, I find it hard to believe that all of those threatening her with violence unambiguously disapprove of her choice of career. More likely, they find it simultaneously alluring and repulsive to think of one of their peers acting in a porn movie — and react by turning their self-loathing outward toward the external source of their discomfort.
Why did the Ming allow itself to become isolationist, stagnant, and backward-looking? Historians are divided, but the leading explanation is simply put, when a country thinks it’s in a golden age, it stops focusing on progress. America shows troubling signs of falling into this trap.
The gap between what America aspires to do and what it does is closing. These disclosures are like super-sutures. We are that inattentive cyclist; Snowden is the person who opens the cab door that slams into us and throws us to the ground.
Basically, America is separating into aristocrats and peasants.
On one hand you have an upper-middle class and upper class who go to good colleges and have skilled jobs. These people tend to have healthy family values — they get married and stay married, they pay a lot of attention to their kids. They are civically engaged and physically healthy. On the other hand you have uneducated masses, who tend not to stay married, to leave child-raising to single mothers, and to neglect the kids. They are overweight, bedraggled, and disengaged from the community.
At the loftiest heights of the income pyramid, American meritocracy is broken, replaced by the shameful self-dealing of the superrich.
All of us recognize the way the breakdown in meritocracy is playing itself out closer to the middle class. In theory, capitalism provides equal opportunities to every individual, allowing him or her to use innate talent and ambition, combined with more than a dash of luck, to achieve economic success. Also in theory, economic failure is supposed to be justly earned, a product of a deficiency of talent, ambition, and luck.
The reality, of course, is very different — and becoming more so with every passing year. We start out our lives profoundly unequal. Some Americans grow up impoverished, attending chaotic, academically worthless schools, and exposed to an enormous range of social and cultural obstacles to achievement both at home and in the local environment. Others, by contrast, receive a world-class education at school, continual emotional and scholastic support at home, access to tutors, test-prep, and even pharmaceuticals to compensate for a range of cognitive and behavioral deficits.
Ideally, the symbolic nature of the presidency would be lessened and the passions of citizens more restrained. But we must deal in reality. Today, the symbolism of the presidency has never been greater, and the factionalism and passions that so concerned Founders like John Adams are unquestionably on the upswing. In an age in which the media can so easily fan the flames either of worship or ridicule, and when an ever larger segment of the population finds it natural to vent and publicize their every thought through Facebook and Twitter, we are moving steadily farther from sober and responsible control of public passion.
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