Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Downside of Liberty

Here are the first three paragraphs from a NYT op-ed piece under this title by writer Kurt Andersen: 

“This spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?

“There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.

“What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.”

Christopher Lasch had this same epiphany over three decades ago, when he wrote about the “culture of narcissism” in the US. But no one is a prophet in his own land, and Andersen won’t be either.

Why did self-absorption and self-indulgence won the day? Everyone has their favorite conspiracy theory. According to Andersen's, "a  kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
"Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium."  

What can be done to partly reverse the trend toward excessive selfishness? Andrersen hopes to help this noble cause by doing his Independence Day “small preachery bit.” Good luck with that; or perhaps he should have read Eric Klinenberg’s “Going Solo” before wasting his time. Unless his real objective was to promote his upcoming new book.

P.S. As I have noted before, Jonathan Franzen also has thick book elucidating the downside of what has passed for "freedom" in American society over the last half century or so.