September 7, 2011


Alan Ehrenhalt. The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community of the 1950s (New York: Basic Books, 1995) ("Choice is a good thing in life, and the more of it we have, the happier we are. Authority is inherently suspect; nobody should have a right to tell others what to think or how to behave. . . ." "Those ideas could stand as the manifesto of an entire generation in America, the generation born in the baby-boom years and now [the early twentieth century] in its [late forties, fifties, and sixties]. They are powerful ideas. They all have the ring of truth. But in the past quarter[-plus?]-century, taken to excess, they have caused a great deal of trouble." "The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections--in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility, visible most clearly in schools . . . ." "We have grown fond of saying that that there is no free lunch, but we forget that it applies in moral as well as economic terms, Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets--the ingredients of what we call community--all come at a price. The price is limits on the choices we can make as individuals, rules and authorities who can enforce them . . . " "A generation ago in America, we understood the implicit bargain and most of us were willing to pay the price. What was it really like to live under the terms of that bargain? Would we ever want to do it again?" Id. at 2-3. In reading this book (prompted by my reading a recent op-ed piece in the NYT by David Brooks), I could not help but think that a significant minority (perhaps even a small majority) of Americans would fully embraced a return to an updated version of the authority or authoritarian aspects of the 1950s. That is, there is a significant minority (or small majority) that would like nothing better than to be able to regulate how others live. Of course, they presume that they will be the authority doing the regulating. Just go to work tomorrow and note the increase in top-down, authoritarian-style management and decision making that has engulfed not just corporate America, but government, education, etc. Yours is not to reason why (i.e., think and criticize), yours is but to do, quit or be fired. Group-think, though denied, is standard operating procedure. Yes, we baby-boomers worshipped and obsessed on choice, and it has gotten us to the mess of early twentieth-century America. Yes, America is failing. (There is a line from the HBO series, The Wire, where one of the characters utters these telling lines: "Do you know what's the trouble is . . . We used to make shit, build shit. Now we just put our hands in the next guy's pocket.") And, yes, many long for more authority and less choice. Yet, I fear that America would not return to the not-so-good-old-days of America in the 1950s described by Ehrenhalt in The Lost City. Rather, I fear that America and Americans, in seeking the comfort and safety that deference to authority might bring, will find itself and themselves in a society more like Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. "The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes- danger from within and without. We need law and order . . . . Without law and order our nation cannot survive . . . ." Adolph Hitler, 1932. Be careful what you wish for, your wishes may come true. Your savior may be your downfall.).