Fearless Reason

Fearless reason in an age of frightened absurdity.

Category: Social Commentary

Panem et Circenses

A democratic nation is only as good and wise as the most middling of men who comprises it, but also only as evil and ignorant. This is both blessing and curse to the democratic nation, for the median quality of a polity is both slow to rise, and slow to fall. For nearly our entire history the United States has enjoyed a constant and steady march towards a more civilized and advanced civilization, and an ever wiser and more virtuous middling man. Progress has sometimes been slow, and often halting, but the idea that we as a nation are moving onward and upward has long been taken for granted. The last hundred years has seen remarkable technological and cultural advances, a trend largely driven by an increasingly educated and affluent middle class, the inertia of which has caused many to believe with the faith of the religious, that the prosperity and progress will never end.

As we approach the zenith of our affluence and technological advancement we find ourselves confronted with another double edged sword, which has been both plague and blessing. Some men are driven to better themselves and their surroundings by the strength of their ideas, and an unquenchable ambition to attain some unattainable notion of perfection – but these men are few. Most men have more realistic ambitions; they find their pleasures in the company of family and friends, and seek out comfort, security, and diversions that entertain. These middling men know a happiness and contentment not found in the restless soul of their more ambitious and successful counterparts, but together, these two types of men have moved this country steadily onward and upward throughout its history. This partnership has long been of great benefit to the civilization as whole, and all have benefited. With most of society desiring comfort and diversion, progress has come to be equated with greater levels of physical comfort and means of entertainment for an ever greater portion of the population. Our capacity for both has become enormous, so that even the most middling of men will find nearly infinite entertainment, enjoyed amidst an abundance of cheap food and material luxury. However, as we reach the point of saturation for both comfort and diversion, one must wander what will become of the middling man, now that all of his ambitions have been satisfied.

These impulses, carried over from a time when humanity fought merely to survive, have carried us to heights unimagined. However, at the height of our achievement, the threats to our ongoing survival and prosperity are much more subtle than they were for our ancestors. In the lap of luxury and ease, most find their attention and energies consumed by banality and complacence. If we are to overcome our present condition, great and middling men alike must learn not only to survive, but to live purposefully and well. Having achieved all of his ambitions, the middling man has become politically disengaged, and socially apathetic. Still industrious at work, he is asleep at home and in his community. The short sighted desires engendered by the paradigm of immediate survival have rendered our society incapable of dealing with long term problems, which affect our wellbeing and existence. The long term existential threats to our environment and economy have taken a backseat to the immediate banality of pop culture, which offers diversion, and the comfort of not thinking about that which is unpleasant.

To survive, humanity must move beyond short-term gratification and immediate survival. We must trade our feasts for simple wholesome foods, and put away our toys and circuses, to dedicate ourselves to the cultivation of our minds and souls. Greatness is now required of great and middling men alike – to survive, mere survival can no longer be our only concern.

Quality Living

Since industrialization American culture has been defined by a drive towards efficiency and productivity. Since that time efficiency, standardization, and volume of production have been the aspirational goals of every business and product, and have come to be the defining characteristics of American culture. For many years now Americans have not only evaluated their businesses by these industrial values, but also their lifestyles.

It is the values of the assembly line that gave us Walmart, McDonalds, and the other national chains that litter every exit ramp across America. This has lead many to lament the death of the small town idiosyncrasies that once made American culture so diverse and rich. However, most have gladly traded diversity for the certainty of a hamburger that tastes the same in every state, and large quantities of cheap products located at a store near you.

Over the past 20 years or so, however, America has been undergoing yet another transformation, as the service sector has displaced the industrial as the engine of economic growth and prosperity. The service sector currently consist of 76.8% of America’s GDP, compared to 22.1% for the industrial sector. This means the majority of Americans make their living by providing services of a menial, professional or technical nature rather than making products.

Though I do not believe this transition is either wise or sustainable, I must admit its impact on American culture is proving to be quite interesting. Just as the industrial age gave us national chains, the service age has created a backlash against them. Sometimes referred to as the “new American localism” many young professionals and others at the forefront of the service economy have expressed a renewed interest in buying locally and investing in their communities.

In many ways this shift can be attributed to the nature of the service economy and the decentralizing effect of technology. For the most part industrial workers are cogs in a machine. Their tasks are often repetitive, isolated, and require low to moderate skill. Free thought is neither valued nor cultivated in this worker, whose greatest virtue is that he is replaceable. The service economy worker must have a very different skill set. Even the most menial of service economy workers has some degree of ongoing interaction with other people, whether they be customers or fellow workers. As one moves up the ladder of the service economy to the higher skill jobs it also becomes apparent that creativity and knowledge are also highly valued traits.

As people are increasingly free to live and work where they want, in jobs that require knowledge and imagination, it is not surprising these people are willing to invest in the communities they have chosen and seek out things that reflect their own individuality. It is similarly not surprising that the cities that best reflect these values are seeing the most robust growth in their moderate to high skill service sectors. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston are all consistently ranked as having the best quality of life, as well as being the best places for young professionals. It is important to note that the criteria these surveys use to rank quality of life usually includes things like quality local cuisine (non-chains), and vibrant creative communities. In this way McDonalds is being replaced as the symbol of American culture and civilization by the locally owned coffee shop.

I am optimistic about this new trend in American culture. While living in Europe I was always impressed by the richness of people’s everyday lives. I found that people their seemed to know a secret that Americans did not, which is that while work may be a science, living should be an art. There are many great and wonderful things that came out of the industrial age. America has experienced tremendous economic prosperity because we fully embraced the ideas of efficiency and productivity in the workplace. However, these values should stay in the workplace. Transferred to everyday life these ideas strip life of all its beauty and dignity, causing us to sacrifice quality for quantity and alienating us from our communities.

Whatever happens to the service economy into the future I hope the American people retain this renewed interest in quality living. Let work be science, but make living art.