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March 29, 2010

Time for a Reset? Better than some of the options

In an earlier post I mentioned an article by Kurt Andersen.  I liked his piece so much that I checked out his website and found that he has recently published Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America“Values” can be a tricky word in America, as it can mean conservative Christianity.  I have nothing against conservative Christianity, per se, but those aren’t the values I see missing in America, but after reading the blurb on Amazon.com, I decided to read for myself.  And I’m very glad that I did.

While I didn’t agree with all Andersen had to say, I do recommend the book–more of a long essay, really–to anyone interested in the future of America.  The part that had me nodding my head in agreement was his argument that basically my generation of Americans needs to grow up on many levels.  He used the tale of the grasshopper and the ant.  The grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works hard preparing for the coming winter.  Andersen compares America of the past 30 years–since the Reagan years and just when my generation was coming of age–to the grasshopper.  And he points out that Americans used to be ants.  We’ve had cycles, and we needed that grasshopper streak in order to become what we’ve become, but it’s been dominant too long now.  As he put it, “it’s simply time to ratchet back our wild and crazy grasshopper side and get in touch with our inner ant” (20).

One thing Andersen hopes this crisis will do is bring back America’s pragmatism.  We’re not the only pragmatic people in the world, but once upon a time we were very good at it.  So good at it, in fact, that probably the most influential school of homegrown American philosophy was called Pragmatism, and was founded in the 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce and followed by some of our more well known philosophers, William James and John Dewey.  On some levels, they took a national trait and codified it into a philosophical tool.

Another great 19th century American school of thought was Transcendentalism, and one of its major proponents, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is also cited in the book.  To be very reductionist, the Trancendentalists encouraged people to work hard, develop themselves to their highest state, and spare resources and live frugally and in harmony with nature.  Henry David Thoreau, another Transcendentalist, was Emerson’s good friend and neighbor and is today best known for living in his hut by Walden Pond, an early proponent of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Like many people, Andersen sees times of crisis as potential good.  As he says, “This is the end of the world as we’ve known it.  But it isn’t the end of the world” (17).  And some of the things in the world we’ve known haven’t been good.  Too few are in control of far too much; workers’ wages have not been increased at the same rate as the bosses’.  He gave some interesting statistics on this.  “An average American CEO has been getting paid several hundred times the salary of his average worker, a gap an order of magnitude longer than it was in the 1970s.  In Japan, the ratio is just eleven to one, and in Britain, twenty-two to one” (11).  America is a capitalist country, I get that.  But we’ve also given lip service to fairness and justice.

Andersen likened America at the beginning of the 21st century to the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  While there was something in that, I must say that there are times when it reminds me much more of the Court of Versailles around 1785.  There was a very small ruling elite, sometimes giving lipservice to “the people,” but for the most part stuck in an Ancien Regime.  Back then, some were valiantly trying to bring the French government into a new era, but too many people were angry, hungry, jobless and frightened.  That was a recipe for disaster.  I’m not saying that there will be a violent and bloody revolution–21st century Americans aren’t that bloodthirsty towards their own kind–but I do think we’re heading for a major change and I fear it might be bumpier than we’d like.

Andersen’s book is short, only 72 pages long, but it gave me a lot to think about.  I post this to encourage you to have a read and have a think.

Andersen, Kurt. Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America. New York: Random House, 2009.

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