Prosperity Doesn't Age Well
New York Times Op-Ed, Friday, 24 September 1999, A27
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||I am not sure how to break it to
my students as they boot up their computers and get back
to studying American history this fall. But I do feel
compelled to tell them: Enjoy this remarkable boom while
it lasts, for your historical reputation is toast.
The sobering truth is that historians censure those generations blessed with peace and prosperity. In most textbooks, the 1980's are the decade of greed, the 50's the decade of complacency, the 20's the decade of excess. It is the Depression of the 1930's that is Great, and the World War II years that are noble.
Most historians treat decades of prosperity as aberrant moments of selfishness when Americans turned inward and allowed trivial things to distract them from doing great things. These epochs become "gilded ages," momentary shopping sprees when Americans escape the natural, and depressing, human condition.
Only the 1960's have escaped this straitjacket. Alas, America had to endure violence and social upheaval during that boom time to escape the stench of success. Even so, baby boomers often overstate their own involvement in the student rebellion. It is more entertaining, and ennobling, to claim you were marching at Selma, cavorting at Woodstock, picketing the campus R.O.T.C., than to admit you spent the 60's washing the Buick, watching "Laugh-In," or doing homework.
Why are historians so enamored with hard times? Even scholars are attuned to the marketplace, and conflict sells. It is exciting to write about protests, Pearl Harbor, the Great Crash. It is sexier to describe upheavals, to see how wrongs were righted, to condemn injustice, than to inventory the miracle of middle-class prosperity.
But there are deeper assumptions that also distort our view of history. Most historians share the hortatory presumption that a life well-lived is one spent on some battlefield - an assumption that runs counter to most people's natural desire for stability, routine, and comfort.
True, when historians write about the 1990's, it may be hard to find great heroes. We are the sole superpower, and the greatest, richest, economic colossus in history. Yet we have watched the gap between rich and poor widen enormously while most of us -- meaning the upper middle class whose experiences and anxieties the media universalize - seem most interested in sipping our cappuccino, surfing the Net and tracking our stocks.
We suffer from a lack of social purpose. We feel inadequate compared to past heroes. President Clinton has mourned all along that unlike Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, he has had no great war or other trauma in which to prove himself. Instead, he is stuck with limited foreign interventions, a soaring stock market, a few feeble domestic programs, and the occasional brouhaha surrounding one of his self-inflicted wounds.
Our challenge today is to find meaning not in a national crisis, but in an individual's daily life. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it in the 19th century by preaching a transcendent spiritualism; Theodore Roosevelt did it in the 20th century by living vigorously and promoting a muscular moralism.
I hope my students enjoy new cars, big homes and generous stock options while making the world as just as possible. Prosperity does not necessarily preclude idealism. Starchy historians should stop complaining. Isn't having it all the American dream?
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