In the globally connected and affluent world of the 21st century, we thankfully have evolved a long way from the elemental poverty, hunger, and ethnic, religious, and racial hatred that were mostly the norm of the world until the last century.
Yet who would know of such progress — and the great sacrifices made to achieve it — from the howls of our postmodern oppressed? In fact, the better life has become, the more victimized modern affluent Westerners seem to act.
The late-19th-century industrialization that ensured a vastly better American material existence also took a terrible toll on the American landscape. Conservation movements of the mid-20th century struggled with the monumental task of cleaning up a century’s worth of polluted rivers, toxic waste, and dirty air. The battle for a cleaner environment must continue, but given its astounding successes, it now lacks the drama of past existential challenges.
If our grandparents once agitated to ensure that San Francisco Bay would not shrink in half because of landfills, or that there would still be stands of virgin redwoods along the California coast, our generation continues the heroic green struggle by bonding with a three-inch-long bait fish in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The efforts to divert irrigation water for the poor delta smelt not only were based on fuzzy science, but took thousands of acres of prime farmland out of production — and threw thousands of struggling farmworkers out of a job. Giants used to save bald eagles; their progeny stop important projects in order to investigate the livelihood of a local species of rat or toad.
If John Muir and his followers saved Half Dome and El Capitan, his present adherents wish to blow up the dam that created the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, killing a crucial supply of drinking water, hydroelectric power, flood control, and irrigation. For decades, the historic stone bridges over the flood-prone Merced River have enhanced an idyllic Yosemite Valley. Today environmentalists want them destroyed to ensure that the river can occasionally expand into “wetlands.”
Multimillionaire rapper Jay-Z recently warned that class warfare in the streets may be looming, given the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots. But contemporary Americans are not quite John Steinbeck’s Joads. And Jay-Z is no straitlaced Eugene Debs, the ex–locomotive fireman and socialist firebrand who sought a revolution in the society of early-20th-century America.
Today, obesity, not malnutrition, is America’s epidemic. Our youth’s education is hindered by too many cell phones, not access to too few books. Misogynistic and obscene lyrics may have enriched Jay-Z, but they reflect the sort of values that lead millions to remain in poverty, rather than becoming disciplined cadres organizing for social justice.
Are we to imagine that Jay-Z and Beyoncé, in the manner of their recent promenading among the impoverished of socialist Cuba, will hit the streets to storm the American Bastille — accompanied by their retinue of hairdressers, chauffeurs, investment advisers, and bodyguards?
Much has been written about Rachel Jeantel, routinely described as the prosecution’s “star witness” in the George Zimmerman trial, almost as if she were some sort of new-generation civil-rights icon. Jeantel has been variously praised by liberals for her street smarts, and lamented by conservatives as emblematic of the tragic detours of the Great Society. Both agree that in some sense she is a victim of the social forces that for decades now have been forging an underclass.
Perhaps — but from her testimony and her post-trial interviews for hire, we learned that Ms. Jeantel was confident and savvy about using electronic media while at the same time apparently illiterate, given that she could not read “cursive.” Yet whose fault is it that she preferred to post obscenities rather than scroll over to a book? Jeantel’s worldview appears anti-liberal to the core. She admitted that her original testimony under oath was not fully accurate: Trayvon Martin, we now learn, wanted to “whoop ass” and so threw the first blow against Zimmerman. Yet Jeantel did not say that at the trial; she was quite willing to see the defendant convicted on false testimony.
Jeantel was unapologetic about her use of “retarded” as a putdown, her preposterous homophobic accusations that George Zimmerman could have been some sort of crazed gay rapist, and her casual use of slurs like “bitch,” “nigga,” and “crazy ass cracker.” True, Jeantel is impoverished and no doubt “underserved” by a host of government agencies entrusted with providing support to the less well off. Yet by both past American and present global standards, she is not victimized in the sense of suffering hunger, unaddressed health problems, or lack of access to technology.
In today’s topsy-turvy world, we are to emphasize the untruth that Ms. Jeantel is poor in the Dickensian sense, while ignoring the truth that her matter-of-fact worldview is by contemporary liberal benchmarks homophobic, racist, and misogynistic — and entirely contrary to the race-blind meritocracy that a much poorer, much more heroic generation of civil-rights leaders once sacrificed for.
From 1619 to 1865, African-Americans in a large region of North America were enslaved. For the century following the Civil War, they were deprived in the South of civil rights that were supposed to be accorded citizens of the United States, and elsewhere were often subjected to insidious racism. In the last half-century, a vast private effort has sought to change the American psyche while a vast public one has used government resources to attempt to redress racist legacies. These are elemental issues of good and evil that are at the heart of the human experience and must continue to be addressed — but not in the manner of our era of psychodramatic trivialization.
Recently, ten former contestants on the hit show American Idol sued, alleging that they lost the competition because of the supposedly racist and prejudicial practice of taking competitors’ prior records of arrest into account. That injustice prompted the failed contestants to sue for $25 million in damages — on the grounds that they had been subjected to “cruel and inhuman treatment.”
A prior age sought to ensure civil rights for all; our era assumes that not winning millions from a game show is proof of literal torture — for each “victim” worth $25 million in compensation. But then again, we live in an age when the word “brown bag” is considered racist diction. Miffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, after his tussle with the Cambridge police, donated his plastic handcuffs to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. Perhaps Gates’s plastic cuffs will be displayed alongside the rusty iron chains of chattel slaves.
Our generation does what it can, but in this time of unbridled wealth and leisure, it can be an unheroic task. The historically ignorant Oprah Winfrey exemplified such psychodrama when she compared Travyon Martin to the lynched and mutilated Emmett Till — and by extension George Zimmerman to the acquitted racist murderers of Till. Oprah must have thought that false simile up while jetting back to her Montecito estate.
Since Barack Obama took office in 2009, 15 million Americans have been added to the food-stamp rolls — on top of the over 14 million who were added during President Bush’s eight years in office. Recipients now include almost one in six Americans. Yet apparently to suggest that this vast increase in subsidies is a result of vast relaxation in standards, or that the increase does not mean that another 15 million Americans were suddenly in elemental need, is, in the words of former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tantamount to “taking food out of the mouths of babies.”
We are all worried about the diet of those on government assistance, but in my community the dangers to youth are the results not of an absence of calories, but rather of the uneconomical and habitual consumption of fast-food meals, sugar-laden soft drinks, and processed desserts, coupled with a lack of exercise — and the commensurate epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and kidney ailments that threatens to institutionalize poor health and ensure abbreviated lives. If nearly 50 million people on food stamps in a society suffering record levels of obesity is supposed to indicate too little rather than too much government help, why not ensure that 70 or 80 or 100 million have similar access to assistance?
Our entire society is experiencing the sort of cultural devolution associated with the further decline from modernism to postmodernism. If a skilled modern artist like Picasso became famous by ignoring canons of classical representation, then postmodern hack successors were left with nothing much to rebel against, and so gave us crucifixes in urine bottles and excrement thrown onto pictures of Christ. If brilliant moderns like T. S. Eliot often abandoned strict rules of metrics, rhyme, and poetic diction that they had themselves mastered, postmodern mediocrities who could not distinguish an hexameter from a metaphor write out banal phrases, randomly slice and dice the lines, and call it poetry.
In the same way, our modern social critics suffer and agonize when the war to save redwoods becomes a battle over the possible decline of a bait fish, and iron chains hang next to plastic handcuffs.