I often rail against the narcissistic side of our culture. We find it hard in this country to honor and enhance public space. We develop, economically, with little or no regard to our environment and little or no interest in anything resembling aesthetics. At one time, this was charming because Americans were, in much of the twentieth century, admired for pragmatism and simple virtues. In WWII American troops were much admired for the civilized way they acted–from what I heard in personal remembrances of Europeans when I lived there was that Americans were much nicer than, say, the Brits.
My father just died and his generation who fought WWII and then created a Pax Americana meant to create an order where the United States represented rule-of-law and pragmatism in international affairs. And, despite the emergence of a corrupt intel community, for much of the post-WWII period, his generation (he was a Foreign Service Officer) did a decent job at establishing what they set out to do. I’m not discounting the imperialists and martinets that were forcing America to the right and everywhere supported right-wing regimes throughout the world but there were plenty of decent men and women in the State Dept, CIA and the military that truly worked for positive change. The same could be said for Wall Street and other institutions–I have, for example, talked to old retired crusty Wall Street big-wheels who are truly dismayed at what has happened to the Street even by their piratical values this generation is beyond belief. These execs grew up with codes of honor, mind you, these codes did not include egalitarianism at all but there were things that one didn’t do. That’s all over now.
The last conversation with my father (he was involved in all kinds of progressive causes and made his views known more emphatically than I ever have) found him deeply discouraged and wondering what had he worked for all his life to see the United States come to this. And by this I mean this situation. He was always optimistic about this country and loved it passionately–his parents were immigrants and he was given the opportunity to do things they would hardly have imagined when they came to this country. Here we are, he said, and it’s hard to find hope anywhere. I’ve always been far more pessimistic than him and predicted, as he knew, a gradual descent into neo-feudalism which I thought 20 years ago was inevitable given the fact of the seeming death of public virtue and shared values that has occurred, really, since the 70’s.