Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

David Brooks and the Great Affluence Fallacy

There are no cars, so people walk to the doctor's office, and, often as not, his or her office has something akin to a mud floor. Patients get there early, then wait in line for the most primitive methods of health care imaginable, but primitive is a blessing when the alternative is nil. 

A couple of years ago I stood in a room full of patients, the sun just coming up behind all of us, me the only white person, the only American, and one of few Christians anywhere in the neighborhood. I'll admit it--it's a bit off-putting to be suddenly so unique. I'm not accustomed to being an alien.

The impulse--I felt it myself--is to want to take them all home to spotless health care, home to running water, to electric stoves and refrigerators and air-conditioned comfort; home to SRVs, the NFL, and MickeyDs. I found it impossible to stanch the sense that Africa would be better off if they were here, where you can order up a new pair of sunglasses on-line whenever you darn well please.

It's hard not, body and soul, to buy into American Exceptionalism. It comes with the territory, maybe now more than ever with Michael Phelps out-swimming the world and five tiny tumblers on mat and beam performing as if there were no gravity. For Americans, it's difficult not to think we are, for sure, that blessed city on a hill. That we've got it all.

And we do. Most of it anyway.

David Brooks, in yesterday's NY Times, references stories from American history that, even today, seem unimaginable, stories of captured white folks eventually choosing not to return to "civilization," but stay instead with the communal life of the Native band who'd grabbed them from wagon trains and sod houses. We really don't know what to do with those stories. In west Africa, I had to remind myself that all those people looking for medical care weren't dreaming of America. It was almost impossible for me to believe that they could be happy. 

Brooks says that's a manifestation of what he calls "the Great Affluence Fallacy." Wealth creates choice and blesses us with individuality; poverty can not afford to build expensive homes or the walls that surround them, which makes "community" not only easier but necessary. 

It's not a complicated argument. Neither is it new. The gospels are full of it, really--"I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold." Try that on for size.

Brooks uses it to try to understand the mind of the millennials, a slice of American culture that remains entirely mystifying to boomers like me--and David Brooks. They're marrying late, not buying cars like we did, renting apartment and thereby changing the face of "the American dream." 

In my profession, many--me included--simply don't understand them because they seem firmly committed to their families and far less driven by profession. They have less institutional loyalty and tend to spend more time with their friends (making me wonder, guiltily, if I lived right).

They're not driven, just happy to drive. "They are anti-institutions and anti-system," he says. "Millennials are oriented around neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world." 

For some time, David Brooks has been working at shaping the public American soul, something religionists can't touch and secularists don't recognize.
In this case he may be right--I don't know. Even though what's he's asserting about millennials is only an image in his own crystal ball, it's clear that he thinks our leaving "The Great Affluence Fallacy" behind is a really good thing. "It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap."

If you read the New Testament, it's hard not to argue that Jesus thinks so too.


Anonymous said...

At least this, when the Pilgrims stuck out to get their fresh start they seemed to have the idea of sin down pat, or minimally, understood its existence. I doubt if the millennials have given it [sin] a passing thought. This total depravity stuff has got all of us in a box. Galatians 3:22 "But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin..."

It looks like the Colorado millennials are following in the footsteps of the early settlers, depending on a tobacco crop to fund their fresh start... Maybe they will only be pretending to ditch affluence and freedom and resort to hanging around on buffalo hides smoking weed and pro-creating... who knows? Maybe Brooks has stumbled onto something....

Jerry27 said...

What did Franklin really say? All my life I have been reading that he observed children preferred the "noble savage" to living with their white parents. I think Manfred wrote a book about the white woman who dropped everything to become a "noble savage".

Thanks to the internet, I have recently been exposeed other things Franklin may or may not have said. Thanks to his time in Europe, some people claim he said.

(This prophecy, by Benjamin Franklin,was made in a "CHIT CHAT AROUND THE TABLE DURING INTERMISSION,"at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787. This statementwas recorded in the dairy of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a delegatefrom South Carolina.)

"I fully agree with General Washington, that we must protect this young nation from an insidious influence and impenetration.The menace, gentlemen, is the Jews.