Sunday, July 06, 2008

The ebb of discipline

The Wimbledon final--the second best that I have ever seen, after 1980, the one it most resembled--is finally over. I'm going on vacation tomorrow but I wanted to post today.

The Supreme Court is on vacation, and I can therefore turn to a much broader issue that I have been thinking about for a long time--about the decline of discipline in western civilization. While I am convinced that such a decline has taken place, I cannot really decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

The decline of discipline is related to something else I have often discussed here--the decline of rationalism, which began, I think, a little over 40 years ago when my generation became young adults and had to confront the ultra-rationalistic world that our parents had created. They were rightly proud of that world--in many ways, particularly economically, it was one of the more just societies that had been created. Yes, it had denied opportunities to black Americans and to women, but the first of those problems was being corrected and the second would easily be as well. Yet it was a world of discipline and restraint. Men and women dressed alike and expected their lives to conform to established patterns. Women devoted themselves to their families, men to lifetime careers with the same corporation or institution. Sex and procreation were intimately linked. Work was highly organized, both for unionized workers and for executives. Expectations were also disciplined, partly by 90% marginal tax rates. (Those rates had been significantly rolled back in 1964, but Lyndon Johnson did impose a surtax in 1967 to pay for Vietnam.) Academics had to base their findings on thorough research. Professional athletes had little bargaining power and had to listen to management and their coaches. Politicians had to respect the interests of their parties, and also understood the need to compromise across party lines to get something done.

In praising those times, I cannot ignore something else--they were, in a sense, inhuman. A new generation was certain to rebel. Nor were our elders, alas, infallible, as the catastrophe of Vietnam proved. The reaction against everything they had taught went too far--but it was inevitable. And meanwhile, we can now see the mid-twentieth century as the product of a much longer series of developments in western life that had had many sad consequences.

The western impulse towards rationalization and organization goes back to the 18th century and the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, it re-organized economic life along industrial lines, and untold millions toiled ten hours day, 52 weeks a year, to create a new civilization. Industrialized war swept the world beginning in 1914, and the first 2/3 of the twentieth century were the age of mass armies and wars that killed in the millions. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia showed that the impulse towards discipline and organization could be combined with the basest human emotions, with catastrophic results. Since humanity is only intermittently rational--and since reason, as Hume argued, tends to become the slave of the passions--a belief in rationality, it turns out, can be as much of a trap as a belief in revealed truth.

The western revolt against authority that began in the late 1960s has continued and has had far-reaching consequences. Some are pernicious. In academia, the authority of data has given way to the authority of perspective, and conclusions are accepted or rejected based upon who has reached them. Others, however, have made our mistakes less disastrous. The end of conscription of the United States (eventually followed in every western country) was one of the most enduring results of the Vietnam War. It has not stopped my own generation from undertaking its own ruinous wars, but it has very much limited their scale. That is not a bad thing.

More broadly, one could say that in the last forty years restraints upon sexual and economic excess have been loosened, while new kinds of restraints limit the damage of political excess. The economic irresponsibility of the last three decades seems about to come home to roost. It seems that most, if not all, major financial institutions now hold large quantities of probably worthless assets such as bonds based upon sub-prime mortgages or incomprehensible derivatives, and that is bound to catch up with us sooner or later and wipe out a great deal of accumulated wealth. Sexual behavior is, if anything, subject to new rounds of regulation, but there is no sign of a return to the 1950s. But in the political sphere--and particularly in foreign policy--we have probably seen the worst excesses we are likely to see, and by comparison with the 1930s and 1940s they are not so bad.

The Boom generation has been ruled by its emotions for 40 years. Generation X is not. That is why Barack Obama's sudden emergence--at a moment when the youngest Boomers are still not yet 50--makes a certain amount of sense. The country is ready for a lower-key approach to its problems. I hope he can deliver on the opportunity.


Anonymous said...

You could say it's a decline of discipline. I have seen it referred to as a decline in leadership. Look at the head honchos in the corporate world, the media, Congress, the Supremes, bureaucracy, and the party system. It's not pretty and it hasn't been for a while.

I have often been bemused by the surfeit of sensible, indeed brilliant people in the States and how thoroughly they seem to be culled from any potential political position of power.

You have to be part of the machine, not a critic of it, to step up to the plate in the land of the free.

The ignorant, self-absorbed lassitude that dominant and prosperous societies (or empires) seem to fall into after a time, have become obvious lately in the US. You say 'the West' generally and it's true to a degree but the condition is far more advanced in America. It has bubbled under the surface for years but the Bush years have accelerated it.

Glenn Condell

Anonymous said...

This whole 40 year period in America and the unwinding of the New Deal needs to go into a massive book called The Revolt of the Elites
Has this not been the dominant characteristic of the American elite since the end of the Korean conflict? They are in it for themselves and the rest of the world and all the Americans below them can go hang.
The incredible irony of the socially permissive GenX is that they also embody a return to elite responsibility. If Bush is the nadir of the 1960s culture, Obama is what follows, the clean up crew, serious and earnest.