Coming home from school the other day, my younger son, a high school senior, dumped a glossy text book on the dining room table and took up a chill-out-after-classes pose on the couch. He doesn't drink much as yet, but he turned on the TV and let it wash over him ... sitcoms, sports, ads ... all the colorful distractions. I once read that there was a study showing that it didn't matter what anyone watched on TV -- from egregious violence to thought-provoking analysis -- the chemical effect on the brain is the same: Alpha waves -- the poor man's drug of soothing choice.
The book on the table was entitled something like "Chronicles of World War II." As I passed it by, I asked my son how he was getting on in understanding the political machinations that brought Adolph Hitler to power. He had expressed something between boredom and confusion about the incremental gyrations that helped create one of the world's most visible dictators. He said it was still a bit of a blur in his mind, but that he was getting it a little at a time. No doubt, in an educational setting that puts some emphasis on meaning and explanation, he will have to write a two- or three-page paper on some aspect of that shiny tome.
In future times, I wonder if some teenager will have to write a two- or three-page paper about the times we currently live in ... something that explains and finds meaning, but does not really require much thought. And a possible title crossed my mind: "The Greatest Degeneration," a play on former newsman Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," which depicts the resolve and sorrow and triumph of those who experienced The Depression and World War II...a time when a hand-shake was good enough. The greatest degeneration might depict a once-great country that bit by bit consumed its own entrails.
-- On the TV, the BBC interviewed a woman who had written a book about the rise and rot of a security apparatus the grew up out of the Sept. 11, 2001, demolition of the World Trade Towers in New York City. Now a multi-billion dollar industry, the apparatus is so ensorcelled by its own original task -- to short-circuit future 'terrorist' assaults -- that it cannot back down or back off: No politician dares to say there is incredible and in some cases ludicrous expenditure in pursuit of some perfect, unattainable 'security.' To do so would risk a terrible price if something went wrong, some attack did take place, and the judgments you had made were seen as contributing to a less-than-perfect bulwark against the future. So the expenditures get bigger and bigger; civil rights are eroded drip by drop; and whatever terrorists there are must be laughing their asses off that the greatest and most carelessly flamboyant country in the world was bleeding itself dry in pursuit of the unattainable -- control of the future.
-- With unemployment at a stubborn 9.1%, there is no place to turn. The government proves itself on an almost daily basis to be a dysfunctional giant, as for example during the recent protracted debate about raising the federal debt ceiling ... an unthinkable political ploy during the era of "the greatest generation." Led by the Republicans, everyone can point out what is wrong but no one dares to put forth in practical terms what might be right for fear of being hooted down. Fear of losing a livelihood bands together with panic on the part of those who already have lost their livelihood as a result of the bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008 ... a bubble created by lack of regulation brought on by the powerful who write the laws that politicians pass. The taxpayer money that keeps these people in business is no longer taxpayer money that deserves to be spent wisely and for the benefit of taxpayers. It is a birthright of those in a dysfunctional government. There is rising anger: As a Somali intelligence officer put it on TV when describing the pirates off his coast: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you."
-- Children encouraged to get a college education really need that education in order to enter a technologically-savvy work force. But that same education indentures them to a debt load that erases the 'benefits' of a college education ... a reasonably secure and fruitful life. The middle class becomes the new and improved class of serfs.
-- Two wars -- currently in Afghanistan and Iraq -- bleed the coffers that might support an electorate that fills those coffers. Neither was ever well-documented or explained. Both represented a shift in policy away from war as a means of combating a concrete and painful threat on into a realm where a potential threat was enough to warrant invasion, expenditure and death ... not to mention a fear to inspire a taxpaying electorate. If you have no vision and no purpose ... well, blame and kill somebody else.
-- It was a time without gravitas or shame, a time when personal responsibility was overwhelmed by personal aggrandizement, either as a matter of survival or as a way of maintaining a well-feathered existence. Like a deer frozen in the headlights, there is a sense of "If I stand still and be quiet, perhaps the bad news won't notice me." This sense is increasingly informed by an inchoate and rising anger because, of course, whether still or in action, the bad news does notice me, surround me, squeeze me like some lazily assured boa constrictor.
-- "The Greatest Degeneration" will no doubt be better argued in future, but I have a feeling that the upshot will be an implicit or explicit takeover by some less-principled giant ... some merchant state Visigoths who view the United States as a bit of territory worth having, if only for a summer cottage.