Jim Manzi writes on the Krugmanesque Nostalgia
I’m somewhat younger than Krugman, but as they say, the future arrives unevenly. I grew up in a small town with an experience not unlike this. I’m very sympathetic to Krugman’s choking nostalgia. It’s difficult to convey the almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood to anybody who didn’t live it.
The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows. The idea of having, or being, “help” seemed like something from old movies about another time.
Almost anybody who experienced it this way (and of course, not everybody did), intuitively wants something like it for his own children. The tragedy, in my view, is that, though we all thought of this as the baseline of normality, this really was an exceptional moment in our nation’s history.
To but a negative spin on it: what both Paul and Jim hate is freedom.
I say this because I want people to understand why so many people around the world hate freedom and why they probably do to.
A free society is one where these is enormous opportunity for expression and technological advancement, but is that anywhere in these descriptions of childhood Eden? Or is Eden comprised of shared experienced, certainty, stability, safety and a feeling of commonality with your fellow man.
Is this version of Eden in an Iphone, a Prius, a 200 mph train? Is it in modern art or spoken word? Is it found on the pages of the Nation or the National Review? Can you get it on 500 channels of cable TV? Is it more deeply felt when you believe the President is an honest hero or when you find out that like all men, he lies when he feels he can get away with it.
Is Eden in the constant dynamism of an economy in which you make make twice the median income one year, but may be unemployed the next. Is it Eden when criminals you though were guilty go free or when murders are swiftly brought to justice. When DNA evidence leaves you wondering where the real killer might be, does Eden feel more or less real.
What this highlights and what’s so important about our modern world is that people often have more intense preferences over their beliefs about reality than reality itself. A society that constrains them, that lies to them, that oppresses them in so many tangible ways but leaves their cherished beliefs untouched may be a society that they love.
We are quick to assume that men would rather trade al of this away for their freedoms, economic and social. Yet, how many bemoan the crushing poverty we all experience in relation to what most humans are likely to experience.
Unless things go wrong before even I suspect, the vast majority of people will live lives much wealthier than ours with cultural and social opportunities we can scarcely imagine. Yet, few begrudge them.
While there are always a few tortured souls, constrained by society and the state, most people do not know what they do not know. They are a reflection of what they see in their family and friends.
The ever widening diversity of human experience and our ability to connect to people everywhere will mean that that reflection is more and more tailored to what makes you, you.. The fetish that you didn’t even know you were repressing will become your great great granddaughter’s afternoon diversion.
Every part of the human experience is set to expand. Yet, where in that is Eden? Are, the inhabitants of Jim’s small town or Krugman’s Long Island sad that they will never know such things? Or are they happy in their world, infinitely smaller than what stretches out before a dynamic human race.
I have always been a stranger in strange land. My childhood is not full of the happy memories that Jim and Paul express. It is full of bullies and taunts and neither teachers nor parents who understood. Some of my best memories are of an escape into the world of ideas and freedom from the incomprehensible world of other people.