• U.S.

A Nation of Finger Pointers

5 minute read
Lance Morrow

The busybody and the crybaby are getting to be the most conspicuous children on the American playground.

The busybody is the bully with the ayatullah shine in his eyes, gauleiter of correctness, who barges around telling the other kids that they cannot smoke, be fat, drink booze, wear furs, eat meat or otherwise nonconform to the new tribal rules now taking shape.

The crybaby, on the other hand, is the abject, manipulative little devil with the lawyer and, so to speak, the actionable diaper rash. He is a mayor of Washington, arrested (and captured on videotape) as he smokes crack in a hotel room with a woman not his wife. He pronounces himself a victim — of the woman, of white injustice, of the universe. Whatever.

Both these types, the one overactive and the other overpassive, are fashioning some odd new malformations of American character. The busybodies have begun to infect American society with a nasty intolerance — a zeal to police the private lives of others and hammer them into standard forms. In Freudian terms, the busybodies might be the superego of the American personality, the overbearing wardens. The crybabies are the messy id, all blubbering need and a virtually infantile irresponsibility. Hard pressed in between is the ego that is supposed to be healthy, tolerant and intelligent. It all adds up to what the Economist perceptively calls “a decadent puritanism within America: an odd combination of ducking responsibility and telling everyone else what to do.”

Zealotry of either kind — the puritan’s need to regiment others or the victim’s passion for blaming everyone except himself — tends to produce a depressing civic stupidity. Each trait has about it the immobility of addiction. Victims become addicted to being victims: they derive identity, innocence and a kind of devious power from sheer, defaulting helplessness. On the other side, the candlesnuffers of behavioral and political correctness enact their paradox, accomplishing intolerance in the name of tolerance, regimentation in the name of betterment.

The spectacle of the two moral defectives of the schoolyard jumping up and down on the social contract is evidence that America is not entirely a society of grownups. A drama in Encino, Calif.: a lawyer named Kenneth Shild built a basketball court in his yard, 60 feet from the bedroom window of a neighbor, Michael Rubin, also a lawyer. The bouncing of the basketball produced a “percussion noise that was highly annoying,” according to Rubin, who asked Shild and his son to stop playing. Shild refused, and Rubin, knowing that his rights allowed him to take action to stop a nuisance, sprayed water from his garden hose onto the neighbor’s basketball court. Suit and countersuit. Rubin’s restraining order limiting the hours of the day during which the Shilds could play was overturned by an appeals-court judge. Each side seeks more than $100,000 in punitive damages. Shild argues mental stress. Rubin claims that his property has been devalued.

Fish gotta swim. Locusts devour the countryside. Lawyers sue. For all the American plague of overlitigation, lawyers also act as a kind of priesthood in the rituals of American faith. Most religions preach a philosophical endurance of the imperfections of the world. Suffering must be borne. Americans did not come to the New World to live like that. They operate on a pushy, querulous assumption of perfectibility on earth (“the pursuit of happiness” — their own personal happiness). That expectation, which can make Americans charming and unreasonable and shallow, is part of their formula for success. But it has led Americans into absurdities and discontents that others who know life better might never think of. The frontiersman’s self-sufficiency and stoicism in the face of pain belong now in some wax museum of lost American self- images.

Each approach, that of busybody or crybaby, is selfish, and each poisons the sense of common cause. The sheer stupidity of each seeps into public discourse and politics. Idiot in the original Greek meant someone who cared nothing for issues of public life. The pollster Peter Hart asked some young people in a focus group to name qualities that make America special. Silence. Then one young man said, “Cable TV.” Asked how to encourage more young people to vote, a young woman replied, “Pay them.”

In her book Rights Talk, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School argues that the nation’s legal language on rights is highly developed, but the language of responsibility is meager: “A tendency to frame nearly every social controversy in terms of a clash of rights (a woman’s right to her own body vs. a fetus’s right to life) impedes compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground.”

But of course deciding about abortion is not easy. Compromise and common ground are difficult to find on many issues. The American social contract is fluid, rapidly changing, postmodernist, just as the American gene and culture pool is turbulently new every day. Life improvises rich dilemmas, but they fly by like commercial breaks, hallucinatory, riveting, half-noticed. What is the moral authority behind a social contract so vivid and illegible? Only the zealously asserted styles of the new tribes (do this, don’t do this, look a certain way, think a certain way, and that will make you all right).

When old coherences break down, civilities and tolerances fall away as well. So does an ideal of self-reliance and inner autonomy and responsibility. The new tribes, strident and anxious and dogmatic, push forward to impose a new order. Yet they seem curiously faddish, unserious: youth culture unites with hypochondria and a childish sense of entitlement. Long ago, Carry Nation actually thought the U.S. would be better off if everyone stopped drinking. The busybodies today worry not about their society but about themselves — they imagine that they would be beautiful and virtuous and live forever, if only you would put out that cigar.

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