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If America has a rendezvous with doom rather than destiny, if our end lies not in physical destruction but in moral decline and material decadence, we need only look at the false history we continue to manufacture. From the McMansions that litter the land to our neglect of the land itself, in which colleges crumble from within and presidential libraries collapse from without; in which the rot is a triumph of pseudoscience, on the one hand, and a series of pseudo-events, on the other, look to Thomas Frank’s new book, Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society, for a survey of the damage.
Start with the McMansion, a big box of exposed brick and cotton candy insulation. Or so it seems, since these houses are as much a corruption of style as they are a crime against common sense. How else to explain the existence of these mausoleums for the living dead, where the buildings decay faster than their residents? How else to describe these buildings, except to say they house more fifth columnists than all the columns of their tawdry exteriors combined?
These houses are anti-American symbols of excess, whose blueprints do not align with our national blueprint. In other words, if you were to take Woody Allen’s comment about the residential architecture of Beverly Hills—that it is Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese—if you were to remove parts from each home and build a smaller but less symmetrical house; if you were to mix the sacred and the profane, with clay tiles here and high chimneys there; if you were to scar the mountains and spoil the prairies with these houses, you would have the McMansions of the managerial class.
Frank sees these houses for what they are: man-made disasters.
This observation also applies to his analysis of the intellectual architecture of our colleges and universities. Among our most prestigious schools, whose charters are old but not ancient, whose concepts are imports from the Old World to the New, Frank sees a wealth of arrogance and the arrogation of power by the few against the many. He sees an aristocracy of “talent” as no more talented than an aristocracy of wealth.
Frank sees what Michael Young, his political forefather across the Atlantic, foresaw 60 years ago: the rise of the “meritocracy.” The author of a book of the same name, Young coined the word meritocracy not in pride but in anger. A British MP and a Labour Party official, Young warned about the transformation of elite credentials into a means of social exclusion.
Before the best minds enacted their worst ideas, and the brightest men darkened policies foreign and domestic, Young knew status would become synonymous with smarts. He knew admission to Oxford or Cambridge, or Harvard or Yale or Princeton, would become a mandate to rule and a pathway to ruin. He knew the public would mistake scarcity for value. He knew those with the highest test scores would seek to occupy the highest realms of society.
And yet, those who were wise enough to know the limits of their own intelligence have been displaced by those who believe there is nothing they do not know. Thus ends not humanity but humaneness, as the bonds of community fray and the ties of citizenship fail to keep us together. Thus ends faith in God and country, as religion yields to reason and we have no reason to revere what we can neither measure nor see. Thus marks the end of America.
Fear not, however, because we can reinvent the present by rewriting the past. Rather, we can read all the news we want so long as it fits the stories our leaders want us to hear. The news is good, of course, inside the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. Ditto for the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Inside, freedom never dies and the middle class always thrives. Inside, the work is easy and the pay is good. Inside, opportunity is our birthright and a college degree is our passport to the good life. Inside, the streets are safe and the cities are clean. Inside, no price is too high and no burden is too great to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Perhaps we should stay inside—forever. Or perhaps we should stand up and fight.
Outside, we must lift our voices and lower our fists. We must lower them, not because we must love our enemies, but because we have no time to hate our enemies.
Thomas Frank would agree with me, I think, in spite of the likelihood of our disagreements. He would sooner try to save the middle class than say a prayer about its passing.
He wants to fight, too.
I do not have to support all of his ideas to know he has the right idea about what plagues us.
From those who would sooner salute the flag than burn it to those who would rather lower it from sight than see it drape another coffin as mourners lower it into the ground, Thomas Frank is no passive bystander.
Like us, he refuses to remain silent.
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