Straws, Camels and American History
March 26, 2011
During the periods when I’m working too hard, which occur far more often than they should—a form of self-flagellation because, as my wife points out, no one required me to accept so many large jobs—a “last straw” feeling often overtakes me, the sense that, like the proverbial camel, I can’t manage one single additional task, no matter how tiny, or I’ll snap. Can I figure out why the copier insists it’s jammed when there’s nothing visible stuck in it? No, I can’t, not another chore, there’s just too much, it’s impossible, ask me next month or next year, or trash the damn thing, I don’t care, but I can’t spend five minutes on it, I can’t possibly do one more thing…
Of course I know this is nuts, a result of overstress, a psychological imbalance, and when the work eases a bit, I recover my good humor and willingness to delve inside the copier in search of a stray paper clip.
Yet the more I look around at our culture, the less unusual my fits of stress seem to me. Not only do we have crazies who have gone well beyond the snapping point—the ones who shoot up malls or schools—but we sprout flaming lunatics on the radio and in Congress, nasty snipers on the Internet, road rage on the freeways… So many of us seem just two or three straws from the breaking point.
Lately I’ve been sampling advance proofs for a forthcoming book from Temple University Press, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, a volume that attempts to sum up the ways current historians view major eras and themes in the nation’s history. The main audience, I assume, is scholars from other fields who want a brief overview of what the historians have been up to lately. A chapter by Kim Phillips-Fein of NYU takes on the near-impossible challenge of summarizing recent scholarship on the era defined as “1973 to the Present.” The post-1973 years, she writes,
have been viewed as a time of economic uncertainty and widening inequality as compared to steady growth; as an epoch of ambivalence, skepticism, and even hostility toward politics, in contrast to the idealism and optimism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; and perhaps most of all, as an age of conservatism that rejected the liberalism of the postwar years.
Of course, economic uncertainty, inequality, and even skepticism are hardly unique to our era; these are recurring themes throughout the country’s history, dating to before the Revolution. What’s different now, I think, is that we’ve become terribly anxious and insecure—more so, for instance, than in the 1950s when we had Joe McCarthy, nuclear bomb scares and sheriffs clubbing civil rights leaders; or in the 1960s, when we killed two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of our own soldiers. Is it 9/11 and terrorism that have made us so jittery, brought us so close to the edge?
I think it goes deeper than that. The “economic uncertainty” that Phillips-Fein points to probably plays a role. We got accustomed to being prosperous, and now that we seem to be running faster and faster merely to stay in the same place—those of us who still have jobs, that is—we lack the emotional resilience to handle the situation. Then there are the many social changes we’ve absorbed in a few short decades. It’s great, for instance, that we can define a “family” in more ways than before, so that two adults of the same sex with three adopted children from various countries are as much a family as any other; yet all of our families, old-fashioned and new-, have become fragile, with divorce rates approaching 50 percent for first marriages and soaring far above that for second and third marriages. (Luckily, by the time you have a sixth wedding like my father, your life will probably end before your marriage.) The best way we’ve found to reduce the divorce rate is for couples not to marry in the first place, a solution that doesn’t do much for psychic stability and calm.
It’s a truism that, after all the gains made by women and minorities in the past decades, we have plenty of stick-in-the-muds uncomfortable with such change, or worse, severely ticked off about it. Yet I also wonder if our recent social advances make the gainers themselves feel more secure. If you’re a minority person in a corporate position previously closed to those of your ethnicity/gender, does your triumph bring peace of mind, or does it give you one more thing to worry about?
It’s my theory that such economic and social conditions have produced a long-running, low-level anxiety that is always with us, magnifying our personal and public stresses and bringing us closer to the snapping point. You might test this idea next time you’re in a traffic jam. Doesn’t one part of your psyche wish you could whip out an assault rifle and start shooting?
Being untrained in psychology, social science, history and just about every other subject matter, I’m totally unqualified to form such opinions. But this too is a prevailing American characteristic, the having of strong, unfounded convictions. There’s a reason bigoted talk-show hosts are popular.
… Oh hell, dammit, the smoke alarm over the stairwell started beeping again. I changed the battery two weeks ago! Now I’ll have to search for another new battery, fetch a ladder from the basement, climb up there and perch precariously while I try to fix the thing with clumsy fingers—or else drive to the hardware store and buy a new alarm, maybe the whole thing is defective—but that store sold me this cheap junk in the first place—no, it’s too much, dammit, I can’t take this anymore! Gimme a broom, I’m gonna knock that stupid piece of crap off the ceiling, take it out on the porch and jump up and down on it till it’s a thousand plastic splinters…
There! Whew! Now I feel better. I’m leaving the shards on the porch to teach all goddamn smoke alarms a lesson.
What was I saying?