Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Two Americas

Before there were reality shows, PBS made a number of quasi-documentaries that placed ordinary contemporary families into historical settings, such as 19th century Britain or Montana.

Each family had to live day-to-day for several months with only the dwelling and items that were available during the period. No modern shampoo or microwave oven; just coal tar soap and a wood stove.

The Montana episode was particularly instructive.

It's no accident, in my opinion, that the not-quite rich CEO of a mid-sized company and his vain family performed the worst, while the young black man and his elderly grandfather adapted the best.

God knows I'm no Marxist and phylogeny is definitely not destiny. Normally, I favor business and laugh at progressive attempts to instill white guilt. But in this case there are deep reasons that the outcomes were as they were, and a valuable lesson to gain.

The CEO and his family were spoiled, self-indulgent, and complacent. It soon became apparent that neither the husband nor wife had any real skills, apart from effective political socializing. They were abysmally inept at every essential task, from gathering eggs to building a chair. The man and woman were such a poor planners their family soon began to actually starve. Everything they needed in their previous life had been supplied to them at the cost of barking or needling by people they could dominate.

As a result, they imparted no useful skills or values to their kids, who thought that the inability to bathe everyday with contemporary hair shampoo in a modern shower was the worst possible fate a human girl could be forced to endure. Within a month, every member of this family was at the other's throat and they were all whining to flee back to their cushy life of fast food restaurants and upscale malls.

By contrast, the young black man, a very intelligent and enterprising fellow, knew very well what it meant to actually work to achieve values. He had been taught by his grandfather through the older man's example and wisdom that good things may come hard but that is no reason to whine. Instead, they got on with the job of building a cabin, chopping and gathering firewood with which to cook and warm the home during a Montana winter, and so forth, without complaint.

In fact, they seemed rather to enjoy the experience, particularly the bonding that came from a clean, joint effort in worthwhile tasks. The black man was especially eager to finish before two months had elapsed in order to make a comfortable home for his soon-to-arrive fiancee, whom we later saw was honored by his effort on her behalf.

Now, the moral of the story is not that modern conveniences are a bad thing and that we only achieve virtue through suffering and hardship. Quite the contrary. Modern technology is an excellent thing and suffering has no intrinsic value. But it helps to remember where these things come from - well-developed reason supported by a courageous will and good values - and that creating life-sustaining and enhancing values requires long-term effort.

Sadly, perhaps one in five adults under 40 in America accept this prosaic truth. (The number for those over 40 may not be all that impressive, either.) Unless that number grows fast, or at minimum the trendsetters of society begin to be drawn from that 20%, the economy will soon be the least of our worries.

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