Sunday, December 17, 2006

DAVID BROOKS: This Age of Anxiety

The Sidney Awards, named for Sidney Hook, are a nice way to honor the best magazine essays of the year and to pass along a few nutritious holiday reading recommendations. But if you spend a few weeks poring over the highlights from a year’s worth of magazines, you also get a window on the spirit of the times.

And 2006, let it be said, felt to many like the year of losing ground. There was a general sense that the forces of moderation in the Middle East were losing ground to the forces of radical Shiism. (The folks at Time are crazy if they don’t name Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad and Sadr People of the Year.)

There was also a sense that we were losing ground in Iraq. One of the best magazine writers on that story, George Packer of The New Yorker, tended to profile American dissidents who were trying to change the way we fight that war.

In an April essay, “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” Packer followed Col. H. R. McMaster, who argued that the Iraq war was as much a psychological and anthropological problem as a military and political one. Then, in December, his “Knowing the Enemy” appeared, about freethinkers in the Pentagon and elsewhere who were studying how Hezbollah and the Iraqi insurgents create narratives that demoralize their enemies, energize believers and create a sense of historical momentum.

One gets the feeling from his articles that America’s enemies are playing a different game. They’re waging an open-source campaign for cultural symbols, while we’re oblivious to anything we can’t drive over or kill.

The next great source of anxiety in 2006 was economic. The most influential article on this subject was Alan Blinder’s essay “Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution” in Foreign Affairs. Blinder undermined many moderate Democrats’ faith in free trade by arguing the negative effects of globalization will be much broader than previously thought. It’s not just the unskilled who will lose jobs, but also people who provide “impersonal services” that can be delivered over the Internet: radiologists, accountants, even college professors.

Two or three times more Americans work at these sorts of jobs, Blinder observed, than work at manufacturing jobs.

Then there was a series of articles propelled by parental anxiety. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” a sharp look at the way fellatio is supposedly becoming a casual element in teenage friendships.

“I’m not, however, terrified by the oral-sex craze,” Flanagan wrote. “If I were to learn that my children had engaged in oral sex — outside a romantic relationship, and as young adolescents — I would be sad. But I wouldn’t think that they had been damaged by the experience; I wouldn’t think I had failed catastrophically as a mother, or that they would need therapy. Because I don’t have daughters, I have sons.”

Political writers offered policy prescriptions to parents who were falling behind. Karen Kornbluh wrote “Families Valued,” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, on ways Democrats could make life easier for busy “juggler families.” Yuval Levin had a parallel essay called “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard, urging Republicans to face up to the tensions between free market dynamism and healthy family stability.

Finally, there was the sense the forces of decency were losing ground to primordial ugliness, especially anti-Semitism. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote a fevered essay on the power of the Israel Lobby, which cleared ground for a million anti-Semitic rants. Jimmy Carter has just published a book intended to make Israelis look like racists.

I’m not sure the classic essay on this latest recrudescence has been written, but Anne Applebaum had a useful piece in Slate called “Holocaust Denial Is No Joke,” and Adam Garfinkle has a comprehensive look at “The Madness of Jewcentricity” in The American Interest.

It all adds up to quite a gloomy — though well-crafted — collection of essays, culminating in a National Journal piece by Paul Starobin called “Beyond Hegemony” on life in an age of declining American power.

I have to say, I’m as pessimistic about the Middle East as the next guy, but most of this broader existential gloom about America is absurd. The U.S. is in extraordinarily strong shape economically and socially. And whatever their short-term strengths, the Sadrs of the world simply do not have a social model that large numbers of people will want to live under.

Buck up, but stay informed.

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