The Outstater: Confessions of a Baby Boomer
“I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water.” — Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in “As Good as It Gets”
THERE IS a troublesome thought that occurs to Hoosiers of a certain age. They are the ones who lived through the agonizing reappraisals of the 1960s and 1970s, the narcissism that followed, the staged social sensitivity, the massive spending to eliminate every unmet need or want and, finally, the ongoing and forced transfer of wealth by politically determined formulae.
That thought? A series of questions really. What if in your halcyon youth you mistakenly took for granted what turned out to be an exceptional, fragile mechanism — we will call it the American Middle Class — that needed your protection at all cost?
Conversely, what if the poverty, corruption and woe that so activated you was not the result of Republican callousness but rather the default setting of the world — that is, life as good as it gets, life without the America you found so laughably banal.
That would be a revelation. It would mean that the suburban cul-de-sacs, the groomed lawns and, yes, the traditional nuclear family clinging to its guns and religion, all of which have been the subject of a thousand skits on Saturday Night Live, were not jokes but identifiers of something admirable and precious.
A little story: A child from half-way around the world, a darling and extremely bright four-year-old in Indiana with her graduate-student parents, tells her teacher that she has a favorite place. Indeed, she treats it as a treasure offered only to her dearest friends. It is the promise to take them with her family the next time they visit Walmart.
The store, at least in the eyes of the preschooler, represents not materialism but the marvel of individual choice and freedom that is America — or, more broadly, as the pop historian Dan Hannan has famously described it, the Anglosphere, the melting pot, freedom’s meme, the one place in the world where deoxyribonucleic acid does not predict citizenship.
But our preschooler, please know, came from the default setting. In her homeland, anything not specifically approved by the government is presumed illegal. And that, if our most selfish generation had ever bothered to think about it, puts such a damper on personal initiative that a hundred Peace Corps could never overcome it. From hence comes the disparagement known as a “soviet supermarket,” a place where you can buy unlimited potatoes but not a stalk of broccoli. By contrast, a Hoosier Walmart surely must seem a wondrous place.
A simple challenge: Revisit what people consider the “bad” part of your town, the most distressed neighborhoods. That is the place, remember, where you as a callow youth were inspired by social conscience. Your mind raced with ideas on how the city could be reinvented through zoning, food and housing subsidies, progressive taxation, economic development and such. You impressed the girls with your decision to become a community organizer and save the world.
How did that work out? If you are as honest today as you were then, your main concern is getting out of there fast enough — that and how much your inspiration has sullied adjacent neighborhoods. For illustration, here is a map of what has happened to Chicago during your span of civic concern.
In hindsight, maybe you should have worked at the problem from the other direction. That would have meant growing the middle class rather than laughing at it, forging cross-cultural agreement on a list of principles that historically distinguish American society: the integrity of a ballot box; popular consent for taxes, laws and regulations; the primacy of the individual in public policy; secure and absolute property rights; independently courageous magistrates; freedom of speech, religion and assembly; and, most important, personal responsibility.
It is whining to say that all of that is routinely debased in your council chamber, legislature or congress. It is important to note, though, that your generation turned America upside down — when once individual freedom was assumed as God-given, it now is merely awarded by this or that government office, i.e., by the shifting rules of the default setting.
And there is one thing more. You might have been listening in class — if indeed you were taught at all — when it was explained that our governing authority comes from a common law of the land and not of men. That is the basis of an exceptionalism even a preschooler can recognize. And these are laws first written in the language you are now reading, which, politically correct or not, is the language of liberty.
So would you like to see the decline in English proficiency scores that has occurred in that distressed neighborhood of yours, in that default setting, during your tenure of good works?
It is understandable that you might not.
— Craig Ladwig