I have, in the past several months, read more deeply and broadly than I have since college, and perhaps ever. A few weeks back, in my mini-review of Brideshead Revisted, I mentioned that I was reading a new book for work, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. I finished it today, and it is a sobering comparison between our current recession, and previous deep downturns at end of the 19th century, in the 1930s, and in the 1970s. The book takes a close look at both the similarities and the differences in order to get a clearer picture of where we are in terms of a recovery (short answer: not very far along) and what we might work to address the short-term, and especially the long-term, effects.
The important issues raised by this book are too numerous to detail, and while I don’t agree with the author on everything, a few insights struck me as particularly compelling, especially on the heels of reading Brideshead and C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
First, I have never been one to begrudge the wealthy the fruits of their honest effort; however, Pinched shines a bright and terrible light on the fact that not only are America’s most wealthy and privileged few becoming more so, they are also becoming increasingly detached from the problems and concerns of the rest. Many would rather help the poor on the other side of the world than the struggling here at home, because the visibility and ROI (return on investment) is better.
Second, the book shows clearly that in America, as in the Middle East, men with time on their hands are a major problem. Men are feeling the strain of the recession more keenly than women, and this leads to a wide range of economic, social, and psychological problems that are difficult to remedy. Interestingly, the book even touches on traditional gender roles, indicating that, even in instances in which unemployed men take on more responsibility for household chores and childrearing while their wives work — and indeed, even when their wives say they are satisfied with the level of support their husbands are providing on the home front — nevertheless, satisfaction in the relationship and perception of the male’s worth deteriorates, as I understood it, for both parties.
John W. Gardner once said, “America’s greatness has been the greatness of a free people who shared certain moral commitments. Freedom without moral commitment is aimless and promptly self-destructive.” Don Peck, the journalist who compiled and wrote this book, includes among his recommendations for addressing the fallout of the current recession, a section called “One Culture,” in which he insists that our social fabric is fraying and that cultural solutions are needed, as well as economic ones. He writes:
“The information age — individualistic, experimental, boundary-breaking — has eroded other once-common virtues, ones that we not associate as strongly with a distinctly American character, but that are nonetheless essential to a cohesive, successful society: from family commitment rooted in marriage, to civic responsibility. The Great Recession has merely cast light on the extent of that erosion. The past is not a hallowed place, and we would not want to return to it even if we could. But we do need to sow those virtues again as we move forward — through education and through our own private actions and expectations.”
The book — and this quote in particular — sparked in me an idea for a non-fiction book of my own, exploring the idea that as we debunk age-old beliefs and fail to replace them with new values of equal weight, we devolve into meaninglessness. Relativism, globalism, scientism, the collapse of religion and ritual that help us understand our place in the world (a la Joseph Conrad’s The Power of Myth), and the redefinition of “value” more and more exclusively in economic terms, have actually made the world less understandable — because it no longer jives with what see with our eyes and know with our hearts.