Keep Manhattan, Just Give Me That Countyside!

In what has to be the oddest Peggy Noonan column ever, she extrapolates from a single story of a Michigan family that decided to give up some modern luxuries to engage in subsistence farming to a surreal future in which droves of people throw off the shackles of conspicuous consumption.

Many think that no matter how much money is sloshing through the system from Washington, creating waves that lead to upticks, the recession is really a depression. We won’t “come out of it,” as the phrase goes, for five or seven years, because the downturn is systemic, global, and because the old esprit is gone. The baby boomers who for 40 years, from 1968 through 2008, did the grunt work of the great abundance—work was always a long-haul trip for them, they were the first in the office in 1975 and are the last to leave the office to this day—know the era they built is over, that something new is beginning, something more subdued and altogether more mysterious. The old markers of success—money, status, power—will not quite apply as they have. They watch and work as the future emerges.

[…]

The New York of the years 1750 to 2008—a city that existed for money and for all the arts and delights and beauties money brings—is for the first time going to struggle with questions about its reason for being. This will cause profound dislocations. For a good while the young will continue to flock in, for cheaper rents. Artists will still want to gather with artists—you cannot pick up the Metropolitan Museum and put it in Alma, Mich. But there will be a certain diminution in the assumption of superiority on which New York has long run, and been allowed, by America, to run.

We’re in for darker skylines, shoddier storefronts, uglier people,  scrawnier actors, and scragglier dogs.  And the kicker is:  this is a good thing.

It will look like 1970, only without the bell-bottoms and excessive hirsuteness. More families will have to live together. More people will drink more regularly. Secret smoking will make a comeback as part of a return to simple pleasures. People will slow down. Mainstream religion will come back. Walker Percy again: Bland affluence breeds fundamentalism. Bland affluence is over.

Or, as Ann Althouse puts it, “Everyone will become Peggy Noonan!’

What absolute nonsense.  If Manhattan existed a certain way from 1750 to 2008 — amidst two world wars and dozens of regional ones;  numerous depressions, Great and small; and the  9/11 attacks — what on earth would make a rational person think that a mere severe recession — or even a minor depression — is going to suddenly change that?  It’s madness.

Robert Stein adds some perspective:

As an octogenarian, I’ve heard this song before–more than once. In the 1960s, many retreated from city life and spent up to four hours a day commuting to the country where they could chop wood, grow vegetables and rear children with small-town values.

In the following decades, as a magazine editor, I saw the rising popularity of periodicals like Country Living, Real Simple, Vermont Life et al.

Below the radar of Baby Boomer striving, there has always been a strain of longing for a better life, for authenticity–not the chic of dressing up in it.

Quite.  Goodness, it goes at least as far as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854.  There’s a natural tension with what an Economist piece terms “The obsession with the new and best gadget and the willingness to try out new products gives America a comparative advantage” and an inate desire for simplicity and tranquily.   Modern life is quite stressful, especially as compared to an idyllic view of natural life.   It is, however, pretty sweet compared to the actual natural life.  Or 1970.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    What absolute nonsense. If Manhattan existed a certain way from 1750 to 2008 — amidst two world wars and dozens of regional ones; numerous depressions, Great and small; and the 9/11 attacks — what on earth would make a rational person think that a mere severe recession — or even a minor depression — is going to suddenly change that? It’s madness.

    Not quite, James.
    I suggest what we’re dealing with here is wishful thinking.

    There’s a natural tension with what an Economist piece terms “The obsession with the new and best gadget and the willingness to try out new products gives America a comparative advantage” and an inate desire for simplicity and tranquily. Modern life is quite stressful, especially as compared to an idyllic view of natural life. It is, however, pretty sweet compared to the actual natural life. Or 1970.

    Well, look; it’s as I wrote a few Christmases ago ; which one of us hasn’t wanted to resign from the world of the adults and revert back to the carefree childhood years? I suggest that that least partially what drives some of this nonsense. That desire to revert from the world of adulthood is probably what caused the election of the democrats this time around. They came and selling fire tales and the American public bought it. At least, they bought it to a larger degree than usual. The differences, and this time the waking up occur a little bit sooner than anyone anticipated, if we’re to take at all seriously the events of April 15.

    But I’m going to dare to take this one step further; I’m going to focus on one particular line in the above para:

    “The obsession with the new and best gadget and the willingness to try out new products gives America a comparative advantage”

    I don’t suppose, James, you ever noticed that usually when these “back to nature” things come up, and get lauded as a desirable goal that they remove that national advantage? That the theme of reducing the role of the United States as a world leader comes up as often as it does, is enough to logically raise the question if that wasn’t the original goal of the proponents of such utopian visions.

    And, what do you know? That angle seems to fit directly in line with the baseline politics of such utopians, too. Consider Al Gore as a prime example. Consider Brock Obama. And both of these seem quite willing to lay the technological advantage of these United States aside for the stated purpose of “saving the environment”. This despite the fact that their science is at least questionable.

    It’s all part and parcel of the same deal. If there’s anything about this that amazes me, it’s Noonan signing on for this nonsense… Apparently, willingly.

  2. An Interested Party says:

    That desire to revert from the world of adulthood is probably what caused the election of the democrats this time around.

    Hahahahaha…people are childish and that’s why they voted for Democrats? Really? It had nothing to do with the disastrous Bush Administration, the cock up of the Iraq occupation, or the running parody of the McCain Campaign? You really do invite ridicule, do you know that? The GOP should have used your advice as their slogan…”Vote for us, it’s the adult thing to do!” And isn’t it amazing that Noonan has now become a secret agent of the president and Al Gore with her “back to nature” shtick? You provide a nich laugh on this Saturday morning…keep them funny bits coming…

  3. Floyd says:

    Aip;
    Childish?… no.
    “Children of the Corn” is perhaps more appropriate?
    The ridicule of a fool is praise to the ear of the wise.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Or 1970.

    Well, its one thing to make a statement, another to support it. How old were you in 1970?

    And both of these seem quite willing to lay the technological advantage of these United States aside for the stated purpose of “saving the environment”.

    An interesting, if somewhat ignorant point of view. Getting serious about dealing with our environmental/energy issues creates a very good opportunity to ignite the next technology boom. After all, what is going to drive growth in our economy in the 21st century? Probably not bit’s dogged desire to cling to the internal combustion engine and drill baby, drill. Been there, done that.

  5. This is just more Republican populist agitprop. Farmers are the apex nobility, people who live in cities are evil reprobates, blah, blah, blah.

    The reason it makes no sense is because sensible people aren’t the target audience.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    re: Floyd April 18, 2009 11:26

    Oh, so it’s a cult-like thing? Well, I guess you’re just pleased as punch that you’ll still be around after so many others have died from drinking the poison…

  7. James Joyner says:

    Well, its one thing to make a statement, another to support it. How old were you in 1970?

    I turned 5 in November. But one doesn’t have to have been an adult at a given point in history to compare to the the present. We’re freer and richer in significant ways than we were then.

  8. anjin-san says:

    We’re freer and richer in significant ways than we were then.

    There is truth in that. But we are also less free and poorer in significant ways then we were then. You are spending too much time hanging out with Republicans James, reality is a very, very complicated place. You are a bight guy, open your mind.

    Go back and listen to the billboard top 20 for 1970. Then do the same for 2008. Wealth can be measured in many ways, and it can be, at least to some extent, a mirage, as many have found out recently.

  9. sam says:

    The New York of the years 1750 to 2008—a city that existed for money and for all the arts and delights and beauties money brings—is for the first time going to struggle with questions about its reason for being.

    Too bad Jane Jacobs is no longer with us. I would like to have read her take on this.

  10. Floyd says:

    “”We’re freer and richer in significant ways than we were then.””

    We seem to be freer to indulge our flesh than in 1970, but we are far less free when it comes to property rights or constructive arts.
    Have you tried to build a house, or a car,or even a shed or a fence lately?
    Everything today is either taxed or against the law. For those who are able to actually DO something, and choose to do so,the world is now a nightmare of bureaucrats who can’t and won’t,but must be sought constantly for permission.

    Also, Since 1970 we have gone from “police protection”, to “law enforcement”, a subtle but significant change…
    “For what it’s worth”,compared to 2009, Buffalo Springfield had nothing to b!#ch about.
    Freedom is simple, when it becomes complicated it is already gone.

  11. Brian Knapp says:

    Also, Since 1970 we have gone from “police protection”, to “law enforcement”, a subtle but significant change…

    Life on Mars I think is the name of the show. I like my police with much more accountability like there is now compared to 1970.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Could someone be a dear and please lend Floyd a hacksaw so that he can remove that horrible yoke from his neck…

  13. Floyd says:

    You got a permit to go with that saw??

  14. Bithead says:

    Hahahahaha…people are childish and that’s why they voted for Democrats?

    In the end, that’s the biggest reason, yes.You and Anjin provide graphic examples of such, and I thank you. One of the ideas of childhood is that all our problems can be solved by grasping hands around the campfire grabbing a guitar two and tossing off a chorus of “Koom-bi-Yah…”. The detachment from the adult world of the left is precisely why every single major initiative, and most of the minor nation is in the foreign policy area from this administration have fallen flat on their ass. Unfortunately, the message still hasn’t gotten through to them, except to the degree that Obama has managed to keep in place the antiterrorist policies of the bush administration, as I predicted they would. That’s the reaction of a leftist exposed firsthand to reality. I suggest that’s something that you’ll never encounter.

    It had nothing to do with the disastrous Bush Administration, the cock up of the Iraq occupation, or the running parody of the McCain Campaign? You really do invite ridicule, do you know that?

    Of course! I suppose it’s not dawned on you yet, but people who stand for something, generally are.

    An interesting, if somewhat ignorant point of view. Getting serious about dealing with our environmental/energy issues creates a very good opportunity to ignite the next technology boom.

    No. For an example of why that’s not the case, let’s go back to the end of last month, to a New Yorker Article:

    The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes. And a national carbon policy, if it’s to have a real impact, will almost certainly need to bring American fuel prices back to at least where they were at their peak in the summer of 2008. Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.

    One beneficial consequence of the ongoing global economic crisis is that it has put a little time back on the carbon clock. Because the climate damage done by greenhouse gases is cumulative, the emissions decrease attributable to the recession has given the world a bit more room to devise a plan that might actually work. The prospects for a meaningful worldwide climate agreement probably improved last November, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction—to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to seventeen per cent of their 2005 level by 2050—don’t pull in the same direction. Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs—wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks—probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned. The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program, and of the measures that will be introduced in Copenhagen this year, will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.

    That’s not pro-advanced-technology… that’s not pushing a technology boom, that’s naked, bald faced, anti-human progress.

    It’s also insanity. Else it’s a childlike trust in something that doesn’t exist.

  15. anjin-san says:

    No. For an example of why that’s not the case,

    Well bit, in your case, assumptions are clearly making an ass of someone, as the saying goes. Can you show where I mentioned hybrids, much less argued in their favor. I view them as, at best, a bridge technology, not a long-term answer to the transportation problems we face.

    It would be cool bit, if you at least tried to understand the viewpoints expressed that exist outside of the Rush/Hannity/Maklin “axis of stupidity”. I am aware that I run the risk of ridicule here from the commentators with working brains by presenting the heretofore mutually exclusive concepts of “cool” and “bithead” in a single sentence.

    As for “people will drive more if efficiencies increase” it is a somewhat dubious argument. Where exactly will the time for all this driving come from in our stressed out, maxed out world? I wish I had a bit more time to go on drives, I have a nice car and a lot of cool places within driving distance.

    I do tend to agree that nothing will really change unless the driving experience we all know and love becomes uneconomical. If that day comes, I will be sad, as I love a Sunday drive to the beach as much as anyone. But to think this 19th century technology will remain viable all that much longer, is, I think a fallacy.

    At any rate, the long-term answer to the energy problems faced by the human race lies well beyond hybrid automobiles and windmills. Or do you think that your towing a boat with an SUV represents the apex of human progress? If we do not start thinking big and addressing our problems, perhaps it will be…

  16. Bithead says:

    Well bit, in your case, assumptions are clearly making an ass of someone, as the saying goes. Can you show where I mentioned hybrids, much less argued in their favor. I view them as, at best, a bridge technology, not a long-term answer to the transportation problems we face

    .

    Nice try, Anjin.

    As for “people will drive more if efficiencies increase” it is a somewhat dubious argument.

    No, it’s a completely nonsensical argument, of the sort that invariably comes up when we start talking about “saving the environment” the thing is a crock. The goals of the environmental left are all stated in the article. They have their way, we are all Luddites. It’s really that simple.

    I do tend to agree that nothing will really change unless the driving experience we all know and love becomes uneconomical. If that day comes, I will be sad, as I love a Sunday drive to the beach as much as anyone. But to think this 19th century technology will remain viable all that much longer, is, I think a fallacy.

    The numbers say quite the opposite; but don’t let a few facts get in your way.

    At any rate, the long-term answer to the energy problems faced by the human race lies well beyond hybrid automobiles and windmills. Or do you think that your towing a boat with an SUV represents the apex of human progress? If we do not start thinking big and addressing our problems, perhaps it will be…

    Well, no, but it certainly will be if we listen to the idiots such as the one I quoted. The goal there obviously is to have nobody go anyplace they can’t walk. All in the name of the environment, of course.

    Just as a casual observation, you may want to tell the old remainder of the left to get its act together, get its definitions down, in terms of what environmentalism means, and what its goals are. Particularly, if you want us to spend billions of dollars on it, or is that trillions, and completely alter our lifestyles. Shy of that, you’re not going to get any buy-in whatsoever, and justifiably so.

  17. anjin-san says:

    The goals of the environmental left are all stated in the article

    Ah. so. Then the lone author of a solitary article in a magazine is, in fact, the voice of millions. The only one. Yessir, he speaks for us all, and we are all of one mind.

    Well, no, but it certainly will be if we listen to the idiots such as the one I quoted

    Or if we listen to you. You are nothing more than the flip side of that which you despise. Both upon roads that lead, ultimately, nowhere.

    Like I said, we have to think big, we have some big problems our hands. If we are unable to do so, well, history has a way of dealing with civilizations that run out of gas, be it literally, or metaphorically.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    In the end, that’s the biggest reason, yes.You and Anjin provide graphic examples of such, and I thank you. One of the ideas of childhood is that all our problems can be solved by grasping hands around the campfire grabbing a guitar two and tossing off a chorus of “Koom-bi-Yah…”.

    There really is no need for you to drag me into your arguments with Anjin…I’ve never claimed anything like what you wrote in the quote above…do try to make better arguments in the future rather than using strawmen…

  19. An Interested Party says:

    You got a permit to go with that saw??

    Why yes, of course! I got it from the evil government, you know…

  20. anjin-san says:

    You and Anjin provide graphic examples of such, and I thank you. One of the ideas of childhood is that all our problems can be solved by grasping hands around the campfire grabbing a guitar two and tossing off a chorus of “Koom-bi-Yah…”

    Actually bitsy, I would like to see you show where I have claimed anything even remotely like this either.

    Bit, at least try to be clever. Or make an interesting argument. Contribute something worthwhile. Hmm. Worthwhile rhymes with bile. And bile seems to be all you have to offer.

  21. floyd says:

    Aip;
    Well, bust my buttons! Why didn’t you say that in the first place? That’s a horse of a different color! Come on in!
    Did you get the permit from Professor Marvel, the Guardian of the Emerald City Gates, or the Great OZ himself?
    (But nobody can see the Great Oz! Nobody’s ever seen the Great Oz! Even you’ve never seen him!)
    Well, then how do you know there is one?
    Oh, you’re wasting my time!

    Wait… that’s right!They’re all the same guy…. Well, as long as you got the permit.

  22. Bithead says:

    Actually bitsy, I would like to see you show where I have claimed anything even remotely like this either.

    Logical deduction. You seem, we intend on removing every other possibility. Unless maybe you’re just not interested in the U.S. actually winning.

    Then the lone author of a solitary article in a magazine is, in fact, the voice of millions.

    Yes.
    Or might we expect you to tell Al Gore to shut up, since he, also claims to be the voice of millions? you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for that event.

    There really is no need for you to drag me into your arguments with Anjin.

    When you climb in on his side, be prepared for what comes your way.

    Or if we listen to you. You are nothing more than the flip side of that which you despise. Both upon roads that lead, ultimately, nowhere.

    And I’ll bet you don’t even see the contradiction in that one paragraph. congratulations. You’ve made my point for me.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    re: Bithead | April 19, 2009 | 12:13 pm |

    Are you serious? Perhaps it’s your partisanship that causes you to give up logic and think stupidly…just because it appears that Anjin and I may agree on some issues doesn’t mean we are in lockstep agreement on everything nor have you provided proof for your absurd claim that I quoted above…perhaps you are trying to become part of the parody parade like some others around here…

  24. anjin-san says:

    since he, also claims to be the voice of millions

    Since millions of people voted for him, such a claim does have some foundation in reality.

    Logical deduction. You seem, we intend on removing every other possibility. Unless maybe you’re just not interested in the U.S. actually winning.

    Perhaps you could translate this soup of words into meaningful English…

    be prepared for what comes your way

    Yes. Be prepared for irrational rants.

  25. anjin-san says:

    I think it’s time for a little “Best of Bithead”©. Let us review beloved rants of days gone by:

    Look, gang, you keep mouthing platitudes about how Iran doesn’t have the ability. In a conventional sense, that’s true. But since when has Arab extremism been limited to a conventional fight?

    Posted by Bithead | April 12, 2008 | 10:50 am

    Psssst. Chuckles. Iran is, you know, Persian. Oh wait, apparently you don’t know…

  26. Bithead says:

    Yes. Be prepared for irrational rants.

    We’ve come to expect that from you.

    Are you serious?

    Quite.

    Perhaps it’s your partisanship that causes you to give up logic and think stupidly…just because it appears that Anjin and I may agree on some issues doesn’t mean we are in lockstep agreement on everything

    Didn’t say you were. Unless, perchance you’d be interested in showing exactly where I did say that. Meanwhile, back here in the real world to the degree you crawl in bed with Anjin, and his illogic, expect an appropriate response.

  27. Bithead says:

    Psssst. Chuckles. Iran is, you know, Persian. Oh wait, apparently you don’t know…

    Of course I know.
    Now, perhaps you’d be so kind as to explain to us all, why that made a difference in the basic argument? Clue; it does not. Just another case of Amjin trying to find something/anything to grab onto.

    In short, a desperation move. Just in case you thought nobody noticed.

  28. anjin-san says:

    Of course I know

    Well, now you do, after a bit of schooling. Clearly, when you made that post you did not.

    Now, perhaps you’d be so kind as to explain to us all, why that made a difference in the basic argument?

    Sure. Persian & Arab cultures have vast differences between them. Its pretty damn simple. Do you think because they are geographically adjacent and share some religious beliefs that they are clones? Of course perhaps to you it is also as simple as “those people all look alike to me”.

    You really are something of a simpleton Chuck. For Iran, is dealing with America the same as dealing with Canada? After all, we are right next door. For the most part, we share language, culture and values. Hard to tell an American from a Canadian on sight.

    But here in the real world, a place you talk of often, but seldom visit, America and Canada are very different things form a geopolitical standpoint, no? Pariter, etiamnunc diversus.

    In short, a desperation move. Just in case you thought nobody noticed

    The irony of you saying this is lost on no one but you.

  29. Life on Mars I think is the name of the show. I like my police with much more accountability like there is now compared to 1970.

    The police aren’t anymore accountable, there’s just a lot more theater involved with the looking the other way.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    re: Bithead | April 19, 2009 | 02:46 pm

    Obviously you also suffer from amnesia…

    In the end, that’s the biggest reason, yes.You and Anjin provide graphic examples of such, and I thank you. One of the ideas of childhood is that all our problems can be solved by grasping hands around the campfire grabbing a guitar two and tossing off a chorus of “Koom-bi-Yah…”.

    I have provided no “graphic examples of such” so your words to the contrary are just so much bullshit…

  31. anjin-san says:

    I have provided no “graphic examples of such” so your words to the contrary are just so much bullshit…

    Game… Set… Match…