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.