We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Malaise Exchange

Update: Joerg of Atlantic Review has written to note that the position on oil companies I thought was by one of their writers was not. I am sorry for misrepresenting the writers on their blog – which clearly does not as a general rule take such positions. And, apparently, the comment I thought attributable to one of them, was not by a contributor.
Yes, Joerg, I have been sick, but not that sick. I missed your posting on the comments. And no, I still haven’t gotten your e-mail. You might send it to Jonathan and he will forward it.

Post as original follows:
I’m thankful to David Foster for his link to Noonan and the spirited & thoughtful (& sometimes wistful) discussion that followed. He made me think & feel a great deal more gratitude for the deep pleasures I’ve found in life during the last few years. I’d intended to link to a couple of interesting discussions of cultural exchange in a short post this week-end, but was struck by the juxtaposition of those articles with Noonan’s sense of malaise. I suspect, at the heart of Noonan are doubts that what we do & feel, our history & tradition & values, are not defensible or shouldn’t be defended. (Or the people doing the defending might be the people who have already given up.)

If our values are not worthy of defense, then cultural exchanges of art that embody those values is likely to be counterproductive. Martha Bayles’ “Goodwill Hunting” argues that increased (and intensified) cultural exchanges would do us good, might be most helpful with those who find our culture so repellent it should be wiped off the face of the earth. But she concludes with a wry allusion to our own doubts:

To study the anti-American critique mounted by radical Islam is to see oneself in the equivalent of a fun-house mirror: The reflection is at once both distorted and weirdly accurate. And, ironically, it resembles the critique many American religious conservatives have been making of their society all along. A wise public diplomacy would turn this state of affairs to America’s advantage.

I suspect it is some of these same hesitations that impel Noonan’s malaise. Indeed, it may well be prompted by her friends, her place, her religious yearning. No, right now nothing has certainty. And the future may be quite dangerous and ugly. Nonetheless, are her reasons the same as those of the more dissipated Teddy Kennedy? Do we sense his profound worry our children’s “souls [are] actually imperilled by the popular culture in which we are raising them.” Well, maybe. But I have my doubts that he spends much time bemoaning the “churches that have lost all sense of mission, and all authority.” I suspect he is upset by the loss of authority of newspapers that have long backed him, networks whose spokesmen speak of the Kennedys with lumps in their throats, the schools whose unions he so strongly backed. Sure, some trolleys are going off their tracks, but a lot of cars are starting up all over the country. The trains ran on time and came once a day; we all went down to the station. Now we power up our computers and see what’s up.

Home schooling, blogs, telecommuting, global outsourcing, degrees on line – yes, the institutions are crumbling. And so, too, are some churches, as the new megachurches, more emotional and less doctrina, arise. All these undercut institutions many of us believe are essentially good. They increasingly exert force on the center – and it may not hold. But if we have faith in that great free marketplace, then we believe our cars will get us to the same destinations. The trains won’t have the authority they once had – but, then, hey, even I learned to drive a car at 40. Today, on C-span, I heard a writer describe an Iraqi he knew (since assassinated) arguing with his friends, the American not understanding. Later, the Iraqi explained, he hadn’t realized how powerfully Saddam Hussein had “domesticated” his fellow citizens. They were afraid of self-rule. Another speaker told of a village elder who wanted to replace a statue of Hussein with one of Bush – he thought that was the deal. Let us never think – or give anyone else reason to think – that is the deal. And the fact that it isn’t is something we should realize is very, very important. Together, we’re running the trolley – if it jumps the tracks, well, it’s our fault, too – not just that of our betters. But this is unforgettable when we’re driving our own cars. We must resist any temptation toward “domestication”; we choose to join (the Puritans would see the choice in terms of a contract) those who share our goals. Self-reliance, that’s our goal.

Kennedy & Noonan are both Irish Catholic; they share certain values and a rich, verbal heritage. They may feel a tribal kinship. But kin or not, I would think twice about a right track/wrong track ratified by Ted Kennedy. His manners – toward women, toward waiters, toward his political opponents – don’t indicate his sense of a providential harmony – that accepted by him but mysterious, beneath the chaos we see (the loss his policies have sustained) lies a beautiful if complex order. That would require humility.

If we set up cultural exchanges, we need people with humility – who think the art is more important than the self or the country. We need people who respect others and are prepared to love their works because they have already learned to love the works of their own culture, have already learned from them.

If our idea of cultural exchange is sending a rapper who calls women whores or a portrait of the Madonna covered in elephant dung or a movie with gratuitous sex and even more gratuitous violence but very little wit or dialogue or soul, well, we will be reinforcing other nations’ views of us. And, of course, a lack of respect for what we are is not likely to lead us to appreciate the best of their art. Some time in adolescence (or later if we are slow) we begin to realize that the guy who runs down his mother and first wife is not all that likely to appreciate his second. He just can’t understand appreciation.

Such an absence makes him (us, I suppose, often) a bit bitter, a bit, well, angry: to see art’s purpose as adolescently irritating the powers that be. But the more we respect our own, the more we will realize that art is at once revolutionary and wise, that it helps us look with new eyes at old truths. I suspect most of us have grave doubts that in a hundred and fifty years the art in which we find so little harmony & beauty is going to be loved. Crap has always been with us and always will – but so has art. The question is – who do we trust to distinguish between the two?

Martha Bayles optimistically argues that increased (& intensified) cultural exchanges would do us good, might indeed be most helpful with those who find our culture so repellent it should be wiped off the face of the earth. She observes: “Popular culture is no longer ‘America’s secret weapon.’ On the contrary, it is a tsunami by which others feel engulfed.” While our government is not/should not restrict the exportation of our pop culture, it might, she argues “add some new components.” She follows that with practical suggestions. She argues, for instance, that music exchanges might emphasize good (rather than bubble gum) music. (Clearly thinking of classical music, she is also thinking of Duke Ellington. She is not thinking of Eminem & Britney Spears, central to some of our current exchanges.) Her suggestions seem to me pragmatic: supporting Arabic/English poetry exchanges, thoughtful announcers spinning the best of both culture’s music, person-to-person exchanges between youths in our “Christian music” movement & youths in other countries creating music from similar motives, investing in endangered antiquities. In some ways, she resembles Dana Gioia, who moves across the red & blue, seeing something broader & more important than our ephemeral allegiances.

Of course, we first think of countries that see our culture as sinful. But some merely see it as vulgar. Interestingly, the non-Anglosphere country that has most influenced our culture is the one with which Bayless introduces her exchange: a “walk through the Zoologischer Garten district of Berlin” leads us “to experience a version of America. The fast-food chains, video and music stores, and movie marquees all proclaim the “Coca-colonization” of Europe. But just a block away, on the relatively quiet Hardenbergstrasse, stands a small building that between 1957 and 1998 represented the best of U.S. cultural diplomacy: Amerika Haus.” As the essay goes on, she bemoans the loss of such exchanges.

So, this week, a blog written by German ex-Fullbrighters The Atlantic Review makes the same argument, in ”Call for revivial of cultural diplomacy to counter Anti-Americanism.” . Some of these Fullbrighters seem not to have much sense of what we tend to consider (rightly) the great value of the free market, as one proposes a solution to the oil crisis in a comment on the Daily Demarche: America should nationalize all the oil companies. The following was in the original post, but has been objected to by Atlantic Review and apparently misrepresents them: (Lest you think I wander too far from the issues of an economic blog.)
This, on the other hand, was in the original post and remains relevant: Such heresies, however, do not mean they aren’t right about this.

(Thanks to Daily Demarche for linking to Atlantic Review; others might be interested in Demarche’s appreciation of Condi Rice.)

15 thoughts on “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Malaise Exchange”

  1. Ummm, how did the malaise thing go???

    The Speech
    On the evening of July 15, 1979, millions of Americans tuned in to hear Jimmy Carter give the most important speech of his presidency. After sharing some of the criticism he had heard at Camp David — including an unattributed quote from the young governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton — Carter put his own spin on Caddell’s argument. “The solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country,” the president said, asking Americans to join him in adapting to a new age of limits.

    But he also admonished them, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.” Hendrik Hertzberg, who worked on the speech, admits that it “was more like a sermon than a political speech. It had the themes of confession, redemption, and sacrifice. He was bringing the American people into this spiritual process that he had been through, and presenting them with an opportunity for redemption as well as redeeming himself.” Though he never used the word — Caddell had in his memo — it became known as Carter’s “malaise” speech.


  2. Thanks very much Sandy P.
    You might be interested in “The Overpraised American”, by Christine Rosen in Policy Review. It discusses Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and its applicability today.

    I love the Hertzberg quote in the piece you link:
    “If you are president and you’re going to diagnose a problem, you better have a solution to it,” Hertzberg notes. “While he turned out to be a true prophet, he turned out not to be a savior.”
    I suspect we are asking too much if we want a savior but have real doubts that the function of a true prophet in any way coincides with that of a leader.

  3. Someone once told MLK that he should run for political office. He demured, saying he was ever mindful of the difference between prophet and king. (No doubt MLK had a strong sense for irony as well as for truth.) Many of us accept as an article of faith that only one person succeeded (and succeeds) as both prophet and king (and priest and savior to boot). Of course, the world ended up with Him by nailing Him to a cross. Praise God (i.e. Himself) that was not the Way He ended up with the world.

  4. –“While he turned out to be a true prophet, he turned out not to be a savior.”–

    I was going to put that in my post too, but decided against it. Talk about hubris.

    The only peanut has been is a prophet of doom. What is his fascination w/commie dictators?

    I don’t want to hijack the thead, Ginny.

  5. Noonan says the presidency is overwhelmed. Before and after shots of our recent presidents would support the idea that individual presidents can be overwhelmed. Does anyone else think the presidency itself is overwhelmed? If so, does that imply a need for some structural changes to our system of governance?

  6. In business, when you see a CEO, General Manager, or other executive who is “overwhelmed” on a continuing basis, it usually means that the organization is not sufficiently decentralized.

    Of course, some kinds of business are much easier to decentralize than others.

  7. Bush seems to delegate extensively. However, by relying heavily on a few key aides, particularly Rove, who are strong in areas where he is not, Bush becomes unusually vulnerable if something happens to a key aide. It’s as if he adopted the form of decentralization but not the substance. Katrina happened when Rove was out for surgery, the Miers appointment was made when Rove was distracted by an investigation, and in both cases Bush did not handle things well. Maybe Bush’s loyalty to subordinates gets the better of him. Reagan was a great delegator but was not known for loyalty. Maybe he knew something that Bush doesn’t, though Reagan’s second term was not notably successful.

  8. Well, I can’t imagine that the job isn’t incredibly draining and doubt that it is easily delegated or even lived with. Yes, it may be too much for one man.

    Nonetheless, I’d be interested in before & after pictures of earlier presidents. (Lincoln’s is at least as dramatic as modern ones, but I’ll admit that is not a really fair example.) Both Clinton & Cheney have had more heart trouble out of than in office.

  9. My thought on delegation/decentralization relates more to the overall structure of responsibilities in the country–what is local, what is state, what is federal, what is private–than to the management practices of this particular administration.

  10. For instance, being president would be a lot easier if hurricanes hit towns where mayors and states where governors actually saw themselves as responsible representative officials – and a president would age pretty fast if all governors were Blancos & mayors Nagins.

  11. 1. Thanks for the link to the Atlantic Review

    2. “a small building that between 1957 and 1998 represented the best of U.S. cultural diplomacy: Amerika Haus.”

    It’s still there. I attended the Amerika Haus Berlin election party in November 2004…

    3. “So, this week, a blog written by German ex-Fullbrighters”

    You seem to think we are “full” of “bright” folks. Thanks! :-) Actually Senator Fulbright’s name is written with one L.

    4. “Some of these Fullbrighters seem not to have much sense of what we tend to consider (rightly) the great value of the free market, as one proposes a solution to the oil crisis in a comment on the Daily Demarche: America should nationalize all the oil companies.”

    None of us said anything like that!!! Please correct your post!!!

    I was complaining about Saudi Arabia and said that we finance their violation of human rights and their terrorism, everytime we buy gas for our cars. Sure, I got quite worked up about it. Read my post The US-Saudi relationship: Oil supply at the expense of US security and moral values and I am sure you will agree that I got some good sources.

  12. Sorry about the Fulbright (Jonathan often complains because I don’t spell check enough & he’s right; my husband actually had one a few years ago and he’s somewhat active in the local group – which led to a false sense I actually knew what I was doing. Sorry.)

    I did notice that wasn’t the thrust of your longer piece so I admit it was a cheap shot. I may have misattributed the comment on Daily Demarche to one of you, but I can’t get Daily Demarche to appear right now. I will apologize for the time being and figure out how I was wrong when I can get into that site again. Is your group varied in its approach or do all of you pretty much have the same economic/political/social theories as the article you cite above?

Comments are closed.