The words in the title of this post were written on a wall in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a movie I must have seen 25 times during a largely misspent adolescence. It’s possible that the movie would hold up if I watched it again, but I don’t want to risk it – it is much more likely that for every one instance of cinematographic brilliance there will be ten cringe-worthy examples of thoughtless juvenilia. No worries though, it’s based on a youth novel by S.E. Hinton and I would expect no less. But, there is a line in the movie spoken by Mickey Rourke as former gangleader Motorcycle Boy, that I will remember as long as I live, “If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”
This is looking like a day for favorites so now we move from a unre-watchable movie to a book that has been an absolute delight to revisit over the past few days, Jacques Barzun’s Dawn to Decadence. Barzun entered Columbia as a child prodigy in the early 1920s, spent a life in academia and then wrote Dawn to Decadence at age 93 as a summary of everything he’s learned. The premise of this brilliant, completely readable magnum opus is that the cultural trends that drove Western dominance from the year 1500 on – Emancipation, Scientism, Abstraction, Primitivism among twelve dominant themes – have dried up as motivating forces. Barzun believes (a quick Google search implies he is still alive at age 103) that in the past, the western world enjoyed general agreement on societal goals and has argued primarily about the means to achieve them. Now, however, he believes the consensus has evaporated, leaving the culture treading water amongst shrill bickering.
I re-read seven or eight chapters of Barzun’s book immediately after reading Barry Ritholz’s post HERE, which includes:
IF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AGREE ON THESE CORE ISSUES, WHY AREN’T OUR DEMANDS BEING HEARD?
If Americans from across the spectrum agree, why aren’t these desires being implemented by our politicians?
Because our politicians are bought and paid for … lock, stock and barrel.
And the powers-that-be are good at using the age-old divide and conquer trick to keep us weak, divided and fighting at each others’ throat … instead of for what we actually want.
But ultimately, the main reason that we are impotent is that we don’t realize that the overwhelming majority of Americans want the same things we do.
Ritholz’s post appears to contradict Barzun’s assumption of a lack of consensus but here, for possibly the first time in history, the words of Mickey Rourke provide the unifying bridge. The agreement Ritholz points to is primary one of opposition. We agree on what we don’t like – bank bailouts, political and financial corruption, fraud and inefficient government spending. What we can’t agree on is what we’d like to see replace the current status quo. We don’t like where we’ve been but don’t have any place to go.
This is not a cultural environment where leadership arises so, as hard as it is to watch, we get to see one presidential candidate who doesn’t think “fancy book learnin’” is a requirement for the job and another who’s desperately trying to hide the fact they actually know things. Barzun, I am sure, is nodding grimly at the debates in recognition that they revolve almost entirely around “antis” – immigration, government, the Fed, Muslims, abortion, etc, etc, etc. As near as I can tell the Republicans are not “for” anything, except possibly the process of capitalism, which they like primarily because it will result in “less” government. (I am not, to be clear, advocating the “more” case where government is concerned. You could argue also that the GOP is “for” military action, but that hardly contradicts my nihilism-based accusations).
I can’t recommend Barzun’s book or Barry Ritholz’s columns highly enough but at the same time I refuse to accept the notion of the inevitable implosion of Western culture. We will, though, have to spend more time fighting for things instead of strapping on the blue or red team jersey and going to war to stop the other side. In the spirit of the season, I’m asking nicely, and all of us I think have at least a tiny role in this, start talking less about what you hate, and start talking more about “better” because it is entirely likely that we will get the leadership we deserve until we do.