Opus 14: Everything Is [Not] Broken: A Response to Alana Newhouse and a Plea for Optimism

You thought the world was better when you were young because you were young, not because the world was better. - Jon Stewart

There are few things I have recommended more than a subscription to The Browser. Day in and day out, Robert Cottrell and his team share the best list of timeless reading. The content spans the spectrum from investigative journalism to fiction writing to historical accounts and everything in between. My bedtime reading is filled with delights from The Browser.

The Browser recently shared Alana Newhouse’s Everything is Broken piece in the newsletter. Robert’s following thoughts accompanied it:

Cri de coeur. Shocked by the failings of American healthcare, the writer concludes that "everything" in America is "broken", including education, farming, cities, media, tech, and religion. A fine rant, whose least persuasive part is the proposed remedy — to find new inspiration in the values of the 1950s. Even the least-woke reader may struggle to keep the words "white privilege" at bay.

I recommend reading the short piece in its entirety.

I have studied the piece several times now as it keeps providing me pause. My thoughts are split. On the one hand, I generally agree with the evidence that Alana provides - much of it has been part of my Opus writing to-date - but, on the other hand, no tactical solutions are provided anywhere in the rant. In this Letter, I want to reflect on Alana’s plea. We ended up where we are not by random chance but rather because of deeply rooted human nature, and it is that natural progression that will continue to push us forward.

Some Reflections

Alana opens the body of the petition with the following:

Everything is broken.

Let’s say you believe the above to be hyperbolic. You never fell through the cracks of the medical system; as far as you understand it, there are plenty of ways for a resourceful person to buy a home in America these days; you easily met a mate and got married and had as many children as you wanted, at the age you wanted to have them; your child had a terrific time at college, where she experienced nothing at all oppressive or bizarre, got a first-class education that you could easily afford and which landed her a great job after graduation; you actually like the fact that you haven’t encountered one book or movie or piece of art that’s haunted you for months after; you enjoy druggily floating through one millennial pink space after another; it gives you pleasure to interact only with people who agree with you politically, and you feel filled with meaning and purpose after a day spent sending each other hysteria-inducing links; maybe you’ve heard that some kids are cosplaying Communism but that’s only because everyone is radical when they’re young, and Trump voters are just a bunch of racist troglodytes pining for the past, and it’s not at all that neither group can see their way to a future that looks remotely hopeful ... If this is you, congratulations. There’s no need to reach out and tell me any of this, because all you will be doing is revealing how insulated you are from the world inhabited by nearly everyone I know.

First off, I have been fortunate throughout my life to have experienced most of what Alana describes above, and my opinion is solely a function of my perspective, the child of my experience. But, as is true with much of today’s media, this opening passage immediately distances a huge part of the American constituency. It has become commonplace for us to The death of respect for our counterparties has gone on to destroy discourse in the western world. Alana adds later in the post,

Make a friend and don’t talk politics with them.

When did this become the goal? Political discourse is the first-hand coding of our everyday lives. The banning of political discussions within Western classrooms, conference rooms, and dinner tables has led to the lowest political involvement rates in history. This vacuum was the very reason we had the last four years. The empty space allows for more extreme swings in the political pendulum.

It is clear that the covid era has shown the divergence in the two America’s but the dismissal of groups out of a conversation because of their prior experience is dangerous ground to proceed on. If everything is broken, then everyone will need to be involved in fixing it. Assuming the better off people, even the ones that benefit from the broken system, cannot be part of the solution is a prescription for failure.

Alana points to “flatness” as the main culprit for everything being broken in America today. While she does not explicitly define the word, it is inferred throughout that technology and culture have become too powerful in their ability to grow beyond their atomic constraints. Much like Friedman, Alana demonizes flatness and argues it has had a net negative effect on the world:

And flatness is the mechanism by which, over the past decade and with increasing velocity over the last three years, a single ideologically driven cohort captured the entire interlocking infrastructure of American cultural and intellectual life. It is how the Long March went from a punchline to reality, as one institution after another fell and then entire sectors, like journalism, succumbed to control by narrow bands of sneering elitists who arrogated to themselves the license to judge and control the lives of their perceived inferiors.

The hypocrisy within this section is nearing a painful level. While I can respect Alana’s Tablet publication as the independent media, she has numerous relationships with the NYT and other large journalism houses, the very institutions she is blaming for our modern society's failure. Save for the recent Trumpian years, modern narratives have been single handily ruled by the media. Journalists have been just as guilty as many others for the very decline that Alana is pointing at.

Further, Journalism and the university, when joined, The Cathedral, is society’s most powerful controllers since the Church during the pre-enlightenment eras. The Cathedral has controlled the post-war narrative with a death grip. Our media and academia have worked in perfect harmony to construct modern culture. The postmodern timeline since the 1960s has been fueled by the universities, who are dictating the discussion of young people, and the media, who are feeding the fire for the voting population.

Alana wraps up her call to arms,

Our aim should be to take the central, unavoidable and potentially beneficent parts of the Flatness Aesthetic (including speed, accessibility; portability) while discarding the poisonous parts (frictionlessness; surveilled conformism; the allergy to excellence). We should seek out friction and thorniness, hunt for complexity and delight in unpredictability. 

We reach an impasse. Flatness has evolved naturally; the “poisonous parts” of flatness are just as central and unavoidable as those that we get a collective benefit from. Drawing the characteristics directly from Alana, flatness’s speed is a direct function of the frictionless interfacing and growth prospects technology has created. Technology’s accessibility owes at least some of its success to the surveillance state that the powerful platforms have become. Anyone can freely, at least financially, use most technology because someone else is paying for their entry.

While power generally begets power in a feedback loop, these developments are natural. I don’t mean natural in the softer sense that is often used today but rather the literal definition, almost unavoidable, inevitable. Millions of years of evolution have shown that we strive for efficiency, speed, and growth. Growth force functions things, like flatness, into place. If you put a few cells in a petri dish, they will grow as fast as their environment will allow them. Humans are the same. We cannot construct long-term societal controls and constraints to block this growth.

If everything is truly broken beyond repair, opportunities will continue to show themselves, and people will see growth.

Our Need to Struggle

Alana’s cynicism is evidence of how the West has become default pessimistic rather than optimistic in the postmodern era. It is hard to pinpoint when this transition happened. Sometime in the 1970s/80s is the best guess. In his Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers estimates,

In Foucalt’s readings of power, discourses circulated with terrifying effect; for the futurologists, information democratized and liberated. Academic readings of power, on both the right and the left, sustained a strongle pessimistic thread. By the 1980's, the popular futurologists were selling an intoxicating hope. The chasm between these strains could not have been wider.

Systemic pessimism is a dangerous feedback loop for a developed society. But, much like the evolution of the flatness, this pessimism and struggle is natural Fukuyama predicted in The End of History and the Last Man,

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

How do we escape this feedback loop? Thiel points to a return to religion and agrees with Fukuyama’s caution around the loss of an external enemy in his Politics and Apocolypse. If we cannot fight our enemy, we will fight ourselves.

Today’s Music

Luke Howard has been a recent favorite: