Misery, Bubbles and Bastions
In an article entitled “Our Miserable 21st Century” which appeared in the monthly magazine Commentary, Nicholas N. Eberstadt wrote:
On the morning of November 9, 2016, America’s elite—its talking and deciding classes—woke up to a country they did not know. To most privileged and well-educated Americans, especially those living in its bicoastal bastions, the election of Donald Trump had been a thing almost impossible even to imagine. What sort of country would go and elect someone like Trump as president? Certainly not one they were familiar with, or understood anything about.
Whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, the 2016 election was a sort of shock therapy for Americans living within what Charles Murray famously termed “the bubble” (the protective barrier of prosperity and self-selected associations that increasingly shield our best and brightest from contact with the rest of their society). The very fact of Trump’s election served as a truth broadcast about a reality that could no longer be denied: Things out there in America are a whole lot different from what you thought.
First of all, let’s take a moment to appreciate this wonderful piece of writing—vivid, musical and engaging—a beginning that disturbs, engages and invites you in. My experience in reading feels akin to appreciating the beauty of Billy Holiday’s voice as she sings of a sadness of life and love. Human beings have this wonderful capacity to use of art and awareness to shape and share what is difficult to bear.
I came to Eberstadt’s article through a feature on National Public Radio and then Ross Douthat’s Op Ed piece in the New York Times. Douthat does a skillful job (please appreciate the writing which both disturbs and educates) summarizing some of Eberstadt’s main points:
[This] crisis is apparent in the data that Eberstadt and many others have collected, showing wage stagnation in an era of unprecedented wealth, a culture of male worklessness in which older men take disability and young men live with their parents and play video games, an epidemic of opioid abuse, a historically low birthrate, a withdrawal from marriage and civic engagement and religious practice, a decline in life expectancy and a rise in suicide, and so on through a depressing litany.
I recommend both these articles as part of your daily dose of reality from outside ‘the bubble.’ (Here I give away my strong suspicion that most of the people who come to read what I write are residents of the ‘bicostal bastions’ with a few outliers spread throughout mostly urban areas across the country.)
But I don’t totally agree with either writer. (And neither should you.)
Eberstadt’s first paragraph, while engaging, seems to make the misleading assumption that the educated elite are somehow uniquely subject to living in a bubble.
We all—regardless of our class, race, status or position—live in a bubble. This is not a problem we can solve, but rather a condition that we can work with. An essential political and civic action for us all should be to consciously expose ourselves to information and relationships that both disquiet and enrich us.
Over these past few months, I have come to increasingly appreciate companions of the mind—thinkers and writers who I may never meet, but who help me better understand the forces and realities that I have not yet noticed.
So please meet my new friends in seeing more clearly: Nicholas N. Eberstadt, and Ross Douthat.