The Common American Moron, Exhibit A

(See, matrixx, it’s not that I don’t think people are morons, I just find my examples in different places than you.)

Regardless of the individual choices, the sheer length of this celebration of American innovation eventually generates a quiet but insistent internal backlash: dadgummit, we Americans haven’t been that amazing. What about all the scoundrels? The embezzlers, the defilers of the landscape, the peddlers of dangerous food and cars? The same things that made the United States a place where innovation could thrive also made it the land of ”The Jungle” and Pintos and Enron.

This from a review of the book “They Made America” in the New York Times. It’s quotes like these that give credence to the breathless ranting from conservatives that there is a subset of our intelligentisia who quite genuinely hate America, hate themselves, and feel such an overpowering guilt over being rich white Americans that the feel they must balance every positive statement about this country with an immediate equal and opposite negative.  How dare he read through an entire book without once mentally flagellating himself for the crime of being an American?  Why yes, Neil, we are that amazing. And we’ve been pretty rotten too. The one does not contradict the other, nor is celebrating our achievements a sin requiring instant confession of our failures.

Not content with that small show of Reluctant American Angst, he proceeds to dig himself in deeper:

It’s easy to imagine someone in a far-off place reading this book’s interesting account of Elisha Otis’s elevators and seeing the germ of the World Trade Center disaster.

Yep, you read that right.  He’s putting a measure of the blame for the 9/11 attacks on the guy who invented the elevator. Damn our American hubris!  Why couldn’t we have just stayed close to the ground as God intended!

But wait, there’s more:

You may also find it, somewhat perversely, to be an argument for a moratorium on innovating. Somewhere along the journey from the steamboat (John Fitch) to the Google search (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), it may occur to you that innovations have morphed from being things that make life easier to being things that simultaneously make life easier and more complicated.

The steamboat? Sure, an improvement; much better than pack mules. The electric light bulb? You bet; simpler and safer and more reliable than flame. Air travel? Hmm — flights to catch, luggage to lose. Venture capital (Georges Doriot)? Don’t understand it. Biotechnology (Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson)? Really don’t understand it. Twenty-four-hour news (Ted Turner)? Too much information.

Tell you what, Neal.  Why don’t you go sit somewhere quiet, maybe with a cup of tea,  and contemplate the grave implications of these newfangled gizmos, while the rest of us enjoy the benefits of technology?

This kind of complaint has been made in every age, but it baffles me every time I run across it.  Nobody is forcing him to undergo the stress of air travel, or the information overload of cable news.  There’s nothing preventing him from holing up in a nice wood-heated cabin in Montana, with an old-fashioned newspaper like the NYT for his news, and refusing to set foot on a plane.  Why not let those of us who are masochistic enough to endure these modern contraptions persist in our madcap ways?  But no, he doesn’t understand it –  so the first thing that comes to mind is a “moratorium on innovating”. 

It’s not that I think that people like him are a threat to my way of life.  I just wonder how such an obvious fool makes it to the book review page of the New York Times.

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  1. Most innovations have a dark side. Even knives can be used in evil ways.

    During testimony of the internet (back when it was young), some senator or congressman, concerned about pornography and fraud, asked the testifier: “We’ve had the internet for five years. When will it be safe?” The witness responded: “Congressman, we’ve had public streets for three thousand years. When will they be safe?”

    1. Exactly

      I think this OP and thread point to a fundamental aspect of human fear. Change hurts, and, in case of doubt, shoot the messenger.
      I consider the Exodus to be a fundamental organizational behavior lesson; you have to skip two generations of people before radical change can set in. Shopenhauer’s observation that new ideas are ‘violently opposed, grudgingly accepted, and seen as ubiquitous’ also seems germane.
      There is no real freedom without the potential for Bad Things. An interesting question is whether you take an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature; given the chance to do something selfish, will people take it?

  2. Nobody is forcing him to undergo the stress of air travel, or the information overload of cable news.

    Many “modern conveniences” are not really choices.

    Can you live without CDs? (Say, only with LPs?)

    Can you live without an automobile?

    Can you live without a credit card?

    Can you live without a phone? (Of any sort.)

    Society forces some items onto us. All of the above items were once considered luxuries. Yet in today’s US society, everyone expects you to have them. (Want to buy an airline ticket? You’d better have a credit card. Want to sign up for a credit card? You’d better have a phone number.)

    Oh, you can get by without them, but there is considerable effort to do so.

    So are we really free to live without “modern conveniences”?

    1. I live on the fringes of Amish country. An hour’s drive can take me to places where they choose to live without those modern conveniences and get along just fine. They seem to resist society’s pressure pretty well. And it’s no harder for them to live that way than it ever was. It’s arguably easier, since tools and materials are probably easier to come by.

      In my opinion it’s only hard if you want to have your cake and eat it to. If you want to live a simple life and yet enjoy all the benefits of modern technology – instant communications, ubiquitous entertainment, high-speed travel. Otherwise it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

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