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Cheer Up, Peggy

This is an open letter to Peggy Noonan, written in response to her recent troubling piece in the Wall Street Journal, A Separate Peace.

Dear Peggy,

What is up with the art-student angst? Cheer up, already. The subtitle of your most recent WSJ essay was "America is in trouble--and our elites are merely resigned," an idea which you expanded upon with these words:

And some--well, I will mention and end with America's elites. Our recent debate about elites has had to do with whether opposition to Harriet Miers is elitist, but I don't think that's our elites' problem.

This is. Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

Fist off, I must say that -- as a long-time reader and admirer -- I'm mystified by the significance you ascribe to these "elites" and their outlook on the future. What is so all-fired important about the disposition of journalists and politicians? Is this what you learned working for Ronald Reagan? Are these the people he would have looked to to save us from impending catastrophe?

I don't think so.

Our future has never been entirely in the hands of journalists and hack politicians in Washington. Luckily, it is even less so today than it was in the past. If these groups have made their "peace" with anything, it is probably with the fact that they simply don't matter as much as they used to, and that they aren't the ones shaping and determining the future.

The people who will determine the future are hard at work in the real world. Some of them may be classified as belonging to some sort of "elite;" but most of them do not. They work in business and in the public sector. They are educators, doctors, sales people, farmers, clergy, and, yes, even some journalists and politicians. They are scientists and engineers.

You've spent a long time working in and around the Washington political scene; you're going to need to look outside that circle if you want to draw a bead on where our society is actually headed. I would urge you to pay particular attention to the activities and accomplishments of the latter two groups mentioned above. Aside from a -- please forgive me -- deeply misguided essay you wrote on cloning a while back (which I responded to here) I have not known you to have much to say on what's happening in the scientific and technological arenas.

That, of course, is too big a topic for me to attempt to address in single blog entry, even in summary form. (Although we do take a stab at it every now and again.) But look into it for yourself. I think you will find that we do, indeed, face tremendous risks in the coming years. But we face even greater opportunities. And those who stand ready to help us overcome those risks and take advantage of those opportunities are not part of any tired Washington "elite."

Look into it, Peggy. You may find that you disagree with some of the more outrageous-sounding projections of what's coming next. But even these come from from sources at least as credible as Ted Kennedy, for heaven's sake.

I, for one, think we're going to have a wonderful future. And I'm ready to do what I can to make it happen. If the political and journalistic elites think otherwise and have decided to check out, well...I can imagine greater losses than that, to tell you the truth.

Please do look into it. Good luck.

Your faithful reader,

Phil Bowermaster


UPDATE: Blogger Dave Justus has more.

Comments

I think Peggy has come back from 'the very dark place' to 'a dark place.' It seems that 9/11 traumatized her in a way it failed to do with most. Perhaps it was because her only child was caught up in it? I dunno. In any case, she has had a problem distancing herself from the event.

I had the exact same thoughts about Noonan's latest. I was reminded of a funny saying I read somewhere that went something like this: People who run civilization read the Wall Street Journal (you could sustitute other things such as EE Times, Concrete International, JAMA, etc). People who think they run civilization read the Washington Post. People who think they *should* run civlization read the New York Times. People whose ancenstors ran civilization read the Boston Globe. Peggy Noonan is sadly and slowly transforming into yet another political type who thinks they run things. Reagan understood the reality well.

If you look at my blog, you'll see that I study businesses. Just this year I've looked at several hundred (including nearly every single startup community bank founded in the US since 2001). If there's anything I've observed in my many years studying businesses, it's that they will figure out a way to work around whatever roadblocks governments throw at them.

The government recently passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which puts overly cumbersome burdens on small public companies. So lots of small companies are "going dark" in a classic display of unintended consequences. The SEC says you can't go dark unless you have less than 300 shareholders, so companies simply have reverse stock splits to reduce the shareholders (anyone owning less than one share is paid off in cash) and then they simply stop reporting to the SEC and simply disclose whatever shareholders (not the SEC) want them to disclose. This is neither good nor bad, it's simply a rational response to a bad law.

Peggy Noonan looks at the world and sees uncontrolled chaos because the "elites" are finding themselves more and more unable to control or even understand what's going on. They turn the steering wheel but nothing happens. The increased distribution of information today allows society to act much more autonomously. As far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing.

Adam Smith founded modern economics. His father was a customs officer is Scotland whose job it was to try to stop smuggling. The utter futility of that job helped lead Adam Smith to develop the economic concepts we now understand very well, but people in government have an unexplainable learning disability for rationality.

To my mind, Mde Noonan has a point-- but it is not what she thinks. Indeed yes, anyone plugged into certain circles detects a note of budding angst which socio-cultural historians have seen before... a fin de siecle sort of regretful farewell "to all that", especially prevalent pre-1914 and thereafter in the sadly hyper-reactive 1920s.

1) Demographics: With stark inevitability, in no more than thirty years there will be no "youth culture", because no youth. The whole Boomer fantasy of "we are the greatest", "do your thing", "whatever turns you on", will be seen for the absurdist relic it already is-- a late Roman efflorescence c. AD 375 - 425, after which Goths, Vandals, marauding Turkic gangs, took down a heritage undefended because not seen as worth preserving.

2) Biotech/genomic supra-evolution: In no more than a generation, it will be arguable whether "sentience" (never mind "intelligence") will be carbon rather than silicon-based at all. Those who hate and fear this inevitable supra-organism, interacting and networked in a trillion nodes, will cite scripture of various provenance, but always to the same effect-- it's new, it's different, we do not understand it. You nasty, horrible people: Take it away. They will suffer the fate of rustics in Greys' Elegy: "In many a mouldering heap, the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep." Facing East, awaiting the Last Trump. Lotsa luck.

3) Off-Earth "space culture": Nothing romantic, any more than the Wright Flier prefigured the Airbus 380 in more than vague potential. But this planet is already seen as vulnerable, and far too small. Giant cities, floating outside the plane of the ecliptic; terraforming Mars,probably Venus,
mayhap major moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We need this now... the current interglacial is past-due to end, and Earth will move through an annular ring of dust in the inner Solar System about 2113, as it does every 800 years with predictably disastrous consequences.

Peggy Noonan thinks of herself as a "political" commentator, but in fact there is no such thing. The word connotes a "polis", a communitarian entity, all-inclusive in its sphere. What she senses, sensitive antenna twitching, is the Third Millenium taking shape. It will excrete today's murderous Mullahs, our egregious Castros, Kim Jong-ils, Chavez- and Mugabe-types, because people empowered with self-defense outside sickeningly thuggish milieus will knock the Supremos out before their democides get under way.

If indeed Science (rightly understood) presents us "emergent order", fusion-powered anti-gravity, teleportation via quantum entanglement propagated at light-velocity, we will say "gee whiz!"-- forgeting that Maxwell, Planck and Einstein, Schrodinger and Bell et.al. were far more radical in the ideas they proposed.

Right, Peggles! But it is not a decline that we're detecting, merely the overdue and unlamented end of an era that began about 1914 and is working its way out with the demise of that narcissistic bunch of cultural bag-ladies we think of as the Boomer Generation-- without doubt the most culturally sterile and politically regressive cohort since Attila treated with the Pope some 1500 years ago.

God bless us, every one.


I think it's a problem with too many people being treated as elites. They can't settle anything, and constantly keep us all wondering whom to believe.

I thought that democracies weren't supposed to have elites other than those we elect. The root meaning of the term is "the chosen." Who elected all these jerks who constantly pour FUD over everything? We're over informed. We know a whole lot of stuff that isn't true, and we do a lot of stupid things because someone else has given us bad advice.

There's a paper by Hugh W. Nibley written back in the fifties called "Victoriosa Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else" which is directly pertinent to our time. It was written in the 1950s, discusses how the development of the arts of persuasion by the Sophists and rhetors corrupted the societies of the Greeks and Romans. We have the same problem in spades because we have so many more means of communication.

We've just witnessed an example in the debate over Harriet Miers wherein it was assumed that she could not be qualified to be a supreme court justice because we didn't know enough about her views, an argument which had just been repudiated when made against John Roberts. Apparently he was more elite that she. Her nomination was withdrawn without even giving her a hearing, which went the Democrats' filibusters one better.

I propose returning to a standard where elites have to be chosen and constantly prove themselves.
Without a permanent skepticism, how can we take anybody seriously anymore?

What we may be seeing is a realization by today's elites (a very diverse group that includes both Ted Kennedy and Peggy Noonan) that the current way we do things cannot last. Maybe the Singularity really IS near.

Elites have always imagined themselves to be more important than they are. But now they sense that the illusion can't last. Two reasons: People are seeing through the facade AND elites really are becoming less important.

You see this in the attacks against bloggers. The latest is Forbes.
But this has been going on since well before the CBS scandal. "Yuck. Too many voices."

If some guy only eats peanut butter sandwitches, he's going to hate supermarkets. "Why do we need all this other stuff? I just want peanut butter and bread!"

The rest of us are happier with a larger market - of both food and ideas.

As much as I respect Ms.Noonan, this post - as well as pretty much every comment to it - is better informed AND more informative than Noonan's article.

I think her 'bad things coming' is an attitude / meme, that's all too prevalent (whether people acknowledge it or not). We don't dream anymore. Acheron may be right: it's just the End of the Babyboomers. But they are currently the ones in power and they see it as The End Of History (the way Fukuyama intended it).
Not too long ago, Time Magazine published a list of worldwide 'hero's', which included the mayor of Amsterdam, who's become famous for his attempts at keeping things together. The problem with that is that it makes him into a statist. Valuable initiatives could easily be stifled by such an attitude (= refusing change).
Like I said on Transterrestrial Musings - commenting on the predictions for 2040 in the Foreign Policy 35th anniversary - we're all pondering the coming of an Enlightenment and assume that it will be the moderate one. We're forgetting that the entire shock it made in Europe of that day was due to the work of the radicals. They were shocking in their materialism and their atheism.
I think the Peggy Noonans of this world are going to be tremendously shocked by what at present marginalized radicals are going to do. This might include the likes of Chavez and Kim Jong-Il, though it seems doubtful (Venezuela looks like it's receding back into poverty // South Korea could swamp the North with clones; but when the former develops the technology before anyone else, the latter is a sure goner).

Point of all this stupid rant: WE are not very good at these kind of transitions. Consider the latest big ones: 1989 and 1914.

I have always enjoyed hearing Noonan's remarks, but have always been annoyed by the tone and style that she uses to deliver her thoughts. My problem is that I am annoyed by liberals who are narcissistic, elitist baby boomers who are always trying to be the smartest person in the room (examples: Tom Friedman, Dan Rather, Joe Biden, Barbara Streisand, etc.). Picture Joe Biden explaining to you in clearly enunciated sentances how stupid you are for not realizing that, "we live in a dangerous world". Biden and Friedman turn 3 syllable words into 5 sylable words for emphasis. Eboli becomes "EEE-BAA-HOO-LAA-III". They are expecting us unclean masses to go, "Oh I get it now".

Noonan is one of this species of elites that happens to claim allegiance to the conservative tribe. That bugs me.

Ronald Reagan read some of her words, but he never had a mind meld with her and his spirit never was reincarnated into her soul. Ronald Reagan came from a depression era household with an unstable father and he faced a real impression that the world was falling apart every day. Like other great Republican presidents in their youth, he "Constructed" a man. He became a lifeguard. Teddy Roosevelt took a sickly body and became a body builder and a boxer. Nixon watched his brothers die of disease in poverty, yet put himself through law school and was on more presidential tickets than any other american in history. Lincoln lived in the most wretched poverty as his mother withered before his eyes and witnessed the destruction of what the Union once was, yet he rolled out of bed each day.

Teddy Kennedy, not a great president, Takes a stiff belt of booze and proclaims the lament of nearly all men drifting into old age..."Kids, the world is going to hell in a handbag". As the baby boomers age, be ready for more of this lament. Commercials telling the young how they are doing it wrong or "...When we were your age, etc." That is the only thing that might make me consider snuffing it.

Peggy, Here is the headline. "We live in a dangerous world". It has always been dangerous. The 50s were not carefree. Eisenhower was busting his tail to make it feel carefree. JFK had a tough week? Read your history books. 1942, now that was a tough year. An american GI lying in the mud breathing his last breath may have asked himself, "for what have I paid this price?" The answer is so that his children could live carefree in the 50s or his grandchildren in the carefree 90s. A Pax Americana wasted on a bunch of spoiled brats we call baby boomers. What gall must a President have to stand in front of the 1996 Dem. Convention and state, "The missles are no longer pointed at us". What chutzpah!

The missles never stopped threatening us. The Romans faced earthquakes. The Spanish flu killed millions. Galveston dwarfs Katrina. It never stops. ...and surprise! people die eventually too.

Tomorrow is dangerous. Bush like Reagan is a man of faith. Both men had their morning coffee while reading about all the different ways our enemies could snuff the light from atop the shining city on the hill. Both men did not cower because it was possible. Both men were driven because it was possible.

Every time someone waves a sign that says, "Bring the troops home". The subtext is, "Take me back to that perfect time when we didn't live in fear".

There never was a "perfect time" and the fear is your problem not mine. Buck up, Peggy and get to work. The elites don't get it. But from the poorest corners of the red states are common people that are ready for the job at hand.

The cost of living is intolerable, yet the product continues to draw a loyal following.

I wrote a comment on "a seperate peace" which I'd like to share with you, too.

Dear Peggy, I share your concern for where America is heading, and I have a similar concern as for where Europe is heading.

You are right in your observations that people sense the government is not doing well.

Most people don't want their country to go into war, especially not when it's their money paying for it. Most people agree that state schools are shitty, and rather want to choose themselves the schools to educate their children. Most people think government is spending too much taxes on the wrong things.

So why not let most people decide, by installing a right for citizen-initiated referendum?

Some words of Alexis de Toqueville, who visited America in 1835 and wrote the book 'de la démocratie en Amérique' in which he describes the democratical town meetings of America:

"Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude."

How about making America a real democracy?

It exists in Switzerland today. And how many wars did they start? Or, how big is their national debt? Do they have confidence in their government? (answers: 0,0,yes)

links for direct democracy:

http://www.democracy-international.org http://c2d.unige.ch/?langÿ http://www.iandrinstitute.org

P.S.

I'd like to make a comment on the comment of AST.

"I thought that democracies weren't supposed to have elites other than those we elect. The root meaning of the term is 'the chosen.'"

We don't live in a democracy today. We live in a particracy, where a minority has the power to virtually do as it pleases for years after it's being elected. How indirect democracy works can be illustrated as follows:

'You are walking on the street at night. Suddenly, a thief pops up from behind a bush. Seconds later, a second thief enters the scene. After arguing a few moments on who is going to get the lute, they agree that I get to choose whom I give my wallet to.'

Inderect democracy is getting to choose which thief you give your wallet to.

Cross-Atlantic greetings, Tuur

This is a terrific blog, and such interesting comments here, as well. Thanks. Got you bookmarked.

regarding Peggy's article/walk through the dark recess of her garden... 2 words: Hot Flash

Interesting. I had hope to read something that would convince me Noonan was wrong. But neither the blog article nor the commentators reassured me. I want her to be wrong but personal attacks on her don't do it and none of the examples offer refute her key assertions.

I recently read how much of our key instruture is failing. Can I be convinced of singularity when we can't even get our sewer systems to work?

In the midst of the Depression the Empire State Bldg was buildt in two years. Four years late the World Trade Center remains a hole in ground.

It is this inability of society to tend to the basics that fuels pessimism.

I hope Noonan is wrong and you all are right but nothing I have seen or read gives me hope.

I had a very similar response to Noonan's column. You can read it here

CT --

Aside from the latin speaker's snarky and inappropriate jibe, I don't think much of what appears in the comments constitutes a personal attack on Peggy Noonan. Certainly nothing that I wrote was intended that way.

You were hoping that someone would convince you that Noonan is wrong, but how, exactly, does one refute "a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming?" I can offer examples of progress for the rest of the day, but they aren't going to do much in the face of a vague feeling that things aren't right.

You "read somewhere" that things are failing and have some notion that the "sewers don't work." Well, the sewers are working fine here. I may be woefully misinformed, but I haven't hard of a big sewer failure anywhere.

I'm not persuaded that our inability to get a new skyscraper up says all that much about where the world is going. Perhaps it says that bureaucracies are not as good at keeping up with and driving change as they once were. But I see that as bad news for bureaucracies, not necessarily bad news for us. If systems are failing, I have a "vague feeling" that they'll be replaced by systems that work. I also think there is plenty of evidence to back up that vague feeling.

Acheron said:
Earth will move through an annular ring of dust in the inner Solar System about 2113, as it does every 800 years

Could you provide some references for that?

The sewers are failing! We're doomed!

The ability of the common person to obtain and transmit information is rendering the hierarchical mode of society obsolete. The self-styled elites are becoming irrelevant. Human societies have become too complex and dynamic for any small set of people to even have the ability to control or direct them without seriously screwing things up. At the beginning of the 20th Century it was thought that central economic planning by the "best and brightest "would produce far better results than the anarchy of a free market, but history shows that such attempts ended in horrible failures. Perhaps the 21st Century will reveal that the broad attempts at social engineering are also futile and counter-productive.

The upcoming struggle in the decades ahead will, I believe, consist of the ruling elites who sit up on the top of the social pyramids attempting to crush and stifle the social evolution below them that is rendering them obsolete. The UN's attempt to seize control of the Internet is just one manifestation of this conflict. The anti-democratic structure of the EU is another.

Sewers and infrastructures:

The orginal articles are archived but you can get the gist:

http://tinyurl.com/anmz8

A longer article on infrastructure:

http://www.techcentralstation.com/102605E.html

Sewers may seem a trivial issue but public health
is very dependant on them. There are indeed thousands of bright spots of progress and the future can be bright but I simply caution against too cavalierly dismissing the pessimists.

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