The Light of the Tiny Screen

Steve looked up from the paper on Sunday morning and said, “Ross Douthat is on a roll.”

In his long Sunday op-ed, “The Age of Decadence,” Ross touches on the nihilism that I wrote about last week. He writes,

The truth of the first decades of the 21st century, a truth that helped give us the Trump presidency but will still be an important truth when he is gone, is that we probably aren’t entering a 1930-style crisis for Western liberalism or hurtling forward toward transhumanism or extinction. Instead, we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.

Like me, he doesn’t see political revolution, just stagnation and corruption. He has a few lovely anecdotes — The Frye Festival, Thanos, Uber — meant to highlight the lack of new ideas and the frauds that dominate our world. I have another one.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle emerged from their Canadian igloo to give a speech at a JP Morgan event in Florida last week. According to the gossip blogs, which are always right, they made a cool million with a talk about Harry’s difficulties dealing with his mother’s death and his years in therapy. Apparently, three different countries covered the security for them.

Now, it’s a sad tale, but Harry is the hardly the only person in the world who lost a parent at a vulnerable age and now goes to a shrink. JP Morgan paid him all that money along with a private jet, because he was catnip for super, super, mega rich people, who would then invest money in their bank. Famous people want to meet famous people and then swirl all their beautiful money together and make more money.

The only people who seem to really be bothered about these sorts of events are the basement dwellers who comment on those blogs, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with this couple. (To be fair, they also hate Prince Andrew and have some very juicy gossip about Uncle Pervy as they call him.)

I have been saddened by the post-presidential Obamas, who seem to have also cashed in on these sorts of events. They aren’t exactly Jimmy Carters quietly building houses for poor people in their spare time.

And as an army of publicists create Instagramable moments for the masses, things are getting worse. Fiddling, while Rome burns.

With a child with special needs, I go to a lot of presentations about how to navigate the system for adults with disabilities. And it’s all bad. As long as Steve and I are around, my kid will be fine, but what happens when we’re gone? What happens if his brother can’t fill the void? What happens to individuals that don’t have parents that have our resources? The lack of any sort of safety net in our country is terrifying. It keeps me up at night, which is when I read the gossip blogs.

I sort of want to delete this post. Pessimism is bad for one’s brand. Screw it. Publishing.

17 thoughts on “The Light of the Tiny Screen

  1. Douthat is a whiny bitch who sees his political allies failing every test that comes their way and has decided it’s a societal problem instead of the deliberate policy choices of those allies.


    1. Yup. Blaming vague, unclear trends in society and not powerful people making very bad choices seem to be last stand of the conservative intellectual.


  2. Laura wrote, ” What happens to individuals that don’t have parents that have our resources?”

    I don’t suppose you could get the Atlantic to fund or partially fund a vacation/research trip to find out how our European cousins do this? You could probably network online a bit to talk to European parents, meet them in person, and also check out official and non-profit programs. I think that could be a great long form piece. Or maybe tack on some of that stuff to a normal vacation and write off the research expenses? That would actually be a fantastic book.

    My guess is that the UK is very similar to the US, the Scandis are doing their Scandi stuff and the French are surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) terrible at this. I have no idea what Italy and Spain might be doing. Smaller European family size (i.e. lack of siblings) is going to make this an even more acute problem than in the US. I also suspect that a number of developed Asian countries are really, really bad at this, but that would be a harder, more expensive trip to do.

    MH said, “Douthat is a whiny bitch who sees his political allies failing every test that comes their way and has decided it’s a societal problem instead of the deliberate policy choices of those allies.”

    I used to think that Douthat got overpromoted way too fast (he’s 4 years younger than me–GAH!), but he’s been doing some very interesting stuff the last several years.

    And yes, there is going to be a relationship between politics and societal problems, but societal problems get driven by a lot of things that are not political, like technological change, global economic development, family structure, replacement of IRL relationships with electronic amusements, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find Douthat interesting in general and sometimes I nod agreement. Brooks as well. I read the Brooks article about family and am thinking to reread – he clearly has a thesis and picked his stats to match, but what the Hell. He is on to something in his big picture way.


      1. Without the data, no he’s not. He’s engaging in faith based social science, and social science is tough enough without bringing wishful thinking into it.

        I could develop a big picture theory about unicorns and it would also be terrible. He would be better off if he didn’t try to pretend that his big picture was based on reality, but just proposed it as a theory


    2. In a just world, this article would have ended David Brooks’ career.

      From the beginning, the has just been making shit up.

      “Brooks, an agile and engaging writer, was doing what he does best, bringing sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols — the Weber Grill, the open-toed sandals with advanced polymer soles — that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. …
      “There’s just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false.”

      “Brooks is operating in a long tradition of public intellectualism. Like William Whyte, another child of Philadelphia’s western suburbs fascinated with the interplay of money and manners among his contemporaries, Brooks is a journalist who works on sociological turf. But Whyte, who was an editor for Fortune in the 1950s, observed how people lived, inferred trends, considered what they meant, and then came up with grand conclusions about the direction of the country. When, in 1954, he wanted to find out which consumers were trend-setters, he went into Overbrook Park and surveyed 4,948 homes — all inhabited by real people. Brooks, by way of contrast, draws caricatures. Whether out of sloppiness or laziness, the examples he conjures to illustrate well-founded premises are often unfounded, undermining the very points he’s trying to make.”

      “In January, I made my own trip to Franklin County, 175 miles southwest of Philadelphia, with a simple goal: I wanted to see where David Brooks comes up with this stuff. … [many details follow]
      “As I made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home.”

      “Unfortunately, as with the Red/Blue article, many of the knowing references Brooks deftly invoked to bring Patio Man to life were entirely manufactured.”

      The author calls Brooks up to see how he squares his claims against the actual facts of the many, many matters. Hilarity ensues, though I do not think Brooks found it hilarious.

      Anyway, I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again: Friends don’t let friends read David Brooks.


      1. The conservative movement’s way of fawning over the mind of anybody who supports them while using big words has really dropped standards. The next intellectual heir of Leo Strauss will be a professional wresting commentator.


      2. MH said, “The conservative movement’s way of fawning over the mind of anybody who supports them while using big words has really dropped standards. The next intellectual heir of Leo Strauss will be a professional wresting commentator.”

        MH, with all due respect, you haven’t demonstrated that David Brooks (or Ross Douthat, for that matter) has a large conservative fan base. Let’s not forget that they are both NYT guys…


      3. The people with the large conservative fan base aren’t going to be linked here because they aren’t getting in the NYT or The Atlantic because they can’t write a whole essay without saying something truly horrible. As I said, standards are really low.


      4. Krugman’s column, “Unicorns of the intellectual right”, addresses this issue:

        “As others have pointed out, the real problem here is that media organizations are looking for unicorns: serious, honest, conservative intellectuals with real influence. Forty or fifty years ago, such people did exist. But now they don’t.”

        “Am I saying that there are no conservative economists who have maintained their principles? Not at all. But they have no influence, zero, on GOP thinking. So in economics, a news organization trying to represent conservative thought either has to publish people with no constituency or go with the charlatans who actually matter.”

        And Brooks & Douthat are, at the very least, those with no influence (and with irrelevance and intellectual dishonesty, when they talk of the world as it is).


      5. I’m puzzled by the claim that conservatives are not guided by intellectuals, while liberals are. The big Democratic achievement in New York this year was vastly strengthening rent regulation. I’ve been searching high and low for a person with even a bachelor’s degree in economics who thinks this is a good idea. Is there a liberal intellectual who supports this latest liberal accomplishment?


  3. A friend of mine with a couple of special needs children went to law school and then found her niche practice right at home, setting up trust arrangements for families which wanted to ensure a decent future for their kids.


  4. What happens to adults (no-longer-kids) with special needs?
    I think that most bureaucratized countries have this difficulty. There is assistance available (of whatever quality), but the challenge is obtaining it – and the reality is that many of these adults are simply at sea over this navigational challenge.

    I offer the so-far-relatively successful stories of 3 family friends in this area – all of whom have a lower level of mental capacity than it sounds like your Ian does.

    *Ms A. In her 60s. One brother (no longer in the country). ‘Works’ in a sheltered workshop (there are still some here in NZ, but becoming less common). Gets a small amount of money from this to top up her (relatively low) unemployment benefit. Lived with her mum until she died – then the family home was sold (pretty much the only asset), and half was set aside for her in trust. Her trustee is the son of a long-standing family friend – who happens to be a lawyer. Out of the proceeds, a small unit was purchased for her in a nearby suburb (I believe in the name of the trust – so no one can get at her to sell it or give it away). Routine bills (rates, insurance, electricity, etc.) are paid by the trust. The govt is supposed to provide living assistance for her (someone connected with the sheltered workshop) to check up on her – encourage healthy eating, house-cleaning, washing, etc. [This part isn’t working so well – but she would be difficult to work with in this area]
    Long-standing friends of the family meet her for coffee, etc. – maintaining social connection. Almost no connection with her own family (cousins, etc., in the same city aren’t interested).

    *Mr B. In his late 50s. One sister (socialite, married with children). 2 aging parents in poor health (1 with alzheimers). 30 years ago, his parents purchased him a small apartment close to the centre of town (so not local). And his parents pay the routine bills, cleaning, etc. He has had various volunteer ‘jobs’ but he tends to be over-enthusiastic and not have very good judgement, and so asked not to return. Gets the same lowish unemployment benefit. Once his parents die, he’ll have some money in trust (however, parents now at the age/stage in life where they are using more of their assets on their own health care – both now in a rest home). Daughter is involved with her parents care – but has never had any involvement with her brother – and doesn’t seem to want any (he doesn’t fit her social image). Little relationship for the son with family friends as he’s not near to them, and the family didn’t encourage this when he was younger. Suspect he’s socially quite isolated.

    *Mr C. In his early 50s. 5 brothers and sisters (some local, some overseas), parents both dead. Has a full-time job at the local mall as a trolley guy (returns shopping-trolleys from the carparks to the supermarket). He’s done this for 30 years (and I think family got him the job in the beginning). Lived with his mum until she died, then small unit purchased for him by the family in the same suburb – not sure of the money source here – but suspect he had the majority of the inheritance from the sale of the house. Suspect that a family member keeps an eye on the financial side (but not sure). Family is close, and he’s always invited around for events. Church member – so another social outlet for him. Well-known and recognised member of the local community (I’ve seen people standing up for him on the local community Facebook page, when he’s expressed something badly, and the trolls are out).

    All seem (from my outside perspective) to be relatively happy in their lives. I would say that I see the last one, with strong family connections seems the happiest – but that may be his personality as well – he’s a cheerful outgoing guy.


    1. I do some editing for reports on mild traumatic brain injuries, and it’s quite common for it to be recommended that the client have regular household help.

      We tend to take it for granted, but even basic household management is surprisingly cognitively demanding.


  5. Read an article about adults with developmental disabilities and housing in Illinois and it made my heart hurt. I do think stronger safety nets are absolutely necessary in the modern age, that the trends that aren’t going back (and some of them no one —except maybe peter singer— wants to turn back).

    Yes, you will figure it out, but we will worry about the others.


  6. And, regarding Harry & Megan, I’d completely forgo ten about the speaker circuit. I don’t know how far the hanging out with a prince can take them, but, if he is actually a good speaker, I can see a lucrative career. Yes, he needs the bonus of being Prince Harry, in addition to whatever he story he tells in order to get the 1M payoffs, but, he also needs a good speech and story, if the career lasts beyond the novelty.

    Peyton Manning is an example — he travels the speaker circuit now, and is, as reported from people who have heard him, a great speaker.

    I’m guessing that Serena Williams has speaker gigs, too, and we know Beyonce plays weddings. Now, Harry, unlike Manning, Williams and Beyonce is not an authentic great, but, he is a unique person.


  7. I don’t care so much if people pay Harry to speak (or Peyton or Serena or Beyonce), but I am concerned about the speaker circuit of ex-politicians & journalists (Spicer, Bolton, Rove & Reid — who have a shtick they do together, Pogue, Manjoo, Brooks).

    I was also quite unhappy with the story of Bezos after party for the Alfalfa club (with Conway, baby Trumps, Ben Stiller, Gates, . . . in attendance). That does seem like a group of people who could cook things up that benefit plutocrats at the expense of everyone else, while still working with a very high opinion of their inherent goodness.


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