The Lost Society

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Reading The New Yorker, as I do, I encountered a chewy, thought-provoking review by George Packer of recent writing about the current recession. (The magazine published Packer’s “Don’t Look Down” in its April 29, 2013, edition.)

The review frames the books in contrast with the journalism from The Great Depression.

Packer makes a number of compelling points about the differences, one of which is that writers covering the Great Depression profiled the downtrodden, destitute, and struggling and how the economic crisis affected them. Yet in the thick of our recent recession, writers mostly focus on how the bigwigs, the perpetrators of the scandal, and the celebrities of the downturn masterminded or contributed to the financial crisis.

These days, people don’t want to read about desperation.

That folks wanted to read about hardship during the Depression seems to contradict my article about people craving the upbeat in trying times, doesn’t it? After all, I referenced the Depression as a supporting point. Yet something Packer brings up later in the review ties it together. We’ll come back to that.

Packer’s final sentence struck me hardest: He points out that our society has no idea for the future “genuinely shared by large numbers of people—[no] real and lasting solution to the conditions described in these books.”

During the Depression, large swaths of people believed communism or socialism or the New Deal or general-purpose activism would solve the problem. And although the theories varied in specifics, universally everyone agreed that a society should take care of people—that being American meant justice and compassion for our fellow humans.

What do we have today?

Like Packer, I don’t see a theme. I haven’t heard a truly collective vision for the future.

About to mention the Occupy Wall Street movement, were you? Like Packer, I disagree that Occupy was more than “a moment of its time—a cri de coeur, stylish, media-distracted, and (to invert one of Agee’s best-known sentences) not so easily wounded as easily killed.”

Occupy became an outlet for anger and frustration without any overarching argument for how to handle the problems it decried.

And that brings us back to our unwillingness to look at the bleak in favor of the fluffy: If we shared a vision and passion for where we want to go, seeing how it could help the people currently afflicted would become a positive and motivating call to crusade.

Without one, seeing them suffer is just depressing.

Do we really want to be a society without a vision?