SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 13, 2014

Shribman: Anomie or achievement?

David M. Shribman
The Salem News

---- — New year, new challenges. These challenges come for a political system that is in disrepute, in a world that is in upheaval, in a society that is undergoing fast and fundamental change. The year is only a dozen days old and already changes are sweeping through Washington, the Middle East and Russia.

And, yet, we know that the changing of the calendar year is an artificial event, driven by our need for order, by our impulse to organize events and by our notion, probably faulty, that the seasons of nature are in a cosmic, or perhaps a divine, alignment with our earthly concerns.

For all the folly of doing so, still we attach outsized meaning to the changing of the calendar and to the labels we affix to it. The four digits “1914,” which were employed for 365 days a century ago, are heavy with one meaning alone. So are the digits “1939.”

So what are the digits “2014” destined to mean?

It is, of course, impossible to say, though we do know that the forces that will produce the answer are already well in train, and that in looking back upon 2014, we will see the roots of its meaning in a political crisis that began years earlier, or in a movement that started with an unnoticed slight in a place faraway, or in the inspired imagination of a loner innovator in a remote garage.

Nonetheless, there are collision points we can foresee even in the middle of 2014’s first month, tensions that must be addressed, crises that must be confronted, barriers that must be breached. Here are some of them:

The president’s mysterious persona

Barack Obama came to the White House promising a new beginning, beyond party and partisanship, and yet his five years have been mired in a partisanship that has no equal in modern times.

But his biggest problem involves promises breached and promise unrealized. He promised to work with his rivals and yet rammed through his biggest social program without a single Republican vote, a symbol of his approach to governing.

He showed unbounded promise as a communicator; indeed in the 2008 campaign, he seemed like the Great Communicator 2.0, with an uncanny and unequaled intuitive ability to read the public, to speak for the public and to lead the public. And, yet, the public man has disappointed even his most fervent backers.

Americans very likely would vote again for the man who ran against John McCain in November 2008. They very likely would not vote again for the man who has occupied the White House since January 2009.

The political paralysis on Capitol Hill

In 1964, a half century ago, the Senate was hung up for more than two months in the longest, most vicious filibuster in American history — and, yet, in the end it passed the Civil Rights Act that transformed the United States. But amid that political rancor, Congress also passed a landmark mass transit act that would change the face of urban America, an economic opportunity bill that would launch the War on Poverty, a wilderness bill that protected 9.1 million acres of natural beauty. That last piece of legislation required 60 drafts, and yet, the lawmakers came to final agreement, and the country was better for it.

Breathes there a soul alive today who thinks that the 113th Congress would have the patience or forbearance to work through 60 drafts of anything, except, of course, a fundraising appeal? Or that these lawmakers could go from filibuster to fulfilling their governing responsibilities without throwing the country, the financial markets and the most vulnerable among us into disorder, confusion and chaos?

The crisis of the political class as a whole

Any sober nonpartisan evaluation of the agenda for 2014 would conclude that the country needs a budget, a revenue plan, an overhaul of its tax system and a comprehensive evaluation of its entitlement programs. What are the chances even one of those will be accomplished?

The term “anomie,” developed more than a century ago by a French sociologist, is defined variously as “a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals,” “social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values,” and “a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms.” The political class is guilty as charged, and so, while we are at it, is the business community.

The world beyond our borders

Crises loom, as they always do, in what the French used to call the Levant and what the English used to call the Holy Land. Russia is in turmoil and is a threat to global stability, as always. Europe is sparring, as always.

But the new thing for 2014 — the fighting in Fallujah, the surge in al-Qaida power in Iraq — might not be so new after all. It is, to be sure, part of an old fight, but it may be another piece in an old pattern that Americans have been unwilling to confront, until now.

This inconvenient notion goes against every orthodoxy of 20th-century liberalism and 21st-century conservatism, but isn’t it true that when U.S. forces remain in place (in divided Korea, in divided Europe), the peace, or at least the status quo, is maintained, and when American forces depart (in Vietnam and, now, in Iraq -- and, almost certainly, in Afghanistan when our troops leave in December 2014), chaos and killing follow?

A war-weary, exhausted nation doesn’t want to think about that, and of course, there was plenty of chaos and killing, much of it tragic and unnecessary, when American troops were engaged in those lands of crisis. But a country that finds itself eager to disengage from hot spots must consider the consequences, or, more precisely, the nature and length of its commitment when it decides to engage in those hot spots.

Since the chances of confronting budget, revenue, tax structure and entitlement policy are just about nil for 2014, how about a national debate on our national security profile and priorities — in a year in which Iran and North Korea remain deadly threats, terrorism may be a resurgent danger, China will assert itself commercially and perhaps militarily, and Russia may be emerging as an even more unsettling rival.

Anomie has a cure, and it is serious engagement in vital questions.

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North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.