Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shaking Our Confidence?

The illusion of human control yields another metaphor as President Obama enters a press conference after learning about the disaster in Japan.

"Today's events remind us of just how fragile life can be," he tells journalists before taking questions about budget battles and Libya, all framed in the certainty that there must be answers to everything.

A day later, a faraway catastrophe is spreading with a nuclear meltdown in Japan and ripples of an earthquake that reach the U.S. to drown a West Coast sightseer.

Our media narrative of the world keeps being interrupted with reminders to show humility in the face of the unknown and unforeseeable, but the national attention span is short.

A shooting in Tuscon provides a parenthesis to certainty for a while and prompts moments of civility but, as Gabrielle Giffords recovers, all that is gone.

Now, as we cringe at new devastation, we are shaken with feelings of vulnerability that will surely pass after a few days and allow us to become passionate again over minutiae, even as the disaster is already politicized with news that Republicans have slashed $126 million from the budget of the agency in Hawaii that warned of the tsunami.

Of all people, David Brooks, whose new book about the human condition is being trashed by reviewers, two days ago wrote a prophetic Times column titled "The Modesty Manifesto," about a grotesque increase in Americans' self-importance over recent generations. ("In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a 'very important person.' By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.")

He cites "abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement--I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me-- to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion...

"I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship."

In coming days, the U.S. government will send help to Japan. and individuals will give generously to disaster relief, but all that may just be ransom for allowing us to hold on to the delusion that life can be controlled down to the last millimeter and we know just how to do it.

Update: As the stock market stays calm, "self-expansion" has its moment as a cable cheerleader for capitalism finds a silver lining in the tsunami: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

Does that mean we don't have to sell Japan short?

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