On the front page of the NY Times we learn that physicists have discovered the God particle--known less elegantly as the Higgs boson, and to the pesky doubting Thomases as the "Higgs-like" boson--a "cosmic molasses" that gives mass to mass and life to life and could lead us to answers about galactic dark matter and universal antimatter. Yet on the Times' op-ed page, a novelist--in clinical league with historians, philosophers, political scientists, behavioral economists, psychologists and sociologists--still struggles to explain just who and what we are.
It seems that compared to God or only Higgs-like goo, we are complex little critters who relentlessly defy self-comprehension. For instance one might think that most locally--here, in America's subdivision on this planetary speck on the outer edge of a remote galaxy among a hundred billion of them--we would at least better understand our rather peculiar behavior of the past half-century, which Kurt Andersen, the aforementioned novelist, frames as: "Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts ... but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?"
That, anyway, is a collective enigma. However Andersen believes he's onto what we might call the American particle that binds:"selfishness."
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
I would disagree that "hippies and bohemians" were ideals of "extreme individualism," since rarely has any American counterculture been as ruthlessly conformist, from doctrine to dress, as that of the 1960s' scene. Yet such a disagreement actually plays into my agreement with Andersen--"It's all of a piece"; not much to see here, folks, nothing essentially contradictory or fundamentally incongruous. Furthermore, Andersen's thesis plays into the now-unfashionable historical thesis of an "American consensus"--the theory, of which I happen to be fond, that America has endured with incomparable stability because we all pretty much think alike and want the same things. In the briefest formulation, a bourgeois lifestyle. Revolutionary discontent and plutocratic tyranny would upset the national applecart, hence whenever we have veered from the middle course, we have veered only cautiously. Antebellum reform movements, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, Q.E.D.
Still, other historians--as well as novelists, political scientists, etc.--see America as a cauldron of unremitting conflict: ethnicity against ethnicity, class against class, gender against gender, labor against management, elites against Everyman, and so on. But even if the conflict theory holds true or just truer against the consensus school, we would still arrive at self-interest, or selfishness, as an organically explanatory factor.
But why? There's the rub. After giving self-interest its proper and considerable due in the upward development of America, why haven't the empirically undeniable blessings of community and cooperation taken a firmer hold in the body politic's imagination?
Maybe it's only because we're younger, and thus less mature, than God, or his now-familiar doppleganger, Mr. Higgs-Boson.
Oh ... I almost forgot ... have a happy and safe July Fourth.