Monday, May 20, 2013

How Neocons and Obama Liberals Helped Create a Middle East Catastrophe. By David P. Goldman.

Dumb and Dumber. By David P. Goldman. Tablet, May 20, 2013.

How neocons and Obama liberals have created catastrophe by consensus in the Middle East.

Middle East Mess: When Dems and GOPers Agree, Be Afraid. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 20, 2013.

Better a Pharaoh or a Tempest? By Fouad Ajami. Tablet, December 13, 2012.


It is a salutary exercise to consider the views we hold with impassioned conviction and ask: “What would it imply if we are wrong?” Neoconservatives of all stripes believed with perfect faith that the desire for liberty is a universal human impulse, requiring only the right institutions to reinforce it. The Obama Administration believed that all cultures have equal validity and that—as Obama said early in his presidency—that he thinks of American exceptionalism the same way that the Greeks think about Greek exceptionalism. In both cases, Republicans and Democrats believe that there is nothing inherently unique about America—except that this country was the first to create the political framework that corresponds to the true nature of every human being.

Kristol’s 2011 assessment of the Arab Spring was erroneous, but he was right to link America’s state of being to events in the Middle East. We stumbled by national consensus into a strategic morass, from which there is no apparent exit, in the naïve belief that under every burka was a prospective American ready to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis.

But if large parts of the Muslim world reject what seemed to be an historic opportunity to create democratic governments and instead dissolve into a chaotic regime of permanent warfare, we might conclude that there really is something different about America—that our democracy is the product of a unique set of precedents, the melding of the idea of covenant brought here by radical Protestants, the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, and the far-reaching wisdom of our founders. To present-day Americans, that is an unnerving thought. We do not wish upon ourselves that sort of responsibility. We eschew our debts to deep traditions. We want to reinvent ourselves at will, to shop for new identities, to play at the cultural cutting-edge.

What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in tough-minded pursuit of our security interests.

The Arab Collapse. By Ralph Peters.

The Arab Collapse. By Ralph Peters. New York Post, May 19, 2013.

Middle East a vulture’s feast.

Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look. By Ralph Peters. Armed Forces Journal, June 2006. Also here.

Plans for Redrawing the Middle East: The Project for a “New Middle East.” By Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya. Global Research, November 18, 2006.

A Model for Post-Saddam Iraq. By Kanan Makiya. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 14, No. 3 (July 2003).

Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism. By Jerry Z. Muller. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 2 (March/April 2008).

Ethnonationalism and the cultural dispute with Islam, Israel, and the U.S. By Jason Bradley. The Western Experience, December 18, 2008.

Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable? By Martin W. Lewis. GeoCurrents, May 6, 2010.

Small Homogeneous States Only Solution for Middle East. By Mordechai Kedar. IMRA, April 1, 2011.

Is Tribalism the Future? By Patrick J. Buchanan. Human Events, April 8, 2011.

The Arab Westphalia. By Franck Salameh. The National Interest, March 7, 2011.

Might Is Right in Syria. By Franck Salameh. The National Interest, February 15, 2012.

An Alawite State in Syria? By Franck Salameh. The National Interest, July 10, 2012.

A Syrian Stalemate? By Frank Jacobs. New York Times, July 24, 2012.

The Border Between Israel and Palestine: The Elephant in the Map Room. By Frank Jacobs. New York Times, August 7, 2012.

Prospects for an Alawite State. By Abby Arganese. The National Interest, August 2, 2012.

Arabs, Beware the “Small States” Option. By Sharmine Narwani. Mideast Shuffle, July 31, 2013. Also at Al Akhbar English.

Should Syria Decentralize? By Sirwan Kajjo. The National Interest, August 13, 2013.

Ralph Peters: Israel is a Civilizing Force. By Daniel Perez. Arutz Sheva, May 13, 2013.

Ralph Peters: Wrong Mideast Choices Will “Reverberate for Generations.” By Eliran Aharon. Arutz Sheva, May 7, 2013. Video, YouTube.


The Arab Spring has unleashed the Arab Collapse. Everybody still standing in the region is picking the flesh of the helpless. The Islamist cancer proved more virulent than Arabs themselves expected, while dying regimes behave with unrestrained ruthlessness.

And our diplomats still think everyone can be cajoled into harmony.

We’re witnessing a titanic event, the crack-up of a long-tottering civilization. Arab societies grew so corrupt and stagnant that violent upheaval became inevitable. That’s what we’re seeing in Syria and Iraq — two names, one struggle — and will find elsewhere tomorrow.

We can’t stop it, we can’t fix it, and we don’t understand it. But we can stay out of it.

When the US is in the Middle East, the Arabs want us out. When we’re out, they want us in. But our purported Arab (and Turkish) allies consistently agree that Uncle Sam should pay the party bill, while they take home all the presents.

Yes, Syria’s humanitarian crisis is appalling. And no, I don’t like to see innocents dying or suffering. But the calls from the region for American action are nakedly cynical.

Turkey has the largest military in NATO after our own, but cries “helpless” crocodile tears over Syrian refugees — while dreaming of rebuilding the Ottoman Empire upon their ruined lives. Our Saudi “friends” spent decades building the most-sophisticated military arsenal in the Middle East, apart from Israel. Now the Saudis wring their hands over Syria’s misery — but won’t intervene directly to stop the killing.

The Saudi position is always “You and him fight!” As long ago as Desert Storm, Saudis joked about renting the American army and our bumpkin gullibility. (Try to find one US officer who’s worked with the Saudis and doesn’t hate their guts. . .) Now they want Washington to spend our blood and treasure to open the mosques of Damascus to their Wahhabi cult.

Well, the Assad regime is horrible, but not al Qaeda horrible. Better poison gas than poisoned religion, as far as our own security’s concerned. This is an Arab struggle (with Turkish and Iranian vultures overhead). This time, we need to let them fight it out.

The region’s outdated order is disintegrating. But Washington’s still mesmerized by the artificial boundaries on the map.

Nine decades ago, the diplomats at Versailles ignored the region’s natural fault lines as they carved up the Middle East, forcing enemies together and driving kin apart (while Woodrow Wilson turned his back on the Kurds). Only brute force and dictators kept up the fiction that these were countries. Now the grim charade has reached its end.

Iraq was carved out for British interests, while Syria was France’s consolation prize. Now Syria’s collapsing in a too-many-factions-to-count civil war. And Iraq’s in the early stages of its own dissolution; even a would-be dictator — another of our one-time “friends,” Nouri al-Maliki — can’t keep the “country” together.

We don’t even know how many new states will emerge from the old order’s wreckage. But the Scramble for the Sand is on, with Iran, Turkey, treacherous Arab oil sheikdoms and terrorists Sunni and Shia alike all determined to dictate the future, no matter the cost in other people’s blood.

We had our chance to extend the peace and keep both Iran and Wahhabi crazies at bay after we defeated Iraq’s insurgencies. But a new American president, elevating politics over strategy, walked away from Baghdad, handing Iraq to Iran. Now it’s too late. If George W. Bush helped trigger the Arab Spring, Barack Obama made this Arab Winter inevitable.

We must not be lured into the current fighting — centered, for now, on Syria — by cries of humanitarian necessity. The local powers could step in to stop the killing. But they won’t. Once again, they want us to pay the bill. (It’s time for the Saudis, especially, to give their own blood.)

We’ve paid enough. Rhetoric and red lines notwithstanding, we need to back off from Syria, if for no other reason than a strategist’s golden rule: If you don’t understand what a fight’s about, stay out.

A New Map of the Middle East by Ralph Peters

What Should Americans Die For? By Patrick J. Buchanan.

What Should Americans Die For? By Patrick J. Buchanan. Real Clear Politics, May 17, 2013.

Why Only Democracy Can Save Egypt. By Bassem Sabry.

Why Only Democracy Can Save Egypt. By Bassem Sabry. Al-Monitor, May 19, 2013.

How Twitter Is Messing With Al-Qaeda’s Careful PR Machine.

How Twitter Is Messing With Al-Qaeda’s Careful PR Machine. By Tony Busch. The Atlantic, May 14, 2013.

Why the al-Dura Blood Libel Still Matters. By Jonathan S. Tobin.

Why the al-Dura Blood Libel Still Matters. By Jonathan S. Tobin. Commentary, May 19, 2013.


The Muslim and Arab world will reject any investigation into it that will not accept their narrative. But more troubling will be the answer from many in the West and even in Israel who will ask why anyone should bother with such an old story. We should, they will assert, care about how to end the conflict, not who killed al-Dura. For Israel or its friends to spend any time on this issue is a diversion of effort from the peace process that will only anger Palestinians who will say that any argument about the incident demonstrates insensitivity, even if the facts are correct. But anyone who doubts the importance of debunking what has become a new version of the old Jewish blood libel is the one who is wrong.

There have been many good accounts of this affair, including this piece by Nidra Poller published in COMMENTARY in September 2005. I’ve also written about it on our blog several times, including this piece from last year about the French court case. Yet even before those were published one of the first Western accounts of the al-Dura affair got to the heart of this problem. James Fallows’s June 2003 article in the Atlantic, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?” pointed out not just the fact that there was good reason to doubt the initial version of the story but that the facts wouldn’t change anyone’s mind because of the iconic status of the photo allegedly depicting the boy and his father. Indeed, he seemed to suggest in a deconstructionist spirit that objective truth was itself impossible since both sides sought to create their own facts in order to prove they were right.

Fallows had a point about the intractable nature of this debate. But the problem here is that the lie about al-Dura isn’t peripheral to the widespread misperceptions about the overall conflict. If, as I wrote last month, a mainstream media figure like CNN and Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria can assert that Israel has never offered peace to the Palestinians, and get away with it, there is something profoundly wrong with the way our culture has accepted Palestinian lies as either reasonable assertions or even truths. It’s not just that the Israelis didn’t kill al-Dura; it’s that the fault for the continuation of the conflict at the moment in history when he was supposedly slain rests almost completely on the people who have elevated him to sainthood and used his mythical spilled blood to justify boycotts of Israel.

This story matters not because the truth can help undermine efforts to isolate Israel. It’s important because so long as the Arab and Muslim world clings to its blood libels all talk about peace is futile. The “Pallywood” productions, of which the al-Dura hoax is the most prominent, haven’t just deceived the West. They’ve also reinforced the Palestinian myths about themselves. As such, they’ve done more real damage to the prospects of peace than any Israeli settlement. Unless and until the Palestinians give up their campaign of incitement against Israelis and Jews and stop seeking to depict this conflict as one in which they are only the victims of a violent Zionist plot, there is no hope for any solution, let alone the two-state solution most in Israel and the West believe in.

The Higher Education Scandal. By Harvey Mansfield.

The Higher Education Scandal. By Harvey Mansfield. Real Clear Politics, May 20, 2013. Also at Claremont Review of Books and here.

Wimps Versus Barbarians on Campus. By Thomas Sowell. Real Clear Politics, May 21, 2013.

No Solution in Boycotting Israel. By George Kerevan.

No solution in boycotting Israel. By George Kerevan. The Scotsman, May 10, 2013.


Severing academic links with Israel is pursued vigorously by the far left in Britain, principally through the University and College Union Left, a ginger group in the main lecturers’ trade union that is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party. The British Marxist left has adopted Palestinian nationalism as its moral crusade.
. . . .

[Stephen] Hawkings’ (inconsistent) stand is dangerous because it violates the cardinal virtues of scientific discourse that emerged with the Enlightenment: that the rational pursuit of knowledge, unencumbered by political or religious prejudice, betters all mankind in the end. That the free pursuit of truth is more likely to undermine ignorance and oppression than strengthen it. And that ending national and religious enmities is better achieved by academics meeting and co-operating, than by keeping them apart.

Of course, free academic discourse does not necessarily provide instant solutions to great political problems. But denying academic freedom makes those problems worse. Supporters of the boycott will reply that Israel is a colonial entity that limits the academic freedom of Palestinians. For the record, I think Israel’s 46-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has been a disaster for Israel itself – militarising the state, encouraging religious fundamentalism in both communities and cutting Israel off from its friends.

Equally, I remember that Gaza was originally part of Egypt and the West Bank part of Jordan, and that Israel did not “colonise” them but occupied them in self-defence during the Six-Day War in 1967. I also remember that neither Cairo nor Amman respected the human rights of the local Palestinians during their “occupation”. And I know that the Egyptians and Jordanians were only too happy to abandon these territories to the Israelis rather than confront emerging troublesome Palestinian nationalism.

Israel was not founded by religious “colonisers” but by left-wing socialists – SWP please note. Certainly, many Jews came to Israel from abroad, fleeing the pogroms of Europe. But they also came fleeing pogroms in North Africa, Iraq and Iran. The factious ethnic shifts in the modern Middle East are not down to Zionism but more complex processes: Arab nationalism has also left its negative mark on the region’s indigenous Christians, Armenians and Kurds.

My point is that the history of Israel and Palestine has been thoroughly distorted by the boycott campaign. If anyone is naïve in this debate, it is the far left who think the abolition of Israel will result in a secular, democratic Palestine with free universities teaching the theory of evolution to women students. Quite the opposite.

The best answer to the problem of Israeli and Palestinian co-existence remains the negotiation of a Two State solution. Unfortunately, the so-called Arab Spring (which has encouraged Sunni fundamentalism) and the as yet unfathomable consequences of the Syrian civil war have pushed both sides on to the defensive. Israel prefers “facts on the ground”, which means more settlements on Palestinian territory. That strategy only isolates Israel from its friends and plays directly into the hands of those who lay blame for he present impasse solely at the door of the Jewish state.

Among these I include the Church of Scotland, which has blundered into the Israel-Palestine issue with great big muddy boots. A report destined for this month’s General Assembly says that the Bible does not promise the Jewish people a home in the Holy Land. The Old Testament promise “I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” was actually “metaphorical.”

Of course, the modern Kirk thinks that everything in the Bible is metaphorical, so these theological contortions should come as no surprise. If the Kirk thinks that Jehovah got it wrong, it should have the courage of its liberal convictions and tell Him so.

As an atheist, however, I don’t need the Kirk to tell me that the Old Testament is no justification for illegal settlements in 2013. But trying to isolate Israel merely strengthens the religious fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – who don’t treat their religious texts metaphorically.

A Theory of Human Motivation. By Abraham H. Maslow.

A Theory of Human Motivation. By Abraham H. Maslow. Psychological Review, Vol. 50, No. 4 (July 1943).

Beware Social Nostalgia. By Stephanie Coontz.

Beware Social Nostalgia. By Stephanie Coontz. New York Times, May 18, 2013.

The Unwinding. By George Packer.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. By George Packer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. Prologue here, here, and here.


No one can say when the unwinding began — when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways — and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape — the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition — ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.

The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.

The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before — freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.

This much freedom leaves you on your own. More Americans than ever before live alone, but even a family can exist in isolation, just managing to survive in the shadow of a huge military base without a soul to lend a hand. A shiny new community can spring up overnight miles from anywhere, then fade away just as fast. An old city can lose its industrial foundation and two-thirds of its people, while all its mainstays — churches, government, businesses, charities, unions — fall like building flats in a strong wind, hardly making a sound.

Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salva­tion. A North Carolina boy clutching a Bible in the sunlight grows up to receive a new vision of how the countryside could be resurrected. A young man goes to Washington and spends the rest of his career trying to recall the idea that drew him there in the first place. An Ohio girl has to hold her life together as everything around her falls apart, until, in middle age, she finally seizes the chance to do more than survive.

As these obscure Americans find their way in the unwinding, they pass alongside new monuments where the old institutions once stood — the outsized lives of their most famous countrymen, celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede. These icons sometimes occupy the personal place of household gods, and they offer themselves as answers to the riddle of how to live a good or better life.

In the unwinding, everything changes and nothing lasts, except for the voices, American voices, open, sentimental, angry, matter-of-fact; inflected with borrowed ideas, God, TV, and the dimly remembered past — telling a joke above the noise of the assembly line, complaining behind window shades drawn against the world, thundering justice to a crowded park or an empty chamber, closing a deal on the phone, dreaming aloud late at night on a front porch as trucks rush by in the darkness.

“The Unwinding”: What’s gone wrong with America. By Laura Miller. Salon, May 19, 2013.

Stories Of Hope Amid America’s “Unwinding.” Interview with George Packer by Rachel Martin. NPR, May 19, 2013. With audio.

Review of “The Unwinding” by George Packer. By Julia M. Klein. Chicago Tribune, May 17, 2013.

The Great Unraveling. By Michael O’Donnell. Washington Monthly, May/June 2013. Also here.

How a Nation Unwinds. By Joe Klein. Time, June 6, 2013. Also here.

Celebrating Inequality. By George Packer. New York Times, May 19, 2013.

The Broken Contract: Inequality and American Decline. By George Packer. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 6 (November/December 2011).

About Inequality. By Matthew Continetti. The Weekly Standard, November 14, 2011. Also here.

“Change, but no progress.” By Rod Dreher. The American Conservative, December 1, 2011.

What America Has Gained, What America Has Lost. By George Packer. The New Yorker, May 21, 2013.

Change the World. By George Packer. The New Yorker, May 27, 2013. Also here.

The Spiritual Crisis of the Bourgeois Bohemians. By Samuel Goldman. The American Conservative, May 21, 2013.

The New Liberalism and Its Discontents. By Ross Douthat. New York Times, May 22, 2013.

The limits of peer production: Some reminders from Max Weber for the network society. By Daniel Kreiss, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner. New Media and Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (March 2011).

The Big Money: Review of “The Unwinding,” by George Packer. By David Brooks. New York Times, June 6, 2013.

Review of George Packer’s “The Unwinding.” By Jim Cullen. History News Network, June 15, 2013.

Oprah, Harvard, and Inequality. By George Packer. NJBR, June 4, 2013.

Decline and fall: how American society unravelled. By George Packer. The Guardian, June 19, 2013.


Thirty years ago, the old deal that held US society together started to unwind, with social cohesion sacrificed to greed. Was it an inevitable process – or was it engineered by self-interested elites?

In or around 1978, America’s character changed. For almost half a century, the United States had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of the Roosevelt Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.

This unwritten contract came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organisations, business-labour partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognised the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

Americans were no less greedy, ignorant, selfish and violent then than they are today, and no more generous, fair-minded and idealistic. But the institutions of American democracy, stronger than the excesses of individuals, were usually able to contain and channel them to more useful ends. Human nature does not change, but social structures can, and they did.

At the time, the late 1970s felt like shapeless, dreary, forgettable years. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, preaching austerity and public-spiritedness, and hardly anyone was listening. The hideous term “stagflation,” which combined the normally opposed economic phenomena of stagnation and inflation, perfectly captured the doldrums of that moment. It is only with the hindsight of a full generation that we can see how many things were beginning to shift across the American landscape, sending the country spinning into a new era.

In Youngstown, Ohio, the steel mills that had been the city’s foundation for a century closed, one after another, with breathtaking speed, taking 50,000 jobs from a small industrial river valley, leaving nothing to replace them. In Cupertino, California, the Apple Computer Company released the first popular personal computer, the Apple II. Across California, voters passed Proposition 13, launching a tax revolt that began the erosion of public funding for what had been the country’s best school system. In Washington, corporations organised themselves into a powerful lobby that spent millions of dollars to defeat the kind of labour and consumer bills they had once accepted as part of the social contract. Newt Gingrich came to Congress as a conservative Republican with the singular ambition to tear it down and build his own and his party's power on the rubble. On Wall Street, Salomon Brothers pioneered a new financial product called mortgage-backed securities, and then became the first investment bank to go public.

The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair. Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline. It as a period that I call the Unwinding.

In one view, the Unwinding is just a return to the normal state of American life. By this deterministic analysis, the US has always been a wide-open, free-wheeling country, with a high tolerance for big winners and big losers as the price of equal opportunity in a dynamic society. If the US brand of capitalism has rougher edges than that of other democracies, it is worth the trade-off for growth and mobility. There is nothing unusual about the six surviving heirs to the Walmart fortune possessing between them the same wealth as the bottom 42% of Americans – that’s the country’s default setting. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are the reincarnation of Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie, Steven Cohen is another JP Morgan, Jay-Z is Jay Gatsby.

The rules and regulations of the Roosevelt Republic were aberrations brought on by accidents of history – depression, world war, the cold war – that induced Americans to surrender a degree of freedom in exchange for security. There would have been no Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial from investment banking, without the bank failures of 1933; no great middle-class boom if the US economy had not been the only one left standing after the second world war; no bargain between business, labour and government without a shared sense of national interest in the face of foreign enemies; no social solidarity without the door to immigrants remaining closed through the middle of the century.

Once American pre-eminence was challenged by international competitors, and the economy hit rough seas in the 70s, and the sense of existential threat from abroad subsided, the deal was off. Globalisation, technology and immigration hurried the Unwinding along, as inexorable as winds and tides. It is sentimental at best, if not ahistorical, to imagine that the social contract could ever have survived – like wanting to hang on to a world of nuclear families and manual typewriters.

This deterministic view is undeniable but incomplete. What it leaves out of the picture is human choice. A fuller explanation of the Unwinding takes into account these large historical influences, but also the way they were exploited by US elites – the leaders of the institutions that have fallen into disrepair. America’s postwar responsibilities demanded co-operation between the two parties in Congress, and when the cold war waned, the co-operation was bound to diminish with it. But there was nothing historically determined about the poisonous atmosphere and demonising language that Gingrich and other conservative ideologues spread through US politics. These tactics served their narrow, short-term interests, and when the Gingrich revolution brought Republicans to power in Congress, the tactics were affirmed. Gingrich is now a has-been, but Washington today is as much his city as anyone’s.

It was impossible for Youngstown’s steel companies to withstand global competition and local disinvestment, but there was nothing inevitable about the aftermath – an unmanaged free-for-all in which unemployed workers were left to fend for themselves, while corporate raiders bought the idle hulks of the mills with debt in the form of junk bonds and stripped out the remaining value. It may have been inevitable that the constraints imposed on US banks by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 would start to slip off in the era of global finance. But it was a political choice on the part of Congress and President Bill Clinton to deregulate Wall Street so thoroughly that nothing stood between the big banks and the destruction of the economy.

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company's board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

It is no wonder that more and more Americans believe the game is rigged. It is no wonder that they buy houses they cannot afford and then walk away from the mortgage when they can no longer pay. Once the social contract is shredded, once the deal is off, only suckers still play by the rules.

All the Lonely People. By Ross Douthat.

All the Lonely People. By Ross Douthat. New York Times, May 18, 2013.

On Suicide, Does Density Disprove Durkheim? By Ross Douthat. New York Times, May 21, 2013.

The Trajectory of Suicide. By Ross Douthat. New York Times, May 23, 2013.

The Suicide Epidemic. By Tony Dokoupil. Newsweek. The Daily Beast, May 22, 2013.

The Lethality of Loneliness. By Judith Shulevitz. NJBR, May 14, 2013.

Male Suicide: Where’s the Outcry? By Walter Russell Mead. NJBR, May 14, 2013.

Another Explanation for Male Suicide. By Walter Russell Mead. Via Meadia, May 20, 2013.

The Surge in Suicides Has Nothing to Do With Marriage or Religion. By Nate Cohn. The New Republic, May 20, 2013.

The Talent Society. By David Brooks. NJBR, January 22, 2013.


OVER the last decade, the United States has become a less violent country in every way save one. As Americans commit fewer and fewer crimes against other people’s lives and property, they have become more likely to inflict fatal violence on themselves.

In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.

This trend is striking without necessarily being surprising. As the University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox pointed out recently, there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.

The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.

Right now, the pessimistic scenario seems more plausible. In an essay for The New Republic about the consequences of loneliness for public health, Judith Shulevitz reports that one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. “With baby boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day,” she notes, “the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.”

There are public and private ways to manage this loneliness epidemic — through social workers, therapists, even pets. And the Internet, of course, promises endless forms of virtual community to replace or supplement the real.

But all of these alternatives seem destined to leave certain basic human yearnings unaddressed.

For many people, the strongest forms of community are still the traditional ones — the kind forged by shared genes, shared memory, shared geography. And neither Facebook nor a life coach nor a well-meaning bureaucracy is likely to compensate for these forms’ attenuation and decline.

This point is illustrated, richly, in one of the best books of the spring, Rod Dreher’s memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” an account of his sister’s death from cancer at the age of 42. A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return.

What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.

In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less  lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.

The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.

Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.

And absent such blessings, it’s all too understandable that some people enduring suffering and loneliness would end up looking not for help or support, but for a way to end it all.

Whose Israel Is It? By Douglas Bloomfield.

Whose Israel Is It? By Douglas Bloomfield. Real Clear World, May 19, 2013. Also at the Jerusalem Post.