The Limits of Nostalgia
Taxes and death aside, the only constant in life is change. It's impossible to freeze a society or even one's own life at a moment of perfect equilibrium. Nothing stands still.
Forty years ago, Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, Olivetti, Smith Corona, and IBM were blue-chip stocks, each maintained a dominant share in their respective markets. But today who buys film? Our kids have never even seen a typewriter, and the average laptop has more computing power than the old room-sized mainframes. IBM adjusted and remains a blue-chip company today, though nothing like it once was; the others not so much.
Societies and nations are just the same: There is often no turning back the clock, no matter how much we might wish to do so. In 1900, most Americans lived in rural areas, and agriculture remained the most important occupation until well into the 20thcentury. The Jeffersonian ideal of the noble yeoman tilling the soil of his own land still had some relation to reality.
But as farming became mechanized and productivity increased, food prices dropped and most family farms could no longer compete. Agribusiness grew, but almost all those who had earned their livelihood from the land moved to the cities.
Nostalgia for the past and anxiety about the future fueled three failed presidential runs by William Jennings Bryan, but the die was cast. Policies designed to preserve the family farm only made the crash worse when it came.
More recently, in the 1950s and '60s, most middle-class families could make it on the father's salary. The vast majority of Americans no longer lived off the land they owned. But at least the ideal of land ownership was preserved in the form of the single-family home, within the economic reach of most families.
Factory jobs, at good wages, were plentiful. In the decade following World War II, Americans produced the majority of the world's manufactured goods, as the world's other industrial powers recovered from the devastation of the War.
Members of the middle-class could expect to work for one company for their entire careers in stable jobs. And parents assumed that things would be even better for their children.
For 30 years now, wages have been dropping for non-supervisory private sector workers. New jobs for the strong of back have come on board – e.g., through the fracking revolution -- but far more manufacturing jobs have been lost than gained. Most of those jobs are not coming back no matter how protectionist a policy the U.S. adopts. And it will not do so because consumers would not stand for the dramatic rise in prices on foreign made goods such a policy would entail.
Much can be done to increase the number of entry-level jobs to give young people valuable work experience: e.g., getting rid of ridiculous licensure restrictions, reversing the sharp increases in minimum wages, and reducing compliance costs that have dried up credit on Main Street and reduced entrepreneurship. But the manufacturing jobs lost are still coming back.
Automation and the transition to a primarily service economy are proving as disorienting for contemporary Americans as the transition from rural to urban life proved over a century ago.
In times of rapid economic dislocation or great danger, leadership is crucial. Imagine Britain absent a Churchill to rally its spirits at the outset of World War II. (Churchill viewed himself as a failure for his inability to awaken his countrymen to the threat of Hitler in the years preceding the War.)
The prospects for such leadership emerging in America at present are virtually nil. Both presidential candidates have earned the contempt of 60 percent or more of the American public, and neither will enter office with any chance of unifying the country.
Both parties, as Yuval Levin makes clear in his widely discussed The Fractured Republic, are mired in nostalgia for the past. America is still a great power, and the world's indispensable nation, but it will not be made great again on the model of either the pre-Vietnam War decade or the '80s under Reagan.
Though once styled as the party of the workingman, the Democrats' obsessions with identity politics will not create one new job. The only thing the Democrats can offer are new and expanded entitlements when the country has no means of paying for those already in place. Those states in which the old Blue Model is most entrenched are also those hovering closest to bankruptcy.
BUT AS WE SURVEY the fast-changing world around us we should not imagine that societal change has somehow bypassed the chareidi world, or that our status as the eternal people exempts us from the need to deal with and respond to changing circumstances.
The Israeli chareidi world of today, for instance, bears no resemblance to that of the Chazon Ish's day. Every Yovel (fifty-year period) represents a new historical epoch, and the Torah leadership of each generation must respond to changing circumstances. Today's Torah leaders cannot just seek to imitate those of the past, for we are living in a different time, with different challenges. That is why Chazal tell us, "Yiftach b'doro k'Shmuel b'doro." Every generation needs its own leaders.
Outside of the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem, the Lithuanian chareidi world of the Chazon Ish's day consisted of a few hundred families. As a tiny minority amidst a highly ideological secular majority bent on creating a "new Jew," who would be everything that the traditional European Jew was not, chareidi society adopted a policy of cultural isolation and separation to preserve its identity and flourish.
And that cultural isolation could be tolerated by the larger secular society because the small chareidi world was perceived to be almost irrelevant. David Ben Gurion granted the draft deferral for yeshivah students because, in his eyes, it did not matter that much. Within a generation the chareidi community would disappear, or so he thought.
Much has changed since then. Far from being a tiny minority, chareidim constitute at least 10 percent of the Israeli population, and, given the much higher chareidi birthrates, could reach 25 percent within a generation. The community is far too large to be ignored. Nor is it clear that the community could sustain itself in splendid isolation, even if it were permitted to do so (and the government were to continue building all-chareidi enclaves). That isolation is, in any event, ever harder to maintain, as modern technology renders the highest ghetto walls permeable.
The great task with which the Chazon Ish charged the post-Holocaust generation – rebuilding the citadels of Torah learning destroyed by the Holocaust – has been achieved many times over, at least from a quantitative standpoint. The chareidi community cannot be destroyed, at least not from the outside. There is no ideological enemy seeking to free itself from the shackles of Jewish tradition, as there once was (though there are still plenty of non-observant Jews to mekarev).
Nor has the internal chareidi community remained static. The community of nearly a million souls today is not just that of the 1950s writ large, but something quite different. Those who rallied to the banner of the Chazon Ish were a self-selected, highly idealistic group of individuals of a very high spiritual level and intense dedication. Today's community is of necessity a much more heterogeneous group. Its members were in most cases born into the community; they did not enlist in a great cause. The present-day chareidi community encompasses individuals of widely variegated spiritual and intellectual levels.
Among the many contemporary challenges facing the great Torah leaders are: responding to the needs of a diverse community; articulating new approaches to our non-observant brethren with whom we are coming into contact in a rapidly increasing number of venues and for longer periods of time; securing the basic level of economic well-being necessary to flourish; and above-all upholding the core values of the community upon which there can be no compromise and determining how they can be sustained in ever-changing circumstances.
A tall order no doubt. But at least the chareidi community has one resource, which the United States can no longer claim: leaders who command reverence and awe (though internal machlokes has taken its toll on this precious quality).
Powerline blogger Steven Hayward called it the "epic correction" of the decade. It's not hard to see why.
In early 2012, three academics published a paper, "Correlation not causation: the relationship between personality traits and political ideologies," in the prestigious American Journal of Political Science. The paper attracted a great deal more attention in the popular press than works of academic social science generally do.
The reason for the attention is not hard to guess: The paper appeared to place a scientific imprimatur on some of the left's favorite self-images and was dismissive of conservatives. Just in case there are any Choni Ha'Ma'agel's among our readership, who have been asleep for a century or so, the mainstream press tends to be left-wing.
The paper's authors were seeking to explore the correlation between certain political positions and particular psychological traits. "In line with our expectations," they reported, "Psychoticism (positively related to tough-mindedness or authoritarianism)is associated with social conservatism and conservative military attitudes." On the other hand, those who score higher on the scale of Social Desirability – i.e., those who seek to get along with others – were more likely to express socially liberal attitudes.
The only thing that puzzled the authors was that those who expressed economically liberal opinions tended to score higher in "Neuroticism," a personality trait characterized by fear, anxiety, and loneliness. But apparently no one is perfect – even liberals.
So matters stood until Steven Ludeke of the University of South Denmark took a look at the raw data. He discovered that in their reporting of their findings the authors had completely reversed their data – i.e., according to the actual data, conservatives scored higher for Social Desirability and liberals higher for Psychoticism. As the authors succinctly summed it up in their lengthy retraction: "The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptions and preliminary analysis portion of the manuscripts was exactly reversed" (emphasis added). In short, the results were no longer "in line with [their] expectations."
They claimed, however, that the mistake did not really matter because their purpose had been to demonstrate a correlation between psychological traits and political attitudes, regardless of what that correlation happened to be. Only the magnitude of the correction, not its direction, counted.
Maybe that's why the corrected findings did not receive nearly the same coverage as the original. But if you think that's the case, and that media bias had nothing to do with the media's loss of interest in the study, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
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