Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Can't People Do Anything Anymore? Or, The Fall Of The American McEmpire?

The Roman Coliseum
A friend of mine and I were recently talking about the weird feeling of living in End Times.  No, we were not talking about the Mayan calendar.  We were talking about the way that because of climate change, political chaos, and general declining fortunes, things were going to hell in a handbasket. 

We noted that the US seems to have a particularly apocalyptic feel nowadays.  A few weeks ago we were observing one of the many WTF situations of modern American life, and my friend said, "That's what happened at the end of the Roman Empire.  They just stopped being able to do things.  Eventually they had to take apart old buildings, to use the fixtures, because they were unable to build new things properly."

Whoa.  Doesn't that sound creepily like life in modern America?  We're going to war all over the globe, and no one in charge seems to know anything about the culture of history of other people or anything about why they do the things they do, or even about why we're going around killing people.  It's like: oh, learning about stuff, so difficult.  And then some bad things happen, and it's like "oh, we should do something about that."

One of the weird ways we're having trouble doing things is that we're too busy getting organized to do things.  America's becoming a nation of pencil sharpeners.  I was in a Starbucks in the US the other day and I overheard a woman on her cellphone trying to make an airplane reservation.  Her meeting had been moved.  She had to change her flight.  She wanted a specific time.  The flight seemed available, but she feared overbooking and bumping.  She called the airline. She called some office at her workplace.  I would say I was there for about an hour, and all she did was try to arrange this flight.

Honestly, she seemed to be having a fine time, enjoying "talking on the phone" instead of doing whatever job she was getting organized to do when she got wherever she was going.  I was the one going nuts.  I wanted to say, "Excuse me, but haven't you noticed that your time is running out and you are going to die and you're spending all your time getting organized?  Just pick a flight! Get on with it!"

The pencil sharpening is part of the Rise of the Administrative Class.  Workplaces are becoming stuffed full of managers and administrators, and no one's actually doing anything.  It's the job of the managers and administrators to try to ensure that the employees who aren't administrators and managers make as little money as possible for doing as much work as possible.  That's the natural conclusion of a market system, and its end result is predictable:  who could possibly be content being a doer or maker of things in such a system?

The modern inability to do things reached a new height for me in a story about tutors in yesterday's New York Times.  The headline could have been:  Modern People Can't Do Anything; Tutors Step In To Help."  The introductory anecdote describes a student arriving at university, overwhelmed with the tasks of registering for classes, buying books, and finding the classrooms.  She calls her mom, who in turn calls her high school tutor. 

Actual quote from the article:  "[These] tutors make sure the students are awake in the morning, help them with papers and update their parents on their academic progress." 

"Make sure the students are awake"?  Really?  Honestly, I was a very spazzy student in my college days, among the least organized of all the kids I knew.  I was the kind of kid who would skip class on purpose, simply because I thought I had an opportunity to have fun that simply couldn't be missed, or because I found it boring to sit through a lecture.

But even at my heights of spazziness, I found registering for classes and buying books pretty straightforward.  Getting up the morning:  also not a problem.  I remember being up and breakfasted at 8:00 and deciding not to go to my 9:00 linguistics class, because I found it boring and thought I had better things to do.  Spazzy?  yes.  Unable to get up in the morning without a tutor?  No. 

But back then we had special technology -- things you could "set" that would make an "alarm" go off at a preset time of your choosing.  We called it an alarm clock.  I don't know where you'd find something like that nowadays.  

Obama gave a speech yesterday that The Times described as "surprisingly assertive."  In it, he said "these tragedies must end."  If a student wrote something like that in a paper I was grading, I would take them to task:  for being vague, for not dealing with the obvious question of whose responsibility it was to act, and for using grammar that obscures those difficulties. 

In modern America, though, it's considered tough talk.  Strange times indeed. 

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