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Weekend reads: The madness of modern life
On baggage, bureaucracy and brokenness
I am someone who needs things to make sense. I don’t mind following rules, but I need a sound rationale for doing so. Nothing wrecks my head more than the proliferation of rules without reason.
We are, of course, living in an age of mass, unjustified bureaucracy. This sprawling apparatus covers both public and private realms, and inserts itself into most of our daily interactions, complicating our lives beyond measure.
It consumes time, drains precious life energy. It squanders untold resources. It demands surrender to illogical systems, stamping out critical thinking.
This past week, this brand of bureaucracy intruded on my otherwise wonderful vacation. After a flight from Toronto to New Orleans, my luggage did not materialize. We called Air Canada from the airport; no clear answers were provided. Over the course of the next few days, we called a dozen or so more times. Each time, we were routed to a remote call centre that seemingly had no access to either airport, and no ability to solve our problem.
Was the bag in Toronto? Was it in New Orleans? Was it lost? It was anyone’s guess.
Instructions from Air Canada were issued and followed, with no results. Forms were completed, to no avail. Many hours were passed on hold. We were unable to comprehend the system’s inner workings, nor crack its mysterious code.
In other words, the system made no sense.
By the time my suitcase arrived, five days into the trip, we were no longer in New Orleans. Thankfully, family volunteered to pick it up from the airport and drive it hours north to the small Louisiana town where we were gathering for Thanksgiving.
Now that me and my bag are back in Toronto, it’s time to embark on the claims process, in an attempt to be reimbursed for the clothing and incidentals bought along the way. This will no doubt involve more hours on the phone and an absurd amount of online forms.
But my experience here is hardly unusual; anyone reading this newsletter will likely have had countless similar experiences themselves. The baggage saga — in its ordinary, mundane, infuriating way — is emblematic of the madness of modern life. It is a symbol of how profoundly dysfunctional our society has become.
All of this is why I found myself particularly receptive to reading Alana Newhouse’s latest at Tablet, “Brokenism.” (A great companion piece to her powerhouse essay from 2021, “Everything is Broken.”)
In this week’s essay, Newhouse argues that the most vital debate in contemporary America is not between liberalism and conservatism. But rather, it is “between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency, and those who do not.”
On the one hand, Newhouse elaborates, stand the people who believe that our systems and institutions, while certainly struggling, can be preserved:
… many people understandably see our current moment as a wave of change that can be ridden successfully — without overblown diagnoses or radical solutions. These are status-quoists, people who are invested in the established institutions of American life, even as they acknowledge that this or that problem around the margins should of course be tackled. Status-quoists believe that any decline in quality one might observe at Yale or The Washington Post or the Food and Drug Administration or the American Federation of Teachers are simply problems of personnel, circumstance, incompetence, or lack of information. Times change, people come and go, status-quoists believe — this outfit screwed up COVID policy, yes, and that place has an antisemitism problem, agreed. But they will learn, reform, and recover, and they need our help to do so. What isn’t needed, and is in fact anathema, is any effort to inject more perceived radicalism into an already toxic and polarized American society. The people, ideas, and institutions that led America after the end of the Cold War must continue to guide us through the turbulence ahead. What can broadly be called the “establishment” is not only familiar, status-quoists believe; it is safe, stable, and ultimately enduring.
But this group is opposed by another group, who view our systems and institutions as being beyond repair:
On the other side are brokenists, people who believe that our current institutions, elites, intellectual and cultural life, and the quality of services that many of us depend on have been hollowed out. To them, the American establishment, rather than being a force of stability, is an obese and corrupted tangle of federal and corporate power threatening to suffocate the entire country. Proof of this decay, they argue, can be seen in the unconventional moves that many people, regardless of how they would describe themselves politically, are making: home-schooling their children to avoid the failures and politicization of many public and private schools; consuming more information from YouTube, Twitter, Substack, and podcasts than from legacy media outlets; and abandoning the restrictions, high costs, and pathologies of the coasts for freer and more affordable pastures in the Southeast and Southwest.
Brokenists, Newhouse notes, include everyone from Bernie Sanders to Elon Musk and Lean Out guest Adolph Reed.
Brokenists come from all points on the political spectrum. They disagree with each other about what kinds of programs, institutions, and culture they want to see prevail in America. What they agree on — what is in fact a more important point of agreement than anything else — is that what used to work is not working for enough people anymore.
This is one of the best articulations I have read of the era that we are living through, and the fundamental tensions driving it.
I have watched, in the space of two years, many lifelong status-quoists converted, often reluctantly through bitter experience, to brokenists.
And who could blame them? Is there really much of a choice?
The brokenness is all around us now, and it is increasingly impossible to avoid.
As it happens, this debate played out in Canada this very week, with Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre releasing a video titled, “Everything feels broken.”
I have serious disagreements with Poilievre, including his approach to drug policy — both his diagnosis and his prescriptions (as does Lean Out guest Benjamin Perrin, author of Overdose, in this interview with The Globe and Mail).
But Poilievre is not wrong that the country is in terrible shape, from high inflation, food and fuel costs to a housing crisis, an imploding healthcare system, and the aforementioned opioid crisis.
Poilievre is one of the few politicians willing to acknowledge that something has gone fundamentally wrong in Canada. He is also one of the few in our political class who are speaking to those at the sharpest end of this brokenness.
All of this is something that I wrote about last month in an essay, “On Collapse.”
In that piece, I quoted The Line’s Matt Gurney. And it’s worth quoting him again here:
If you believe that we’re in decline, who are you more likely to support — the politician who seems to get it, and talks in language you find familiar, or the ones that don’t want to talk about it at all?
Our political class needs to stop ignoring this situation, and start a country-wide conversation about where we go from here.
While we are on this theme of brokenness, Lean Out guest Rupa Subramanya has a thought-provoking piece in The National Post on rising illiberalism.
Over at Compact Magazine, emergency physician Andrew Ross has a haunting essay on loneliness and the overdose crisis. Absolutely heartbreaking, this:
Often it is us, the emergency department staff, who are these patients’ only friends, so lost are they out in the world. Nobody outside the waiting-room doors knows who the homeless Mr. J is, but every single one of us in the ER does. We have encountered him for the 137th time just this year. We know all his antics, his medication preferences, his idiosyncratic requests, his television habits. His soul is unique, but, alas, his social isolation is quotidian.
Studies on media representations in Canada of pandemic lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing rules, and vaccine policies have found that journalists generally tended to reinforce strong moralizing narratives (Labbé, Pelletier, Bettinger, et al. 2022) and in some cases created moral panic (Capurro, Jardine, Tustin, and Driedger 2022). Canadians were divided into “the virtuous” rule followers (selfless, smart) and the COVIDiot (immoral, self-centered, stupid). Those who deviated, questioned, or opposed specific rules became a threat to public health, social cohesion, and moral order.
Perhaps partly as a result of this strong moralistic stance, Canadians endured some of the most restrictive pandemic measures among all high-income countries (Razak, Shin, Naylor, and Slutsky 2022) including those on internal movements, public events, public gatherings, workplace closures, travel, school closures and, of course, vaccine mandates. Vaccination was required for employment, for school, for access to restaurants, bars, and entertainment. Without a certificate, you were denied the ability to fly or take a train. We barred unvaccinated visitors from entering the country. The vaccinated were told to disinvite their unvaccinated family members from 2021 Christmas gatherings. Even some churches made vaccination a prerequisite to worship.
I can’t stop thinking about this line, either: “I doubt that millions of Canadians will ever forget what it was like to become pariahs in their own country, and how quickly it happened.”
Is there any clearer sign of brokenness than that?
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