Om writes: “In 2008, U.S. society — from the very top (our political leaders) to the very bottom (our bankers) — came to embrace mediocrity.”
I have a slightly different take. The examples Om cites of our supposed embrace of mediocrity are are trailing indicators, not leading indicators. They tell us more about where we’ve been and what we’ve done wrong, not where we’re going.
2008 wasn’t the year we accepted or embraced mediocrity; it was the year the chickens came home to roost. It was the year where the bill came due for two, maybe three, decades of steady cultural and political rot. Decades in which our individual and collective desire for more money and more stuff drove our policies and our behaviors.
An era where your worth was measured not by your character or good works, but by the size of your yacht or your private jet. Where we were endlessly fascinated by folks like Mark Cuban (a funny and interesting guy, to be sure, but famous because principally because he got Yahoo! to buy his company for way more money than it was worth) and Paris Hilton. Where an MBA degree was revered, not mocked. ( Trillion Dollar Meltown, Richistan, and Liar’s Poker — the latter two the perfect bookends for our sad story — are excellent chronicles of the past thirty or so years.)
When I try to divine and look at the leading indicators (oddly and ironically in light of the heavy toll of the past year and likely heavier toll to be paid this coming year and my own ingrained and deeply-rooted cynicism) I find myself more optimistic this new year than any other in recent memory about the state of the country and where things might go the next twenty to thirty years.
I don’t see people embracing mediocrity — I saw that in spades in the late 1980s, the very, very overhyped 1990s, and the first part of this decade. Rather, I see more evidence of more people doing good work in more places than I can recall in my adult lifetime.
1. Start with politics. Coming up on the one year anniversary of Barack Obama’s win in Iowa, and nineteen days from his inaugural, I find myself more optimistic about the state of our politics than ever before.
It’s not only — or principally — because of Obama. Rather, it’s the serious, sober-minded, and eminently practical bunch of kids in their 20s who spent the last year and a half working for him. I got to see them up close, as a volunteer for Obama in California, Indiana and finally Ohio. Many in the press, trained to be cynical and wry, tried to portray this as some sort of cultish movement (volunteers and workers were “Obamabots”). But really, it was a group of kids (and they were mostly kids) who were sick of how the country was being run, and who decided to do something about it rather than complain or sit on their hands. They didn’t protest, they didn’t march on Washington — they just got stuff done, did the hard, demanding, and unglamorous work of grassroots politicking, and changed our country.
3. Our media. Don’t laugh. Between the renaissance of great writing and performance on television (The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, Elvis Costello’s new show, and many, many more) and the development of sustainable, strong new voices on the Internet (folks like Om but also Josh Marshall at TPM, music sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum) there are more signs of life than ever before. It’s invigorating and inspiring.
4. And, closer to my daily life, an impressive wave of startups and entrepreneurs launching companies the last three to four years. The work done by this second wave of startups has been far better, and resulted in many more useful and more durable services, than the efforts of their predecessors in mid- to late-1990s (I’m in a position to judge, I’ve been involved in both eras!). More of these companies act like Craiglist (the most important web company after google); few act like Pets.com.
It’s not incidental that this second wave of entrepreneurs came of age after (and in reaction to) a previous — if smaller scale and more localized — calamity; the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Folks who worked in and around the Internet business realized they’d been on a bender, went to work putting their value systems back in order, and renewed their focus on doing good work, not just doing well.
As a society and country, we’re paying the price for our decades of binging this year. It will be painful. But people seem serious about confronting the problems, about doing real work again, putting our values back in order, and that gives me hope on this first day of this very new year.