09/07/2010 07:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Collapse of Basic Assumptions and Conventional Wisdom

It is very much an attribute of human nature to become angry when what we have believed to be true does not turn out to be true forever. For example: the inevitability of progress; an ever expanding economic pie; opportunity for all; equality of opportunity; having it all; God rewarding the righteous materially; market self-correction; our military superiority; our children doing better than we did; a house for everyone; and so on.

Virtually all of these accepted truths have, in a relatively short time, turned out not to be true after all. Someone must be to blame. It has to be those "politicians." Or maybe those corporations. Or maybe the misleading media. Or maybe a gang of behind-the-scene puppet masters led by Henry Kissinger. It has to be someone else. It couldn't be each of us.

There is nothing wrong with high ambitions, expectations, and dreams. Americans lead the world in all of these, and for much of our history with good reason. But almost nothing in this world is guaranteed, including our superiority and inevitable success. Nations and empires rise and fall. Leaders come and go. Sometimes we're up, and sometimes we are down. History is a sobering teacher. About the only thing that is inevitable is human folly.

Are our dreams permanently shattered? Are we in a sharp decline? Is our hour over? No, I don't think so. A certain kind of way of life may be coming to an end, one marked by excessive consumption, waste, and inefficiency. And if you have defined your life or your nation's life by those standards, it does look gloomy. But what really is wrong with smaller cars and more efficient homes and deferred gratification and saving for a rainy day?

This approach toward what might be called a new realism doesn't assume high unemployment forever, homelessness and hopelessness, or leaving a third of our fellow Americans behind. It does assume more honest and affordable expectations, investing in the future -- even beyond our own lives, and corralling the excessive ambitions of some of our neo-whatevers.
Most of all, it assumes a collective national soul-searching about what really is important in life and what really are the eternal truths.

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