Rectitude Chic

Is this the last Christmas of the old era, or the first Christmas of the new? Will people spend in a way that responds to what’s around them (Nothing seems changed!) or to what they know is coming (Did you see this week’s jobless numbers? Highest in 26 years!)? Will they go for some last big-ticket items, sliding the platinum card along the counter with a “We who are about to die salute you” flair, or will spending reflect a new prudence, and the new anxiety? Assume the latter. There’s a new mood taking hold.

The man who sells Christmas trees on Manhattan’s 96th Street and Lexington Avenue, and who knows the habits of a neighborhood that encompasses the wealthy, the not-wealthy and the getting by, said business is slow, “down at least 25%” from last year. Bleak ChristmasHe predicted it would pick up, but expected an increase in the people who see a stated price as the starting point of negotiations. “There’ll be more hagglers. ‘The recession, I’m bleedin’, work with me.’”

People talk of the incoming administration’s announced plans for infrastructure spending that will “save or create” 2.5 million jobs. Everything old is new again. I suspect public support for WPA-like endeavors will be high, and not only because of the promise of job creation. Not even only because people want something new, a sense of vigor and focus—a sense that there’s a plan—from the federal government. There’s also, I think, a sense that it would be good to do something as a nation, together, something like the old Mercury and Apollo space programs, something that draws people together. Something that is both literally and metaphorically concrete.

For a generation we’ve been tapping on plastic keyboards, entering data into databases, inventing financial instruments that are abstract, complex and unconnected to any seeable reality. Fortunes were made in the ether, almost no one knows how; there’s a sense that this was perhaps part of the problem. Workers tapped on keyboards and produced work they cannot see, touch or necessarily admire. They’d like to make their country better, and stronger, in a way they can see.

And people want to belong to something. If you’re a vibrant member of a church in America, or a casual member of a vibrant church, you’re part of something. If you’re a member of a family that’s together, you are part of something. A lot of Americans do not have these two things.

Some of the infrastructure ideas put forward are obvious and fine: rebuild roads and bridges. One is unexpected and smart: strengthen the electrical grid. One is so lame as to seem a non sequitur: make sure every classroom has the Internet. In America, you don’t have to worry that kids won’t go online, you have to worry the minute they do. The Internet is not a gifted teacher, but only another limited resource. There is no sign, none, that the Internet has made our nation more literate, or deep, and many signs it has made us less so, u no?

I asked a conservative policy wonk what he thought a new jobs-and-infrastructure program would look like, and he said, “The Democrats will fund union contracts on existing subway and light-rail systems, and build new ones that few people will ride. My favorite Onion headline was ‘95% of Americans Support Public Transit for Other People.’”

Fair enough. You can add to his reservations the inevitability of graft and boondoggles, the potential for corruption surrounding local efforts run by state houses led by people like Rod Blagojevich, and heady new power in the hands of those who used to be called, and are about to be called again, union chieftains. It will be a mess, a scandal a day, and Americans, ever sophisticated about such things, know it. They will support it anyway, for the reasons above. Republicans on the Hill will have a hard time stopping it. The cost is too great? Where did we get a trillion-dollar deficit? The number is so astronomical, so unimaginable, it seems less like a barrier than a challenge. You say one? I say two. Let’s go for it!

There’s something else going on, a new or renewed sense of national shame. Or communal responsibility. Or a sense of reckoning. Whatever it is it’s a reaction to the excesses of the O’s, a reaction against the ways of those who caused the mess on Wall Street and Main Street. It is a reassertion that there actually are rules, and that it is embarrassing to break them in a way so colorfully damaging and destructive to everyone else.

Some data points, as they say: The CEOs of Detroit’s Big Three ran their companies into the ground and want your tax dollars to save them. They famously went to Washington in private jets to make their case. They will not soon forget the drubbing they took for not paying attention to a still-prevailing national expectation of decent behavior. The second time they testified, you could almost feel their embarrassment. A message was sent, and received.

Manhattan billionaire Steve Schwarzman recently spoke ruefully of his celebrated 60th birthday party last year, which cost an estimated $3 million and left him a poster boy for the age of excess. Message sent, received.

Bill Gates said businesses should try to help solve problems, winning, as their reward, the respect of the community. What a concept. Oprah cancelled her luxe annual “favorite things” show. Instead she’s trying to encourage personal renewal and local involvement and giving. Which tracks with the cards a friend is receiving this month from her friends, saying that instead of sending a plant or a book for the holidays, they’re sending money to a local charity. They’re like the Christmas-tree guy on 96th and Lex, who said that every year, late on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, the lot leaves behind some trees, and wreaths, for those who couldn’t buy one. He said he had a feeling this year they’d be leaving behind a few more than usual, and that they’d all be taken.

Some of the new mood may reflect a certain Puritanism—there’s always a little of that in the American character. And some of it is mere PR. But not all of it is strategic. Economic collapse concentrates the mind. Some of it is maybe “agenbite of inwit,” the Middle English phrase meaning remorse of conscience. The new mood seems to involve a new modesty, and something a little more humane.

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I am not including our newly famous Blago. Rarely has there been such a case in which the sin is perfectly represented by the physical presence of the sinner. I had never seen him until the news this week, and there he was, a lipless, dull-featured, wig-wearing moron with a foul-mouthed harridan of a wife. (Oh, maybe it’s not a wig, but I think Chicago should know everyone in New York thinks it is.) The minute I saw him I thought: That’s exactly what a guy like that would look like! And then I thought: Oh, God bless him, because it’s kind of a gift when things look as they are. Not all is shade and shadow, some things are hearteningly obvious.

He really was abusive. He really was selfish. He really gives you something to react against, a sense of “That’s what not to be.” Rectitude chic, coming to a statehouse near you. Another part of the big reaction.