David Brooks has a wonderful, if incomplete, column in today’s New York Times. He uses an aesthetic problem — the decreasing grandeur and reverence given to our national monuments — as a jumping-off point to ponder the national conundrums of cynicism and self-importance. Lamenting the sorry state of today’s monuments (and implying this has something to do with our reverence for leaders), Brooks writes,
Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.
This is certainly thought provoking. And it’s interesting that Brooks mentions the internet, albeit in passing. That’s because instead of blaming this generation for being vain and cynical (as Brooks seems to do), I would argue that technology and the modern media world has probably made it virtually impossible for them to be anything else.
True, the decrease in the trust of institutions began after Watergate, but there is little doubt it rapidly accelerated due to a changing media landscape. (Could any leader be universally revered in the age of cable news, talk radio, Twitter, and blogs?)
And isn’t it predictable that people exposed to so much negative information about their leaders — who have also been granted the ability to broadcast their own ideas and information, via blogs, podcasts, Twitter, etc., would be less enamored by elites — and generally more cynical and skeptical?
Human nature remains the same. But now it has been exposed to a bright — and most uncomfortable — scrutiny.