Sunday, June 13, 2010

Astonishing Confidence in the Self

In Mark Lilla's recent article on the Tea Partiers in the New York Review of Books, he comes up with one of his wonderful summations of a situation:

The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

But I would add that these "new Jacobins" are not just American, as I have seen the same combination of public pessimism and private optimism in Switzerland as well. Many Swiss are just as skeptical of public institutions as Americans are (especially of what they call "Schulmedizin," that is, mainstream medicine) and just as optimistic about their own perceptions of the world ("the homeopathic treatment worked for me"). So while Lilla has perhaps correctly diagnosed the Tea Partiers here, he has limited the scope of his observation too much: what he identifies as "classic American traits" may once have been uniquely or at least especially American, but they have gone global as well—or at least Swiss. (Or does this have something to do with democracy?)

Perhaps someone will say, "Well, Andrew, what about your own 'astonishing confidence' in yourself?" But I am not skeptical about public institutions, and I try to understand my own experience as anecdotal (no matter how fun or funny the anecdotes are) and not representative of how people are and how the world is.

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