What's Tony Thinking

The Age of Grievance


I have long appreciated Frank Bruni’s columns in the NYT. So I looked forward to reading his newest book, The Age of Grievance. 

Bruni is a great writer who has come across to me as both wise and fair. And this book exhibits those qualities. It is also, I regret to say, disappointing.

Why disappointing? There is a lot of description of our culture of grievance and its manifold expressions on both the right and the left. I had hoped for something different. Namely, an explanation of how we had arrived at this point.

How had a nation that so prized self-reliance, personal responsibility and optimism flipped so thoroughly, and in a relatively brief time, to a nation where blame, complaint and assertions of victimization seem the song, or perhaps dirge, that most everybody is now singing?

It was only 15 years ago, in 2009, that another best-selling cultural commentator, Barbara Ehrenrich, published her book, Bright-Sided, subtitle, “How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.”

Fifteen years ago our problem was that we are all way too upbeat, too hopeful, too “bright” and optimistic, and now we’re all dystopian, whiney, pessimistic and very, very “dark.” How — I wanted to know — had this happened?

Was I asking too much?

Maybe there’s no answer? Or maybe the answer, one Bruni likes as a general life-posture, is “it’s complicated.” But still to go from a nation where “Positive Thinking Is Undermining America” to “America: The Culture of Complaint,” in a decade and a half is remarkable.

Is it the ubiquity of social media? Or the envy-inciting gap between the super-rich and everyone else? Maybe Covid? Or Donald Trump, the King of Grievance? Was it the “Coddling of the American Mind,” (Jonathan Haidt) on campuses or the rise of identity politics? Maybe Fox and MSNBC, and their derivatives, sucking Americans into our chosen angry echo chambers?

Or possibly the whole “self-reliance,” rugged individual and optimism thing was all window dressing? Whatever it is, the shift from can-do to can’t-do, from “I can do it,” to “they made me do it,” from striving to whining has — at least to my mind — been both significant and abrupt.

Explain it to me. This was what I was looking for. And what I didn’t find.

My own (non book-length) explanation is this: the twentieth century ended with America ascendent and democracy triumphant, which led us to think the twenty-first would be smooth-sailing. We expected heaven on earth, “the new world order.”

What we got has been a fair bit of hell on earth. The twenty-first century has been one trauma after another from 9/11 and global terrorism, failed foreign wars to the Great Recession, the Tea Party and Trump, police killings of black men, protests and riots, mass shootings, Covid and war in Europe. And hanging over it all, Climate Apocalypse.

It has been nothing if not “a time of testing,” and so far we aren’t getting a passing grade.

To his credit, Bruni devotes his last 60 pages to good ideas about what can and should be done to change course. The proposals are practical. Things like open primaries and rank-choice voting, job training for people in mid-life and regulation of social media.

But his major solution was a surprise to me, albeit an agreeable one. If grievance gluttony is your problem, you might think the solution is gratitude. Count your blessings, be thankful, look on the bright side, etc.

But, says Bruni, the antidote to grievance is different. It is “humility.” Taking yourself a little less seriously. Being less inclined to be sure you are right or that you know it all. Imagining you have much to learn. Getting the facts before moving to Defcon-12 and full cancellation mode.

As an exemplar of what he has in mind, Bruni cites the popular Republican governor of blue-state Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, who is fond of quoting a verse from the New Testament, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather, in humility, value others above yourself.” (Philippians 2:3)

Which allows me to suggest — no surprise to you my readers — that the atrophy of a once prevailing religious and truly Christian ethos and ethic (as opposed to the grievance-driven “Christian Nationalism,”) is a core part of the problem. That spiritual tradition taught humility as a core value, one that is grounded in the knowledge that there is God and it isn’t us.





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