When did America get taken over by a bunch of crybabies?
The question seems a little judgy, but look around. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting people—from all parts of the political spectrum, it's important to note—yelping about their hurt feelings.
That's not hyperbole: A recent viral video shows a student screaming at a Yale administrator over an email by the administrator's wife. Said email was a long, thoughtful, and sensitive meditation on how far colleges ought to go in policing student Halloween costumes in the name of cultural sensitivity. From the reaction, you would have thought it was a recruitment letter for the Klan.
Sensitivity has become a cardinal virtue on many campuses. Students fret about "microaggressions," expect trigger warnings for works with content that might upset them, and demand the dis-invitation of speakers whose ideas they disagree with. Often, colleges oblige—and some take it even further by establishing segregated housing units in the name of creating "safe spaces."
Conservatives ridicule such trends—at least until their own feelings get hurt. Witness the kerfuffle over Starbucks' Christmas-themed cup, which doesn't mention Jesus and is therefore, supposedly, part of the imaginary War on Christmas. This brew-haha actually started out as a joke. Then it turned into a real thing. Donald Trump jumped into the fray, threatening (promising?) to boycott Starbucks and promising (threatening?) that "if I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you"—and plenty of folks seconded the motion.
This might be a tempest in a coffee cup, but it's part of a wider and longstanding plaint by some conservatives that a store clerk who says "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" is a covert op in the liberal plot to destroy Christianity.
The irony is thick enough to stop a bullet. Imagine the reaction if a Muslim clerk wished a customer a pleasant Eid al-Fitr. Fox's Bill O'Reilly denounces "race hustlers" and "charlatans" for stirring up resentment by spewing "garbage" over the shooting of young black men by police officers. Yet O'Reilly, who is (as someone said of his ilk) "hysterical for a living," has been stirring up resentment by hammering away at the "War on Christmas" theme for years. Black kid gets shot to death, and it's irresponsible to make a fuss. But a cashier in East Overshoe wishes somebody happy holidays—and it's the End of Civilization As We Know It.
Some of the pushback against this silliness tries to exonerate the accused: Look, it says—Starbucks can't be anti-Christmas, because it sells Christmas-blend coffee and advent calendars! Relax, there's no cause for alarm!
But this treats only the symptom. The disease is the expectation on the part of some conservatives that retail establishments have any kind of duty to honor their religious beliefs—i.e., to create a "safe space" where Christians can feel validated and insulated from others who might think differently. News flash: They don't. Starbucks isn't in business to reassure people about their choice of deity. It's in business to sell burnt coffee at ridiculous prices. Don't like its holiday cups? Go buy a jar of Taster's Choice. Problem solved.
Yet the grousing doesn't end there. Nosiree! The New York Times recently reported on a Pew survey that finds "working parents say they feel stressed, tired, rushed and short on quality time with their children, friends, partners or hobbies"—especially now, when two-earner families are more common.
The stress is particularly high among college-educated white couples. "This is not an individual problem," says Mary Blair-Loy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, "it is a social problem." She thinks the solution lies in paid family leave and after-school care. Government, in other words, really needs to step in and relieve this awful burden.
Let that marinate for a second. Not so long ago—within a couple of generations, in some parts—the typical grownup worked himself into an early grave scratching out a bare subsistence through backbreaking manual labor, usually agricultural. He'd stockpile root vegetables and firewood in the hopes of surviving the winter. He'd probably bring the livestock inside too, so they wouldn't freeze to death. One-quarter to one-half of his children would die—and there wasn't a thing he could do about it but watch.
Now people feel stressed because they don't have enough time for their hobbies. They get impatient when the video stream on their smartphone buffers. They can't believe how much they have to pay for premium cable channels. They're frustrated that they can't get their daughter to soccer practice without their son being late for piano. The poor dears!
In a funny way, this is all quite encouraging. It shows just how far we've come.
College students today can afford to stew over their hurt feelings because they are not busy being blown into red chunks on the Western Front—or getting lynched for trying to go to school in the first place. Conservatives can gripe about coffee cups because Communism is dead and ISIS is a long way away. Working parents can fret over their tight schedules during their free time because they actually have more free time now than in previous decades.
As Janan Ganesh put it so nicely a while back in The Financial Times, many of today's discontented are "working their way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs. They have physical health and security; they crave belonging and self-actualisation."
There's nothing inherently wrong with that. But could they maybe also count their blessings from time to time—and then dial it down a notch?
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.