Roving thoughts and provocations

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The New American Pessimism

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A protester at a march and rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, March 5, 2011

I can’t remember when I last heard someone genuinely optimistic about the future of this country. I discount politicians, investment bankers and generals since their line of work requires that they offer upbeat assessments of everything from our deteriorating economy to our suicidal wars, and assorted narcissists accustomed to shutting their eyes to the plight of their fellow Americans. The outright prophets of doom and gloom among our friends and acquaintances tended to be a rare breed until recently. They were mostly found among the elderly, whose lives had an inordinate share of tragedies and disappointments, so one didn’t take their bleak outlook as applicable to the rest of us. One encountered inveterate optimists, idealists, or even Niebuhrian realists in the past; now, one finds people of all ages and backgrounds eager to tell you how screwed up everything is, and, on a more personal note, what a difficult time they are having—not just making ends meet, but understanding why the country they thought they knew has become unrecognizable.

Just look at the assault on the rights of state workers that Wisconsin’s new governor Scott Walker and a group of state senators have rammed through a rump legislature without any debate. The same approach is now spreading to several other states in the heartland. In the new USA, teachers, union workers, women, children, the unemployed and the hopeless are the cause of unsustainable deficits, and a dog-eat-dog philosophy that is supposed to make us great again prevails.

It must be difficult for any hostess nowadays to stop her dinner guests from reciting to each other over the course of an evening the endless examples of lies and stupidities they’ve come across in the press and on TV. As they get more and more wound up, they try to outdo each other, losing all interest in the food on their plates. I know that when I get together with friends, we make a conscious effort to change the subject and talk about grandchildren, reminisce about the past and the movies we’ve seen, though we can’t manage it for very long. We end up disheartening and demoralizing each other and saying goodnight, embarrassed and annoyed with ourselves, as if being upset about what is being done to us is not a subject fit for polite society.

In an atmosphere of growing anxiety and hysteria, in which the true causes and the scale of our dire national predicament are deliberately concealed and obfuscated by our political establishment and by the corporate media, no wonder there’s confusion and anger everywhere. As anyone who has traveled around this country and talked to people knows, Americans are not just badly informed, but downright ignorant about most things that affect their lives. How nice it would be if our President leveled with us and told us that our deficit is caused in significant part by the wars we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the hundreds of military bases we are maintaining around the world, the huge tax breaks for the rich, and the bailout of Wall Street. As we know, we are not about to hear anything of the kind.

By the president’s calculation, telling the truth to the American people would doom his reelection campaign, since he would not be able to raise the billion dollars he needs this time around. The kind of people who have that kind of money and will agree to contribute to his campaign know very well what informed voters in a working democracy would to do to them once they understood just who has depleted the national treasury to line their own pockets. No doubt, he and his political party will do anything to avoid the truth and will propose outwardly attractive solutions—like the health care bill that not only expands coverage but greatly benefits insurance companies and does little to reduce healthcare costs. They hope that these kinds of measures will lure the majority of voters who won’t bother to learn the details, but they will also send a clear signal to the moneyed classes that they won’t be inconvenienced in the least.

As for those who continue to insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with a democracy that doesn’t address the ever-growing income inequality the sheer madness of our open-ended military ventures in Afghanistan, the miseries of the sick and unemployed, the suffering of the near destitute and of the children and the old, they’ll be dismissed as being unrealistic in present circumstances and reminded that with the other party in power things would be even worse. The reason pessimists are multiplying is that we dishonor the intellect and the knowledge of history in this country by refusing to admit that corruption is the source of our ills. It takes no great mental effort to realize that there’s no effective political forces either in Washington or locally that are able to do anything serious to correct our self-delusions about being the world’s policeman, because any sensible solution would seriously cut into profits of this or that interest group.

They say the monkey scratches its fleas with the key that opens its cage. That may strike one as being very funny or very sad. Unfortunately, that’s where we are now.

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