In a television interview with Bob Costas on Sunday, August 10th, 2008, George Bush told the nation, “I don’t see America having problems.” The response: People laughed. “Just what planet does this guy orbit? I mean, really, no problems, George.”
Here is the strange part. George pretty much got away with passing this sentiment off as “state of the art” for a good part of his administration. We didn’t have problems. We had adversaries. Scary ones, indeed. And once we dealt a blow to them, we wouldn’t have any problems. End of story.
The summer of 2002, after the Afghanistan War had begun, but before the war in Iraq had started, I wrote an essay focusing on how there really was something wrong in America, how we knew it, and how we wouldn’t admit it. But it was simply too out of sync with the times to bother editing for publication. I reread it a few years ago and it still seemed out of sync with the times. If we could just deal with Iraq and terrorism, it would be morning (or at least noon) in America….
But now the essay doesn’t seem so out of touch. The war in Iraq is generally acknowledged to have been a terrible mistake and the economy is tanking. And this has opened the door for more somber reflections. So I offer “The Ostrich Factor,” here and now, unedited (except for very minor corrections and photos) from August 7, 2002. Why? Because we really need a major change of direction in this country, and we have one candidate running for President who appears to believe that if only we could just do away with Islamic radicals, America would pretty much be okay (with a few band aids here and there).
I can feel It. I am sure you can too. It’s no secret. It is there in the shadows of your neighbors’ smiles. It is there behind the strained avowals that America has become a land of solidarity since 9/11. We feel that something has gone wrong with America, and whatever It is preceded the horror of 9/11 and will not disappear in a struggle against its perpetrators. Certainly It is difficult to diagnose and discuss. And in political circles virtually impossible. Jimmy Carter was the last significant political figure who was willing to take on the role of messenger regarding It, famously pronouncing that there was a “crisis of the spirit” in America and a “national malaise.” He actually used the bully pulpit to raise questions about whether the nation had lost its bearings. For his efforts he was trounced in his bid to be reelected by Ronald Reagan, a man whose handlers told us that It did not exist, and that it was really “morning in America.” Of course Carter didn’t lose the election solely because he spoke of these matters. But his attempt to address them left a footprint so deep that no politician since has been willing to engage in a sustained discussion of them.
Politicians do not discuss them. We do not discuss them. We try to bury them as we do the feelings for an ailing friend. America is just fine, thank you. And soon it will be morning again…once we take care of foreign threats and get the economy rolling.
But the economy did roll in the 1990’s, and it was a high time for many. On this we can all agree. Yet if this as good as it gets in America, just where are we? Will posterity remember that we became the promised light on the hill as the Nasdaq went into orbit? Quite the contrary. We dreamed even less than usual of vital collective undertakings during these years. Think for a moment. Just what was our last great national mission? Was it going to the moon, ridding the country of poverty, extending civil rights to all? And who in power speaks of such matters in anything but platitudes these days? We laud past deeds and mouth vacuities about glories to come. We wear little flags on our lapels. But we focus on early retirement. And we certainly don’t discuss whether we have lost our way or if our collective life is meaningful. We prefer the of pretense of “I’m ok and you’re ok.” Is this what happens when great countries enter their twilight years?
A sometimes wise individual once told me that people will buy almost anything when they are unhappy. He was referring to goods, consumer items, commodities. There is no doubt a lot of truth here. More than may be obvious at first. For as any psychologically inclined type will tell you, when there is malaise, depression, ennui, anomie, insecurity, lack of direction, alienation, etc., people will find all sorts of ways to compensate, especially when they are unwilling to confront them and acknowledge them. One way is filling up one’s time with mindless and mind numbing activities, consuming for the sake of conspicuous consumption, for instance. Another is to give oneself over to mania or frenzy–Dow 20,000. Another is to find demons to blame for whatever may be making you feel uncomfortable. The latter may be an especially congenial path if you have spent most of your adult life deeply accustomed to fending off a powerful and dangerous adversary such as the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, our attitude toward “It” appears to be coupled with our attitude toward adversaries. Allow me a seeming digression.
When was the last time that you counted the number of wars that we have been involved in over the last fifty years? There was the Korean War and the Cold War, the latter some forty years long. There was the war in Vietnam, in the Gulf, in Grenada, assorted military actions, countless proxy wars, and now a war in Afghanistan, a war on terrorism, and maybe a war in Iraq. However, it seems that foreign nationals are not our only adversaries, for we have also had wars on drugs, poverty, cancer, organized crime, etc. We have had a lot of wars. I know, some will say this comes with superpower territory. And surely many of them were necessary, you will say. But I say, we seem to have a difficult time thinking about problems and getting motivated to do something about them without framing our response in terms of war. There are surely historical and cultural explanations for this phenomenon. I will leave them to the side here. I will say that whatever else our track record shows, it shows that we have often exhibited a rather peculiar mind set since the end of the second world war. Think about it, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on cancer, etc. It’s really quite a strange way to approach these problems. Yet we have come to take it for granted. If we have a problem, we throw a war at It.
This brings us back to It. We are a practical people. We like to draw the lines in the sand. We like to solve problems. We like to move on. But no one seems to know where we should be going. The frontier is dead and the New Frontier turned out to be a bust. We live from pay check to the promise of a comfortable retirement. We feel that something is deeply wrong but can’t put our finger on It. How then will we deal with It? What will be our response? To even acknowledge that we have lost our way has come to seem unpatriotic, a denial that it is morning in America. Surely there will be a temptation to handle it by moving into familiar territory. And war I am afraid is very familiar territory. If I were living in Iraq right now, I would be losing a lot of sleep, because Americans are losing a lot of sleep, and they don’t know why, and they are not discussing it. One thing is for certain, however, whatever It is will not go away with the defeat of Saddam Hussein or any other two bit villain.