by Victor Davis Hanson
Why are so many Americans so depressed about things these days? It is perhaps not just the economy.
I think the answer is clear: all the accustomed referents, the sources of security, of knowledge and reassurance appear to be vanishing. Materially, we still enjoy a sumptuous lifestyle in comparison with past generations — and the world outside our borders. America remains the most sane and successful society on the planet.
But there is a strange foreboding, a deer-in-the-headlights look to us that we may be clueless Greeks in the age of Demosthenes, played-out Romans around AD 450, or give-up French in late 1939 — with a sense it cannot go on. Why? Let us count the ways.
1) About Broke. The collective debt is simply staggering, $1.7 trillion in borrowing this year alone. $3.5 trillion is our annual budget, and by 2012 what we all owe will be well over $15-17 trillion. (No fears: the President promises to triple the Bush deficit, but by the end of his “first” term “halve” the deficit, as if tripling and then halving it is not increasing it.)
Today while President Obama railed against AIG bonuses (imagine damning the bonuses you signed into law to the execs from whom you took over $100,000 in campaign donations!) — the congressional budget office “found” another trillion or so dollars in anticipated deficits that Team Obama lost.
So after Obama, the next President will campaign on “I promise a $1 trillion annual surplus for eight years to pay off the last eight, so we can then start over paying off the old $11 trillion shortfall.”
The rub is not just that we are inflating — no, ruining — our currency. And the problem is still more than the fact that we are destroying the lives of the next generation, whose collective budgets will be consumed largely with health care for us baby-boomers, and interest payments on our debts. (If I get to be 87, can we keep asking 500 or so Chinese to put off false teeth to lend me their money for a hip replacement?)
I think instead the worst element is a sort of ill-feeling about ourselves, an unhappiness as we look in the mirror and see what we are doing to our dignity in this, the hour of our crisis.
We are starting to fathom that when times got iffy, we lacked the resilience of the proverbial Joads and the grit of that tough Depression-era generation, and certainly we seem different sorts from those who built and flew B-17s amid the Luftwaffe.
Instead, this generation has gone quite stark raving mad the last seven months, hysterical, and decided we would simply borrow, charge it, print money, blame, accuse — almost anything other than roll up our sleeves, take a cut in our standard of living, pay off what we owe, admit that we lived too high on the hog, and find a certain nobility in shared sacrifice.
So again, here we are reduced to begging the Chinese to subsidize our life-styles, while 500 million of their own poor make their American counterparts of the lower classes here seem like well-heeled grandees.
2) Fides? We have almost destroyed the concept of trust: we don’t think there is any accuracy in AIG statements; don’t really believe GM will make it on its own, or that Goldman-Sachs is honestly run.
All our icons — Ford, General Electric, Citibank, Bank of America — in a mere generation imploded by their own hands, and now we don’t have any real idea of what went wrong, and believe their captains don’t either.
When Barack Obama says the economy will soon grow at a 4.6 annual rate, I simply don’t believe him. I don’t believe Sec. Geithner’s reconstruction of when he knew about the AIG bonuses, or that he simply forgot to pay his payroll taxes.
If Chris Dodd were to say that gravity exists, I could be sure we would float into the stratosphere. If Barack Obama said he was against renditions, I’d assume he had merely renamed them “transfers.” I do know that as we run up more trillions in debt the next four years, Obama will be in perpetual campaign mode with the same tired mantra “The Bush deficit mess I inherited” to screaming and adoring crowds.
3.) A Certain Coarseness. We also are wearied by a certain crassness in American society in ways we have not seen before — or at least since the mid-19th century. Sorry, I don’t want my President joshing about the Special Olympics on Leno. I don’t want him on Leno at all in his perpetual PR mode. I don’t want him drawing out his picks for the final four on TV. I don’t want him paid for rewriting/revising/ condensing/whatever his earlier book while he’s supposed to be President, or ribbing Gordon Brown about his tennis game in patronizing fashion, or giving the British a pack of un-viewable DVDs after they, in exchange, offered a tasteful gift of historic importance.
I was always an advocate of informality, of casualness, but now when on a plane, in a restaurant, at Starbucks, I am struck by the rare well-dressed person who does not crowd. How odd the extra-polite woman, who conducts herself with charm and grace at the counter, or the gentleman who opens doors, says excuse me, and whose intelligent conversation I enjoy listening in on — like a dew drop to someone thirsting in the desert. In contrast, when the punk walks by, with radio blaring, mumbling obscenities, flashing the ‘I’ll kill you’ stare,” it all leaves me in depression.
Worse still, on the opposite end of the scale, is the master of the universe who elbows his way onto a plane while he blares on the telephone and blocks the aisle. I feel creepy after walking through an electronics store and seeing some of the video game titles and covers.
In short, I don’t want to hear any more Viagra or Cialis ads, no more douche commercials — please no more talking heads about penises that are enlarging, hardening, stimulated on the public air waves.
The sum of these foul parts is smothering us. I don’t want to know that there is a new sex clinic opening in Fresno, or hear another ad about how I can skip out on my credit card debt, or that some sort of food is stuck to my intestinal walls like spackle and paste unless I buy some gut cleansing product.
At some point, we need to say enough is enough, and try to find some sense of honor and decorum in these times of crisis. My god, the entire country has become some sort of Rousseauian nightmare, as if the Berkeley Free Speech Area circa 1970 is now the public domain, as if the culture of the Folsom cell block is now the national ethos.
4) What is good/bad? We are depressed and listless and angry also because I think that we fear we have lost all sense of calibration. We can’t tell what is good and what is god-awful. Where does a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears come from? What can they do? What determines a modern poem’s line break?
Is there any transcendence in the rap album of the month? A Marxist folk singer like old Peter Seeger always had more talent in his little finger than the sum total of Madonna. How did a modern-day Cleon like Barney Frank become the national spokesman of populist outrage against Wall Street.
One, just one, novel of a Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe even, is worth more than what has been written collectively in the last ten years. T. S. Eliot in a day could write better poetry than what has been composed in all the creative writing departments in the United States over the last twenty years — and we are going to give billions more under Obama to “education.”
At some point, again, we need to establish criteria of excellence, regardless of ideology, politics, or of fashion. We honor actors like De Niro and Pacino because we instinctively feel they are talented and are at least shadows of the old breed; a David Petraeus seems like a Matthew Ridgway come to save us in Korea.
We yearn for an ex-President Truman or Eisenhower — and instead get Jimmy Carter. David McCullough sells books because he is talented, can tell a story, is reliable, has a sense of what is the essence of history — and won’t lecture us about his own agenda at a conference on transvestites in the Union Army. I allow that a perpetual adolescent Sean Penn can act (sort of), but a Jack Palance or Richard Boone of the second-tier could exhibit more stage presence, more auctoritas in a split second of exposure than Penn could achieve in a month at the dais.
(5) Yes/No/Sorta/Maybe. We sense we are trimmers and redistributors, and wouldn’t dare build a new dam, a transcontinental railroad, a new 8-lane freeway.
Instead we would sue, file reports, argue, quit, delay — anything other than conceive a majestic idea and finish it, sighing, “It is not perfect, but damn good enough and will do.” Instead, here in California we are simply destroying agriculture by drying up its sources of water-giving life—a once brilliant farming that was the sum total of millions of brave lives from 1880 to 2000 who took a desert and fed the world.
Instead, ensconced in the Berkeley Hills or Woodside, our elites demand of better others to save for them not people, but a smelt, a minnow, or a newt-like creature that must have the entire Kings or San Joaquin River as it dumps its precious cargo out to sea.
So as scarce snow melts, it goes out to the ocean, gratifying a lawyer or professor in Palo Alto that rivers flow as they did in the 19th-century, as millions of acres go fallow, hundreds of thousands lose jobs, and we feel so morally superior to those of the past who really were our moral superiors.
It is easy to dismiss our ancestors as illiberal, or with the caveat “Oh, but if we were as poor as they were, we’d have to prove just as tough”, but we still sense they were different in the sense of far better. When I drive up to see those Sierra dams poured in the 1920s, one wonders how they made such things with only primitive machines, and in contrast, are amazed with our sophisticated tools, we do so much less.
This self-congratulatory generation can hardly, as we are learning, build a Bay Bridge again. Yet when we see on the Internet pictures of a new aircraft carrier we are stunned in amazement — we did that? We built such a powerful, sophisticated ship? We — at least someone — can actually still do things on rare occasion like that?
The American people are, to be frank, nauseated by the archetype of a John Edwards, who never created anything other than a legacy of bankrupting doctors in order to enrich himself. I’d prefer one gall bladder surgeon to fifty Botox experts, a good Perkins engine mechanic to 1,000 deconstructionists at the MLA, one competent chemist to fifty government attorneys.
For the present I think that we have enough social service bureaucrats, enough consultants, enough PhDs that will lecture how race/class/gender has made us, our air, our dogs even, so unfair. We simply are thirsty for the unapologetic doer, who never says he’s sorry for himself or his country or his ancestors, but instead thinks and plans how he can build something better and leave it for others — the age old agrarian commandment “make sure you leave a better farm than you inherit.” Where are they all, in the grave?
We all seem to stare at the rare genius under a semi, working on the transmission, or someone on a catwalk riveting a girder, or a teacher who can wade into an unruly class and say “damn it, we are going to learn calculus one way or another.”
My complaint against Hollywood actors is not that they are talentless, though many are; or that they talk in the same tones as women did sixty years ago, but that they have no imprint, no trademark of individuality. In short, to paraphrase Orwell, “If it paid better, they’d be fascists.”
I think we responded to Mickey Rourke’s brief renaissance, not because he survived while being drug-addled, or was punched out, or reckless, but because he showed, as a torn-cat, a certain dignity, a certain courage of being so very different from the norm. Yes, at this point we are so desperate for talent and singularity we will take eccentricity bordering on nihilism.
So there you have this rant.
Why are Americans hesitant, bewildered after the arrival of the Messiah?
Not for the reason our President attests about high unemployment or shaky GDP or the lack of national health care. We simply are ashamed of our profligacy; we don’t trust those who should be trusted; we put up with the crass and honor the mediocre and ugly; and we fight and bicker over the distribution, never over a share in the creation.
Hope and change, indeed.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson