In Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time magazine, a writer described an encounter that sums up German pessimism. A colleague told her that “anyone with any intelligence could never be as happy as you.” One wouldn’t expect Germany’s historical experience to encourage optimism. But it is surprising to see sunny America approaching a positively European level of despair during the decade of the double zero.
American pessimism shows up in a misleading way. From “Forrest Gump” to the latest Will Ferrell movie, from Homer Simpson to Jessica Simpson, our popular culture is filled with brilliantly calculated glorifications of rank stupidity. Given a supposedly hopeless world, Germans would rather be intelligent and dejected, while Americans apparently prefer to be stupid and happy – even if they’re not really stupid at all.
There’s something profoundly disingenuous about a ruthless careerist like Simpson earning her fame by playing a vapor-headed bimbo. There’s no way someone that smart could actually be that dumb. The same applies to our political culture. President Bush’s strategy of casting himself as a well-meaning dumbass persecuted by elitist nerds in the media and the Democratic Party was brilliant. Regardless of whether these individuals or their handlers are responsible, playing dumb is a smart strategy for success in America. But Americans are not as stupid as we would like to think, just afraid of how we’d feel if we acted smart.
On the face of it, American pessimism seems ridiculous. Raised on Rainbow Brite and the Care Bears, taught self-esteem in school and pampered by indulgent baby-boomer parents, our generation came of age during one of the longest periods of prosperity in American history – after our country’s last serious rival had collapsed and left us in an unprecedented position of military, economic and cultural dominance. What do we have to be so emo about?
Well, look at the headlines. Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, Russia is backsliding into dictatorship, and Israel and Palestine are, well, Israel and Palestine. The genocide in Sudan is only the rawest wound of Africa, which is now so crippled by poverty and corruption that entire nations are succumbing to lawlessness, disease, terrorism and war. In the face of mounting aggression, the United Nations has been undermined by America’s own contempt for international law and is too weak to address these crises.
America itself is locked in a vicious cycle of stupid, in which each retreat into denial leaves us less able to deal with the problems the last retreat caused. New Orleans still lies in ruins. Iraq is a lost cause. Fundamentalists preach a gospel of despair that calls for the world to be destroyed before it can be saved, and America is answering the call. China and India’s growth suggests that white-collar jobs may soon follow factory work overseas, but while Asian students admire famous geneticists, American students want to know what Britney blogged about Paris.
Michiganders know about the decline of the American empire from bitter experience. Europeans used to dream of trading their Volkswagens for Cadillacs. Now Americans can’t sell a Ford for the interest on a Mercedes, and present-day Detroit looks less like the Motor City and more like Berlin circa 1945. Detroit’s despair is palpable and is felt beyond the city through its export of drugs and gang culture. It’s difficult to imagine that a healthy society would tolerate such blatant decay, but we’ve gotten used to it.
If this is the view they get when they peek their heads above the parapet, it’s not surprising that many Americans would opt for willful stupidity. It’s beginning to look like the pinnacle of national prominence that our generation grew up in has left us with nowhere to go but down. While President Nero struggles to present history a single good decision which might salvage his legacy, it appears he’ll instead go down as the living embodiment of American failure.
The scope and complexity of the problems that confront us and the inadequacy of our response so far could lead anyone to believe our civilization is in terminal decline. But history often occurs in the background. There are changes taking place in fields far removed from one another, on a level that passes unnoticed in the wider stream of events. Taken separately, these flares of hope amount to little. Together, they point toward a new mode of understanding and action, one which is not only up to the task but which may foreshadow a new peak in the ebb and flow of human history.
In future columns, I’ll be shifting my focus from criticism to encouragement, discussing positive changes in American politics and in science, business, international relations and religion. There’s nothing predetermined about these changes – they may well not occur until humanity has endured the suffering of another great war or until America’s decline becomes too obvious to deny. Nevertheless, all we need to begin is a willingness to abandon the anesthesia of despair and the courage to risk hope.
Toby Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.