Welcome to America, home of thinkpieces entitled “Are our best days behind us?” and “Is the republic doomed?” Here, everyone believes they know the identity of Belshazzar. Did Belshazzar soil the magnificent vessels of holy welfare reform? Or did he have the temerity to challenge Russian aggression? Either way, an ancient, sacred doctrine was violated, some kind of hubris was demonstrated, and the writing on the wall, following Daniel, is entirely in monetary terms, as if money is the only thing any of us can understand.
Doomsaying is a curious business. We readily understand it as a plea for moral reform. But we also recognize it as the domain of the blowhard, those who need to be right about everything, bad pundits and forecasters, the embittered, and the paranoid. Curiously enough, these are distinct groups of people. I know plenty who talk too much and need to assert their knowledge all the time. They’re not always blowhards: in a few cases, they’re trying their best to crack down on this tendency, as they genuinely don’t want to fill the room with their ego.
Still, the problem of “everyone’s a prophet” hits too close to home for many of us. I had two relatives that could never stop with the doomsaying. The economy was always going to collapse; no one knows any math, so we’re going to nuke ourselves and go broke simultaneously; there was a break-in ten years ago, so crime is skyrocketing. No one wanted to talk to them, and they utterly failed at making friends. Now that I’ve grown older and met thousands more people, I’ve been introduced to a whole new bunch of cranks. Take the hype of the news and increase the hysteria exponentially: this is our real domestic product.
The answer of the moment to this problem is asserting blather such as “America is already great.” You, dear reader, know the problem lies far deeper than our current situation. No less than Jefferson had to respond to this nut who argued that in the early 19th century – remember, back then there wasn’t any Social Security, no Medicare, no drones, no Federal Reserve, no welfare – the government of the US was too big. So instead of saying “we need more optimism,” I tend to say we Americans lack an appreciation of the value of things public. By that I mean we overvalue the private. Our house is our castle and we can do as we like. Since what we like “works,” why isn’t everyone like us? To value public things would mean being a bit more grateful for generic statements of value which can reach more people. Or emphasizing social and rhetorical skills. For Aristotle, friendliness was something to aim at, as opposed to being a grouch. Having some kind of social grace mattered too, because not having that grace risks boorishness. On a deeper level, we Americans really do lack class. It’s pretty clear we think we’d rather have some kind of emotional honesty.
I don’t know that we even have that, though. Doomsaying has a especial viciousness if done wrongly: it rejects everyone else’s claims as quickly as possible. I remember one relative in particular saying “that’s irrelevant” as soon as anyone gave anything other than “you are completely right” to him. We don’t have emotional honesty, we have emotional dishonesty. I’ve never seen angrier people accuse everyone else of not being happy or grateful. Yet here we are. As for myself, I’m well aware that pushing a reevaluation of the things held to be public or private is like putting a band-aid over where your arm used to be. I’ll be the first to admit my ideas are nowhere near a panacea, just something that might help in select situations.
Doomsaying can be so vicious because it attacks other people’s perspective, experience, knowledge, and questions. It works for bullies and infantile adults because it ties into some sense of received value. In short, it’s an attack on wisdom, but coming from where? One blowhard abusing everyone around him isn’t the real source of doom and gloom. Even with money and some kind of authority, he alone isn’t the source. No, his opinions have a credibility from leaning on something else. We all agree that the most practical thing would be best, and that this would set our minds at ease. We all agree that one crime is one crime too many, but that justice should be proportional, not cause for zealotry. We all hate war, yet we want freedom for all and protection from enemies. Our amateur prophets have their wisdom lent to them by our political order. Without realizing it, they’re articulating the expectations to which various political institutions cater. That the ends of those institutions don’t add up coherently (a mild example: that government gives subsidies to the tobacco farmer while running an anti-smoking campaign, that this is not a mistake in a way) doesn’t really sit well with us.
My wish is for a calmer America, one where we see and appreciate more Americans as life goes on. Years ago, Bush Sr. was widely mocked for wishing a “kindler, gentler” America. Maybe he was a hypocrite, given the Willie Horton ads he used against Dukakis. Maybe the wish has a value greater than any one of us, being the sum of all of us.