What’s Wrong with us? Some theories [September 2010 / CCT]

You hear it a lot these days: What’s wrong with us? with our country, with us as a people?

There’s this sense that we ain’t the country we used to be. We’ve lost our mojo. Maureen Dowd in a recent column: “The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown.”

This malaise has been exacerbated by recent troubles, from the financial crisis to the worst oil spill in h istory. But it’s more than that. The phenomenon goes back to the 1960s, the decade that invented the concept of the unfightable war and whose idealism and new horizons paradoxically tipped us into self doubt.

What’s wrong with us? Here’s an anthology of stabs in the dark:

.A letter to a local paper blaming it all on straying from Judeo-Christian values.

An editorial in this paper implying that the problem is that we’re just not trying hard enough. (As if the last generation or two has inexplicably been born without the trying- hard gene.)

The Tea Party is sure our only problem is gumment. Get that bad boy off our backs, especially the muslim current version, and we’d be back to being our old feisty selves, some version of Sarah Palin’s perkiness.

A neighbor: the trouble is we’ve become a pill society, seeking easy way out. The umpteen million of us on Prozac are not just a symptom but also a cause.

A young person at a local watering hole blames the Info Age: We kids aren’t as politically idealistic and energized as in the 60s and 70s because we know too much, see too many sides of an issue.

Robert Reich in a recent column points out the decades-long stagnation of average wages while the rich get richer. So what’s wrong with us could be just an underlying sense of unfairness. But individual success, a la Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches, is not the whole story. There are the other stories, national stories that have added meaning to our individual lives.

I may not make a lot of money, I may not have heroic or creative tasks to perform on the job, but I am part of a country which is showing the Old World how it’s done. We long had a thing called Manifest Destiny. Many horrors were perpetrated in its name, but no doubt it gave meaning to many lives on this side of the ocean. No matter what my individual job, “we” are developing a continent. Corporations, spanning the continent with railroads, putting a Model T in every garage, once added meaning to the lives even of those they exploited in accomplishing these positive, progressive deeds.

Horatio Alger got tested as never before in the Great Depression, but America’s work was never more inspiring to its citizens than during World War 2, whose individual sacrifices at all levels can be understood only as part of a great, necessary effort. Industry in fact played a huge, celebrated role in our saving of the world in WW2. But it’s been all downhill from there.

Never more clearly than in the long and confused debate over healthcare reform and bailout of financial companies, whole industries like banking, insurance, drug, auto, mega food have come to be seen clearly as unprogressive; part of the problem.

What’s wrong with us is not that we have for some mysterious reason lost the ability to be inspired, but that corporations are no longer inspirational.

What’s wrong with us is not that we have become effete and lost our taste for war, but that the wars we’ve been embarking on for the past 50 years are objectively no longer as worthy of our enthusiasm and personal sacrifice as WW2.

It’s as if as a nation we are between jobs.

Post Manifest Destiny, post Horatio Alger, post Good War, post “land of the free”, post “what’s good for General Motors is good for the USA,” we need as a nation new projects to inspire us. There is no substitute for knowing ourselves to be as a nation a progressive force, at home and in the world. It’s called patriotism, not mindless, my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism, but having a real reason to feel proud.

Yes, at the moment the nation’s workers need more jobs. More important, the nation needs new, meaningful work.

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