From Liberty Street: Pessimism

John Turner

What do you do if you become convinced that political and social conditions are getting worse and that there's not much anyone can do about it? It's a question we'll see confronted frequently in the waning years of the Bush administration.

At no time in the past century have Americans been more pessimistic about the country's future. Seventy-one percent now say we're on the wrong track. And it's hard to understand why the remaining twenty-nine percent don't agree.

It's beginning to dawn on those who think about such things that the great reservoir we have drawn on throughout our national history -- the mass of ordinary people -- is severely polluted. And there seems to be no force currently at work that has a chance to clean it up.

We used to believe in the schools and in education. But survey after survey tells us that a majority of the people are astoundingly ignorant. Only 13% of young adults can locate Iraq on a world map, and that's simply one of a dismaying torrent of reports showing that most Americans have no knowledge of world conditions and no interest in learning about them. The average American citizen does not read books and has never considered reading a serious one. There is no way such a citizenry can constitute an intelligent democracy. In the American media, quality of intellect is viewed suspiciously and even knowing anything is denounced as being elitist.

This being so, the flood of books attempting to characterize our condition can have but slight effect. When Zigmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity tells us that most people exist with no sense of moral or intellectual orientation, there are few who can imagine caring. When Ellen Ullman in Close to the Machine says that computer programmers are the canaries of the modern workforce, and that their automaton-like labors are the future destiny of everyone, the only response she could get from most of us is, so what? When Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character asserts that there is now no narrative coherence in our lives and that for most, nothing can be taken seriously, he addresses an audience who doesn't know what coherence means. When Thomas Frank in One Market Under God charges that a halo of corporate propaganda celebrates a life so crazy it can be seen only as an ideology of insanity, he's speaking to people for whom insanity has become a norm. When Todd Gitlin in Media Unlimited explains that in newspapers and on television democracy has become a side show and that infantilism is now the trademark of American culture, people brush him aside to ask about JonBenet Ramsay. When Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone reports that social capital has declined so precipitously over the past decades that the change constitutes a threat to civilized life, people who listen to him are outnumbered by video game players by at least a hundred to one.

You don't have to accept any one of these arguments wholesale to conclude from all of them together -- and dozens more one might cite -- that our social health is under assault.

One of the more interesting analyses of our overall condition can be found in Morris Berman's Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. Mr. Berman is unapologetically pessimistic. He says he wishes he could find signs of reviving civic virtue and intelligent politics but that they don't exist. Americans will not reach a day of self-examination and, consequently, the nation is not capable of adopting a set of alternative solutions to our problems. A wave of degeneration is flowing that cannot be stopped. The best that intelligent people can hope for is to find some satisfaction in seeing the dark flood clearly.

Persuasive as these arguments are, I am not yet ready to give way to them completely. They do point to truths about our current condition that are discouraging. And they do make a nearly unassailable case that a majority of Americans are incapable of activating their minds. But, I wonder if we have to have a majority. Might it be that a healthy democracy can flourish with a minority of knowledgeable citizens? What percentage of a people must be informed to pull a majority in its wake? I don't know the answer, but I suspect that if even twenty percent of Americans began, actively and critically, to refuse any longer to be duped by the forces seeking to use them, we would achieve a kind of political revolution. It wouldn't be perfect because even active-minded people are not perfectly wise. But it would be so superior to what we have now that we could take serious satisfaction from it. And it would allow us to work for better times rather than being overwhelmed by plutocracy and violence.

I wish someone could tell me -- is twenty percent too much to be hoped for?

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Harvard Square Commentary, August 28, 2006