HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 26, 2007
From Liberty Street

Despondency

John Turner


I suspect we're in for a spate of low spirits over at the next fourteen months, at least until a new president is inaugurated. And, I'm glad. Low spirits are what we deserve and what we ought to embrace, that is, if we expect ever to redeem ourselves.

We, the American people, have been bad recently, bad in most of the ways a people can be bad -- selfish, mean, indifferent to how we affect the world, murderous, and nauseatingly emotional about ourselves. That, of course, is not true of all of us. But it is true of enough of us that we, collectively, have been defined by those characteristics.

We have no propensity in this country to think that we can sink to the depths. There are no prominent voices to tell us that bleak truth. Instead, the voices that can be heard proclaim our grandeur. Yes, there are bad things in America we are told. But they are the fault of small groups who have diverged sharply from the main body of citizens. The people themselves are sound and glorious. Some years ago Jimmy Carter was noted for saying he wanted a government as fine and moral as the American people. Thank God, we never got that.

An enduring myth in America is that politicians are mostly disgusting and that the people deserve much better than they get. Has there ever been such dopey twaddle? It's true that politicians are usually less than inspiring. But why? Because they know that if they tell the truth and stand for rational policies, they will be denounced and punished by the people. A common saying is that all politicians are crooks. That's not true. But most of them, if not cowards, are close enough for practical purposes. And they're that way because that's how we want them.

Our schools, presumably, are bad because of self-serving educational bureaucracies. It's true that bureaucracies are somewhat self-serving -- all of them, not just in education. But that 's not why the schools are ineffective.  Our schools are bad because we don't value learning and thought. We think of education as being something for kids, certainly not for ourselves. There's no secret about how ignorant the American people are. It's the most common joke on late night TV. Every survey tells us that most adults don't know what any respectable sixth grade student should have learned long ago. But we just think that's funny. We're not interested in doing anything about it. The thought of ever reading a serious book is outside the imagination of most American citizens.

We pay too much for a less than sterling medical system. And whose fault is that?   Well, of course, it's because of the drug company and insurance executives, and greedy doctors, and impossibly tangled hospital administrations. We have all those, it's true. But why? It's because we don't demand anything better and because we fall for silly scare stories about so-called socialized medicine. A leading presidential candidate can make an absurd statement about the comparative cure rates in Great Britain and America, and the great public can barely summon a yawn. Probably, most of us think he was telling the truth, not that we would much care.

When we come to the foreign policy we have allowed our government to pursue since 2001, we move into realms of nuttiness that ought to be found only in B-grade movies -- actions by a supposedly great nation that could have arisen only in the minds of immature, egotistical thrill seekers.

I now must turn to the charges of snobbery that may well be rising in the minds of anyone who has scanned this fulmination. I need to confront them as sensibly and respectfully as I can. So, here it is: I don't give a damn. I, at least, know this. Whenever I've done something really stupid -- as I have many times in my life -- the only answer for it is to admit how completely dumb I've been, try to think through why I let myself behave that way, resolve never to forget my idiocy, and lay out a program for myself to steer away from it. I know it's going to make me feel awful but, to descend to religious language, I have to repent of my sins if I'm ever going to get better. Weakness holds me back from doing it as well as I should, but the effort helps me be less foolish than I would have been without it.

I realize that the psyche of a nation is not the same thing as the psyche of a person and probably can't work in exactly the same way. Even so, national repentance is not beyond the realm of possibility. And, there's no doubt that we need it.

Do I have faith that we can do it? No. Do I have hope? Yes. And that's why it's my devout wish that for the next year, at least, we'll feel miserable about ourselves.


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