Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nation of Whiners

In a blog on yesterday’s Huffington Post, John Fischer raises a pointed question: Are Americans afraid of the changes President Obama and a majority of Americans say we need? He even goes so far as to compare Obama’s inaugural address to McCain supporter Phil Gramm’s offhand comment that we’ve become a “nation of whiners,” while emphasizing that Gramm’s remark was basically a plea to ignore the current problems and just think positive, while Obama’s plea is to make sacrifices to solve those problems.

But do Americans know how to make sacrifices anymore? Do I, individually? And we should keep in mind that “making sacrifices” is a voluntary act, not simply “dealing with” losses we suffer but have had no say in. And, perhaps needless to say, “making sacrifices” means WE sacrifice something, not merely look to others to sacrifice.

Some of the other commentators on Obama’s address last Tuesday have noted that its audience failed to respond to the call for “sacrifice”—a word used only twice in the speech and in both cases comfortably couched in the past tense: our “ancestors” and American soldiers in “Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” But the idea of sacrifice is not far behind the rest of the address, notably in the phrase “the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”

The idea of the “common good” prevailed in olden days. The signers of the Declaration of Independence “mutually” put up “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” as collateral to ensure the independence of the United States from Great Britain. Today, faced with scary economic prospects, how many John Hancocks would put up their weekends, their tax returns, and their partisan political stances to ensure the independence of the United States from its creditors (mainly China, Japan, and the U.K.) or from undue influence of lobbyists for global corporations or from religious fanaticism of every stripe? (Not to mention lobbyists for “special interests” such as my own.)

And do we today even believe that such sacrifice matters? Do we believe it could work? Do we have the confidence the original declarers of independence had that there even exists meaning outside ourselves?

Perhaps more to the point, the point of Fischer’s article anyway, is whether we Americans have become such wusses that the current economic downturn strikes us as much worse than it really is. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, cited by Fischer, our present recession does not stack up impressively against those of 1948 and 1957, much less the Great Depression, the most common historical analogy given as proof of how tough we all have it now. There’s no denying that things are dire and promise to get worse—but is the hand-wringing really called for? Can’t we just buckle down the way previous generations did and tough this thing out?

And even if the perspective of the report resembles Gramm’s can-do Pollyanna-ism (we are, after all, citing the dubious Federal Reserve), might it also be true that the sky is not falling? Or, if it is, that it has fallen much worse on our parents and grandparents, and they were just able to take it better than we are?

And are the solutions being proposed really addressing the larger problem, or do they simply treat the immediate symptoms that the general public are finding so scary? Is a Band Aid from Obama better than George W. Bush “kissing it and making the hurt go away” by telling us to visit Disney World to fight terrorism? “More now than ever,” writes Fischer, “we are confronted by the very real possibility that the system we rely on for our style of living has reached its breaking point.”

We have now had almost two decades to gloat over the failure of Soviet communism (while not being overly impressed by Russian capitalism’s propensity for gangsterism and government corruption). Is it now time for the other shoe to drop? Hasn’t American-style capitalism been limping for quite a while now—hurt either by creeping socialism or more probably, in my opinion, by the rise of consumer capitalism (over an economy based on actual productivity) and the rise of legally protected, publicly irresponsible, government supported, and media controlling corporations?

I’m just asking. And, yes, I’m asking a lot of questions … and giving no real answers. And, in passing, to those—and there are many—who just hate it when people complain about things but have nothing better to offer, I’d like to say, “That’s bullshit, and fuck you.” Asking the right questions is 99% of getting the right answers.

Maybe we Americans are spoiled on easy answers—no-diet, no-exercise fitness plans, and a smiling, cute-though-still-troublingly-Jewy-looking Jesus who is down with suburbia and conspicuous consumption.

Maybe we can’t take the truth, as Jack Nicholson once screamed in a movie. Maybe we face crises now by looking to others to make the sacrifices for us … or by finding bigger, cuddlier daddies to pick us up and promise to fix everything up for us, nice and easy, just the way we always like it.

We have our myths and paladins to remind us of who we once were as Americans. We have our role models even now—“the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” Who and how many among us are really ready to pick up that mantle?

I may be complaining, but at least I’m not whining.

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