Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reflections at Seventy-Two

(Painting by Theodoros Stamos)

People never read books, they can't concentrate on anything significant for more than a minute or two, and as a result they don't really think anymore. Lulled by the "pacifier" of "infotainment," their civic and political decisions emerge from a confused welter of laziness, reckless emotion and prejudice. --Laura Miller, in a review of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (

“We’re gonna change our country. We’re gonna change the world,” President Barack Obama promised on the campaign trail. He has been in office for less than a year and the country has fallen deeper into recession. Unemployment has sky-rocketed, health care reform appears less achievable, and we are still mired in two unwinnable wars. What has changed in America is that the anger and despair that reached a boiling point under the failed Bush administration and seemed for a while to abate following the hopefulness of Obama’s victory, has returned, affecting the president’s approval ratings and fueling a Republican-led reaction to his policies, extending the fear-mongering of George Bush’s “war on terror” to encompass the domestic health care debate, which we are threatened will result in “socialism” and “death panels.”

Though it may be too soon to judge the president, perhaps we expected too much. Perhaps he promised more than any president could deliver at a time of economic collapse and failure of public will and intellect. After all, he has had eight years of Bush’s misguided neo-conservatism to overcome, not to speak of the Reagan-inspired hatred of government that has permeated our public discourse since the 1980s. And no sooner was he elected than the soundly defeated Republican minority set out to undermine his presidency just as they did with Bill Clinton, driving Clinton ever further to the right.

I reflect on this national disappointment as I turn seventy-two. It saddens me that the man I admired and voted for has not been able to bring the country together after what was arguably the most divisive presidency in our history. To be sure, a year is a short time when measured against the decades of events and policies that have set left against right, region against region and citizen against citizen. We don’t trust each other as Americans any more than we trust our elected officials or the political parties they represent. Nevertheless, I do not believe that government is the enemy. While it cannot solve all of our problems, there is a strong and positive history of the benefits of government intervention during hard times in America, not the least of which were the social and economic initiatives of the New Deal era, which should offer more guidance than they appear to be offering the present administration. For example, with unemployment at such a high level why is Obama not thinking about a new WPA? And what about the success of the CETA employment and training programs of the 1970s that put millions of younger and older unemployed to work, many of them in government-subsidized private-sector jobs that led to new careers?

I must confess that at my age I have lost much of my stomach for politics. My activism is confined to local issues—the preservation of the fishing industry and Gloucester’s working waterfront; the push to bring new marine-related industry to the city—and I am grateful to be working together in my own community with people I deeply admire, who wish to achieve these goals while retaining the city’s historic character, natural beauty and unique folkways.

Americans should be smarter than we’re demonstrating ourselves to be about the importance of establishing a national health care policy, the benefits of which are enjoyed in varying forms by citizens of every major industrial nation except ours. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be misled by misinformation about a “government health care option,” (I’ve been on Medicare for seven years and I have nothing but praise for this government-run health insurance program), or about the Obama administration’s attempt to bail-out failing banks or our automotive industry. Government spending to offset recession and corporate failures is alarmingly high. The national debt is at an all-time level. But these desperate measures have been supported by economists of diverse points of view, and there has seemed little else that could have been done to turn a failing economy around. Unhelpfully, in its attempt to frame every event in terms of conflict, the media has concentrated on corporate bonuses rather than helping viewers to understand the roots of the crisis in lack of government oversight and uncontained greed. The signs of the present economic collapse could be read years ago, we are now told. Why is it that except for a few articles in specialized publications the general public was not apprised of the looming crisis?

Our news and information media have failed us just as our elected representatives have, along with institutions like our public education system, which a free society depends upon for the nurturing of citizens who are able to think critically and act responsibly. And our political system—democracy itself—has especially failed us, as one instance of corruption after another is revealed, while lobbyists for every corporate interest exert more powerful influence than ever on elected officials (the New York Times recently revealed that lobbyists for a bio-tech conglomerate actually drafted testimony presented by members of Congress in the current debate over the House’s health care reform bill). No wonder people despair—no wonder they lose themselves in every conceivable form of hedonism, from mindless consumption to pornography.

But at seventy-two I do not wish to present myself as a crotchety, disaffected old man, a crank. I’m understandably disappointed at the turn of political events, saddened by what I see as the dumbing down of our culture and institutions of learning, the schools and libraries we depend upon to help us understand the world we live in, the publishers who give obscene advances to moronic celebrities and air-headed political figures for ghost-written memoirs, while many of our best writers are dropped from their lists or forced into silence or self-publication. A free society depends upon the production and dissemination of a vigorous literature and social criticism, of visual art that excites and stimulates our imaginations while encouraging us to express ourselves with greater freedom of thought and action. The fact that publishers mostly accept books they feel will appeal to a mass market, instead of challenging readers to think and grow in new ways, is a form of censorship that should be resisted (I’ve often wondered what might happen if writers went on strike and readers quit buying books).

Many of us hoped that the collapse of financial markets a year ago, the bank failures, housing foreclosures, and the concomitant recession, might have helped people to change their habits of thought and consumption, reflecting on how we got into the mess we were in and how to avoid its repetition. We were foolish enough to believe that people might begin to live more simply and thoughtfully. We hoped for a return to a more private life, in which individuals and families would turn to each other for sustenance, spending time in joint activities instead of at the local mall. But anyone who has visited a mall recently or gone out to eat will find that the shopping centers and restaurants are just as busy as they were before the recession. Truly, it’s as if there had been no recession after all, though millions remain unemployed. Are we therefore all suffering from a form of national denial? Has there indeed been a dramatic change in our economic lives which hasn’t quite penetrated, or were we merely absorbed in a reality TV show about the collapse of the world economy?

I don’t know if I have added anything new to what I wrote two years ago in a series of reflections upon turning seventy, nor do I think I’ve said it better or more felicitously. My agitation over the state of my country makes it harder for me to write with ease or cogency, or even to think in any kind of repose. TV network news shows continue to package and oversimplify the events of the world as they filter down to us, creating easily consumable narratives instead of directly presenting facts and reports to help us form our own judgments of events. CNN gives us the talking heads—left, right, front, center—each canceling the other out in their banality and triviality. Except for Frontline, Now and Bill Moyers' Journal, PBS is earnest but boring, having long been stripped of its diversity of opinion and approach by conservative legislators. And there are the blogs—so many contributors, manic and quirky, knowledgeable and empty-headed, all striving to catch our attention as we browse the vast stretches of the Internet. If TV was once characterized as a waste-land, the Net is a black hole.

The narratives we are living with now—especially the ones that are created, elaborated and imposed on us by the producers of nightly TV news, and the dominant narratives so dear to editors seeking books to fulfill the clich├ęd paradigms of trauma and recovery they wish to sell to audiences they have either forced to accept by default or believe they hunger for—have to be subverted and undermined, if not destroyed, if we are to achieve any growth as individuals or a nation. We need new narratives and only a radically new art can create them; for what we have now is narrative by imposition, or, like the selling of the war in Iraq, narrative by stealth. Noam Chomsky once wrote that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth and expose lies.” I would add today that it is the responsibility of writers and artists to provide us with new paradigms: radically innovative narratives and art forms. Perhaps this is one way we might begin to change our country and the world, not only through political action but through stories that will animate the struggles we initiate.

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