Saturday, October 16, 2010


OCTOBER 16, 2010:

For months now I've been preoccupied, reading, trying to think my way through America past and present so that I can begin my next book, all in the midst of an election campaign dominated by the most remarkable crowd of lunatics and clowns this country has ever seen. The political positions are even more irrational than usual, the candidates a depressing bunch of ideologues and shameless liars, and the Tea Party is simply idiotic. It's one thing not to be able to spell--and they're famous for that--but it's quite another to fantasize that we can all can live in a world that vanished in the 1830s. The people who think there's too much government control, too many regulations, too many taxes, etc., will be the first to scream when the lack of protection wipes out their savings, say, or a bigger than usual pothole takes out their rear axle . Why, after all, should the FDIC--that's the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation--insure our bank deposits at all? Isn't that another unnecessary government program? How about we buy private insurance for our bank deposits? We could go back to private roads, too, like the turnpike that a company of entrepreneurs built between here, in Sag Harbor, and East Hampton in the late 1700s. We could all then pay a fee whenever we decided to drive someplace. We would have toll booths, and toll keepers: jobs! Why should there be air traffic controllers for that matter, or National Institutes of Health, or a Library of Congress? The Tea Party doesn't want to improve the world as it is, make things run better, elect smarter people. They want to pretend the world as it is doesn't exist.

It's hard not to see the country declining. I'm a historian, I'm supposed to put current events into perspective, but if you look at the figures, at what's happening to middle class income, which has been stagnant in real dollars since 1973 and actually in decline the last few years, at the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, greater than it has been since the 1920s, at a collapsing infrastructure, at the rate of global warming, at educational achievement, which continues to get worse and worse, the decline of the United States of America is impossible to deny. The mood of the country is not positive. Half the population, according to the latest poll, no longer believes in the American dream, no longer thinks they have much of a chance to do better than their parents, no longer gets starry-eyed about the future.

When the country's political life is so debased it becomes a nuisance and a distraction to pay attention to it, yet how does one not? I am reading books about Richard Nixon and the 1960s and 1970s, about the "meaning" of America, and also about the tone the Spanish first set in the Americas in the early sixteenth century, and you can see threads running from the Spanish obsession with gold and, along with it, failed Spanish attempts to set up utopian governments among the Indians, right through to the explosion of corporate greed on Wall Street during the real estate boom and the last hippie communes of the 1970s. It is a struggle, but I'm beginning to see a pattern. But outside my windows the yelling continues. Part of me thinks, well, let the idiots get into office. Maybe it will wake them up. Maybe they'll understand then that governing a country this huge, this diverse, this contrarious and this complex takes more than slogans and ideologies and mini-think. It takes, more than anything else, intelligence. Then compromise. A certain amount of good will, which includes a willingness to listen, and to think outside their little boxes. And a power of persuasion that goes way beyond singing to their own choir.

But it also takes something more. I think it was Walt Whitman who said that great poetry requires a great audience. So in politics: a great government requires a great electorate. Right now, I see no sign of a great electorate in the uninformed, irrational, angry voters of the United States.