Welcome to 2009, the year when it’s suddenly unpatriotic, or at least ill-mannered, to be an optimist. Franklin D. Roosevelt told us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself (cribbing Stonewall Jackson’s warning to “never take counsel with your fears”), and Ronald Reagan reassured us that despite discouraging times, it’s still “morning in America.”
Optimism has always been the engine driving the American dream, but in the wake of bad news, the peddlers of gloom, doom and drear carry the day. The Baltimore Sun greeted the new year with the headline that these are the worst times since the ‘30s, and The Washington Post offered its usual menu of victim stories - five of the seven headlines were about bad things happening to good people - the first among them the news that $6.9 trillion dollars in wealth was wiped out on Wall Street in 2008. It’s true that Wall Street laid a rotten egg, proving once again the adage once heard on the street that “bulls make money, even bears make money, but pigs rarely make money.” Most of the $6.9 trillion were paper profits, profits not taken, and many of us can dine out, if only on cornbread and beans, with horror stories. A pot of beans and a skillet of cornbread hot from the oven is not a bad supper, by the way.
Perhaps Barack Obama will lift the gloom on Inauguration Day, when he walks across the Reflecting Pool without getting his feet wet, and his aides and acolytes walk among the throng with a hot lunch for the multitudes, abundance transformed from five barley loaves and two small fishes just taken from the Potomac. (It’s what real Messiahs do.) But if the peddlers of gloom, doom and drear are correct, we expect too much of a mere president, even of Mr. Obama. Underneath that handsome façade he’s probably only human.
Many, perhaps most, of the doomcriers don’t actually know America very well. James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic, channels someone in the year 2016 looking back on what happened to “the city on the hill.” He sees an America where no one would want to live (or die): bankruptcies of dozens of state and local governments, a shutdown of colleges and universities, legalized prostitution (what’s a girl to do?), the Chinese takeover of the physics, computer-science and biology laboratories at the University of California at Berkeley, and for only 51 percent of the patent royalties. Half of American families will live on less than $50,000 a year, but a year in a private college (this won’t surprise vainglorious parents who know no better than to send their kids to Harvard and Yale) will cost $83,000 a year. The American disease, he writes, is “the sense of sunset, decline, hopelessness.”
If you have an appetite for such fantasies, the result of too much late-night pepperoni pizza, there’s more, from a Russian academic sure that the United States will break up by next year. He even has a map of the boundaries of the four surviving states: the California Republic (including six Western states), the Texas Republic (including everything between Albuquerque and Atlanta), the Central North American Republic and Atlantic America. The prudent among us are pleased that we saved our Confederate money, but this is bad news for both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
Alaska goes back to Russia, Hawaii goes to either Japan or China, robbing Mrs. Palin of her base and casting doubt on a second term for Mr. Obama. He would no longer be a natural born son of America. The news from Moscow gets worse. “California” will be part of China, “Texas” a part of Mexico, “Central North America” will be part of Canada and “Atlantic America” will be part of the European Union, no more important than France or Luxembourg. This sounds like the parlor game it is, but the author of it, Igor Panarin, is an academic once an officer of the KGB, the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s school for diplomats. The Wall Street Journal says he’s taken seriously in Moscow and frequently lectures on how America will soon disintegrate.
The polite word for all of this is, of course, bullshine, peddled before in days of yore. On hearing the news of Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill, who really did know a lot about America, observed that many “silly people” thought America would soon be but “a vague blur on the horizon,” weak, indecisive and inconsequential. “But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. [I knew] that the United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” And that’s no fantasy.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.