We’ve started a joke with some of our friends, where whenever someone gets a bit dramatic about their daily struggles, whether it’s a late dinner or a baby who won’t sleep or traffic on the freeway, we all sigh and say, “well, you know, in THIS economy…” It’s purposefully over-the-top and we all laugh knowingly, at ourselves and at the talking heads who constantly tell us that we’re incapable, that life is bad, that America is on the brink of disaster, or worse, is declining and will continue to do so, with no end in sight.
But I’ve started thinking about this problem, about the pessimism that now dogs our steps after five years of recession and four years of Obamanomics. It seems to me that we accept the political line about the economy bouncing back and jobs returning, but then we don’t believe it, because the same people who insist they want jobs created are taxing small business owners, increasing welfare, upping regulations and imposing massive taxes on those of us who do work.
As a result, it’s become sexy and trendy to talk of not working as a virtue, as a new wave that will someday be accepted by everyone, where we can all live lives of quiet comfort on someone else’s dime. It’s virtuous to not care about success or ambition, but to spend our days in coffeeshops and art galleries, disdainfully looking down at the people who spend their days cleaning up after us or hurrying by us on their way to work.
You can read the cultural shift easily enough – our great achievements are much smaller now, measured in the number of weeks we can collect unemployment or the Twitter followers we have. We want to seem well-read without really working at it or reading anything longer than 2000 words. (Yes, I see the irony is writing a blog-post to say that…)
We want our kids to be educated but we don’t want to ask uncomfortable questions. We want to be seen as caring and popular more than we want to make sense. All of this people-pleasing and pop-culture addiction springs out of a sense of decline – we feel it’s not worth risking our reputations or cool factor on a losing fight, on standing up for an America that’s already changed more in our lifetimes than in the previous 200 years, an America that is neither shining nor exceptional, but one that plods along in mindless buzz-words, endless pessimism, sarcasm and nihilistic selfishness.
I see this America, the one I am now writing about, every day. I see it on the nightly news, I see it in our friends who’ve given up looking for work, I see it in pop culture, in shows and music where the snark hangs so thick that the heart is completely shriveled away. When I write out what I see, I’m forced to face it, and to make a choice.
Do I want to live in an America that says it’s OK to not work and not care and still magically get a paycheck? Do I want to give in to the demon who says “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? Do I want to have children, only to bequeath to them this gray reality I’ve created, where achievement, patriotism and responsibility are all but extinct?
I want the America of my grandparents – both of whom had polio as children and were in wheelchairs most of their lives – but who owned their own business and raised four kids in a house that they lovingly built together, with no hand-outs from anyone and no sob story to the nightly news. I want the America that I fell in love with as a teenager – where farmers and ranchers and mechanics are the Salt of the Earth – beloved and celebrated for their industry, the long hours they devote to a craft that is increasingly punished and unpopular. I want the America that tells kids they can do anything, be anything – including a millionaire or a welder; the America that doesn’t insist that a four-year business degree and a cubicle is the only path to success, or that life is too hard “in this economy” to live out our dreams. I want the America that is proud of her heritage and her stars and stripes, who doesn’t bow down to every sniveling sensibility but stands up for justice and truth.
The America I know – not the one I’ve gotten used to lately – but the one I remember when the fireworks light up the night in July, when I see a yellow ribbon on the bumper of the car in front of mine, when we pause for the Olympics and we swell with national pride from sea to shining sea – would never put up the pessimism and decline we live in now for longer than a moment. We’re better than this, friends. Our kids deserve better than our wallowing, and our country deserves better than our ambivalence. It’s time to get to work to redeem her, and, in the process, to redeem ourselves.