Self-Affirmation in Hard Times

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In the wake of nearly constant bad news for the U.S. economy – reported job losses, failing banks and insurers, stock market volatility, poor retail numbers, ominous pronouncements about low “consumer confidence” – many Americans might be wondering what politicians mean when, on the campaign trail and off, they invoke iterations of America’s claim as the embodiment of the Disney slogan: “the best place on earth” (a claim, incidentally, made also by places as diverse as British Columbia, Jamaica, Iceland, and Puerto Vallarta). We can accept – and even occasionally indulge ourselves in – hyperbole of this variety in the context of stump speeches and whistle-stop rallies openly designed to pique emotions and galvanize basic loyalties. But what are we to make of POTUS standing in front of a special joint session of Congress, prime time, on national television, and serving up a greasy whopper like this:

The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and our universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history, we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more. (February 24, 2009)

Make that a double whopper with cheese and fries, and might as well supersize it while we’re at it. Did he actually say “the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history”? Yes he did, and apparently, yes we can. Of course, we are accustomed to presidential mythmaking and brazen self-congratulation from both parties, but this one tips the scales into the realm of the absurd. In making his case for forging new free trade agreements (with South Korea, Panama, Columbia), our former POTUS was fond of “explaining . . . to the American people, why competition is important, and why America can compete with anybody, anytime, anywhere, and why it’s in our interest to do so” (January 30, 2007). And POTUS and his former rival, John McCain, both routinely made superlative claims about America’s various top positions “in the world” and “on earth” on the campaign trail. But “the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history”? Even deposed neoconservative acolytes like Douglas Feith and Richard Perle must be blushing.

But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before. (February 24, 2009)

If the increasing grandiosity of self-affirmation in our political rhetoric serves as a measure of our existential insecurity, we might have reason to worry. Cold War discourse drifted this way. John F. Kennedy no doubt found himself in a similar position regarding the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, intoning America’s imminent entry into a New Frontier in 1960, and suddenly, it seemed, through fatherly encouragement from the Oval Office and generous funding from the Pentagon and its subsidiaries, America buckled down and invested seriously in education, scientific research, the development of new technologies, and general advancement, all aimed at beating the Russians into space and retaining the psychology of ascendancy required of any self-respecting superpower. Now that the blessed free market and increased liberty have saddled the Russians with oligarchic corruption and widespread brain drain, America, despite its growing list of permanent client-states, needs a new adversary to light the fires of healthy competition.

We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century. And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy-efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea. Well, I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders, and I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again. (February 24, 2009)

It may not surprise anyone at this point, but even India, which like China is by demographic necessity investing heavily in wind and solar energy, isn’t just a country of “slumdogs” and millionaires; a burgeoning middle class of some 80 million strong (that’s the size of Germany) there is living comfortably, buying cars and other durables, owning houses, and taking vacations. Economies of scale seem to point in the easterly direction for leadership – economic and technological – in the 21st century. What we’ve got, on the other hand, is a big, bloated military and no fewer than 761 foreign bases around the globe to garrison and maintain. Will military might be sufficient basis to garner the kind of world leadership POTUS dreams of as the American birthright? The facts on the ground are not encouraging.

Can you guess which POTUS said the following, with respect to another “turning point in our history”?

[T]oo many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. . . . There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility.

Jimmy Carter tried in 1979 (unemployment: 7 percent) to speak honestly of the “crisis of confidence” that plagued America as the booming post-war empire of production gave way to an insatiable empire of consumption that was straining budgets and revealing fundamental weaknesses. He warned that we might have to learn to make do with less and focus on rebuilding lives of quality not quantity; voters promptly rewarded him with a crushing electoral defeat and the calumnious (if superficial) designation of “failed president.” Candor, it turns out, does not pay high dividends.

Did Carter’s mistake help forge a precedent for presidential discourse that shields its audience from the dose of salutary realism it sorely needs? Are we now paying the belated price for Reagan’s “morning in America” and the devil-may-care profligacy of the 1980s?

In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand. (February 24, 2009)

Thirty years after Carter’s warning, when the situation – at least pertaining to energy, if not unemployment – seems so much more dire and pressing, we might do well to resume Carter’s thesis and begin the process of reckoning with the consequences of our ways. Will POTUS have the courage to shepherd us through a systemic revision that will surely involve some degree of shared pain and sacrifice and a form of patriotism that reaches beyond bumper-stickers, fireworks, and flags? More importantly, will we – ordinary citizens – show the courage (and resolve) to accept the personal responsibility that POTUS’s rhetoric and this new era demand of us?

Speaking of our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decisionmaking and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a retooled, reimagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it; scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the Nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it. (February 24, 2009)

Ailing empires talk this way, and POTUS knows it. Like fourth-century Romans reminding themselves of their historic achievements in road-building, aqueduct networking, and the military triumphs of yore, while domestic grain fields lay fallow and barbarians huddled at the gates, like 16th-century popes preaching of the “one true faith” and building lavish cathedrals to prove it while entire chunks of Europe fell under the sway of Lutheranism and “other heresies,” POTUS brings the Good News to those who need to hear it in the Land of McMyths and Narratives of Convenience and Comfort. Perhaps this time, grand gestures from the leader of the self-proclaimed free world get us more than expensive space toys, a tremendous but unused nuclear arsenal, and a big rock candy mountain of debt. In the meantime, duty obliges us to recognize that it was Karl Benz, a German, who invented the automobile.

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One Response to Self-Affirmation in Hard Times

  1. Les Plewa says:

    Yes, self-affirmations are needed when individuals (countries) lack the knowledge and experience to accomplish difficult tasks. Self-affirmations keep awareness on “yes we can” instead of the 13-foot wave of financial chaos, corruption, break down of social institutions, irreversible environmental damage, learned helplessness and violence. Ladies and gentlemen, get your surfboards out; it is going to be one big wave. My only solace is that after every storm, the warmth of the sun is a welcoming experience.
    Josh, you remind me of a philosopher king from Kallipolis.

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