From earliest days to modern times, Americans have been pleased to think of themselves as can-do people. Pioneers taming the wilderness, stupendous feats of production by American industry during World War II, astronauts walking on the moon—accomplishments like these sustained the self-image of a nation that prided itself on the capacity to do what it set its mind on.
Now, in perception at least, that seems to have changed. Whether the change will be lasting is impossible to say. But poll results and subjective impressions both point to the conclusion that national self-confidence has been shaken and the national mood darkened.
Among many causes and symbols of this turn of events, three currently stand out: the oil spill and resulting ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the discouraging drift of the war in Afghanistan, and the nagging persistence, at high human cost, of what’s come to be called the Great Recession. Herewith a word about each.
The blow to America’s can-do image delivered by the oil spill goes way beyond the spill itself. Ooze staining beaches and killing birds and marine life along an ever-widening swath of the Gulf Coast undermines Americans’ historic assumption that, when worse came to worst, government would have a solution to every problem, together with a concomitant American faith in technology as a miracle-worker.
Thus, the largest and most powerful lesson of the BP oil disaster so far may be that even though we have the technological capability of digging oil wells a mile under the ocean surface, technology had no clear notion what to do when the fail-safe machinery that was supposed to prevent a spill way down there failed instead. Read the warranty perhaps?
Some day—soon, one trusts—the oil will stop gushing into the Gulf. The war in Afghanistan, now approaching its ninth anniversary, also will end. But as in the Gulf, so also in Afghanistan, the aftermath of our best efforts seems increasingly likely to be—putting it as delicately as possible—a great big mess.
The recent unpleasantness surrounding the publication of foolish remarks by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and some of his associates may or may not have marked a defining moment in the war. We’ll see about that. But it’s already clear that the general’s words captured the mood of frustration shared by many of his countrymen.
Gen. Petraeus may yet turn it around. I hope he does. But the White House has given him only a year to pull it off, and many people fear that won’t be nearly enough to produce lasting results (supposing results both lasting and good are even possible in Afghanistan). Are we watching a replay of Vietnam?
And finally—the economy. An interview by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner seemed to sum it all up. Geithner insisted that the recovery is progressing, albeit slowly. And the national mood? People were “deeply scarred” by the great collapse two years ago, and remain nervous about investing and consuming now.
No doubt that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. A breadwinner out of work may be suffering psychological scars, but he or she would probably rather skip the shrink talk and simply say, “I need a job.” With unemployment over 9%, lots of Americans are saying that.
In none of these areas—the Gulf, Afghanistan, the economy—has America’s can-do spirit been irrevocably vanquished. Not yet. But the damage to morale is real, and is reflected in the nihilistic mood, neither liberal nor truly conservative, currently abroad in the land.