This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn’t anybody say so? We are no longer in grave danger of the atomic war which, for nearly fifty years, threatened to annihilate humanity and otherwise upset everyone’s weekend plans. The nasty, powerful, and belligerent empire that was the Soviet Union has fallen apart. It’s nothing now but a space on the map full of quarreling nationalities with too many ks and zs in their names—armed Scrabble contestants. The other great malevolent regime of recent days, Red China, has decided upon conquest of the world’s shower flip-flop market as its form of global domination. The bad political ideas that have menaced our century—Fascism, Communism, Ted Kennedy for President—are in retreat. Colonialism has disappeared, and hence the residents of nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface are being spared visits from Princess Di. The last place on the planet where white supremacy held sway has elected a president of rich, dark hue. Apartheid-style racism is now relegated to a few pitiful and insignificant venues such as the U.S. Senate (and, if you think Caucasians have any claim to genetic superiority, imagine majoring in U.S. Senate Studies). Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things.
Things are better than they were only a few years ago. Things are better, in fact, than they were at 9:30 this morning, thanks to Tylenol and two Bloody Marys.
But that’s personal and history is general. It’s always possible to come down with the mumps on V-J Day or to have, right in the middle of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a piece of it fall on your foot. In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: “Dentistry.”
WE KNOW THE TRUTH of these matters from stories we’ve heard in our own homes. Existence has improved enormously within the lifetimes of our immediate family members. My Grandfather O’Rourke was born in 1877 and born into a pretty awful world, even if we don’t credit all of his Irish embroidery upon the horrors. The average wage was little more than a dollar a day. That’s if you worked. O’Rourkes were not known to do so. The majority of people were farmers, and do you know what time cows get up in the morning?
Women couldn’t vote, not even incredibly intelligent First Ladies who were their own people and had amazing inner strength plus good luck playing the cattle futures market. (For all we know, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes had quite an eye for beef on the hoof.)
Without voting First Ladies, there was no health-care reform. Of course, there was also no health care. And not much health. Illness was ever-present. And the most trivial infection might prove fatal. The germ theory of disease as argued by Pasteur was just another wacky French idea with no more effect on the people of the 1870s than Deconstructionism has on us. Men customarily wed multiple wives, not by way of philandering but because of deaths in childbirth. The children died, too, sometimes before a suitable foot-long nineteenth-century name could be given them. A walk through an old graveyard shows our ancestors often had more dead children than we have live ones.
Pollution was unchecked and mostly unthought of. Sewage was considered treated if dumped in a river. Personal hygiene was practiced, when at all, on the face, neck, and hands up to the wrists. My mother’s mother (from the indoor-plumbing side of the family) said that, when she was little, a hired girl had told her to always wear at least one piece of clothing when washing herself “because a lady never gets completely undressed.”
Everything was worse for everybody. Blacks could no more vote than women could and were prevented from doing so by more violent means. About 10 percent of America’s population had been born in slavery. “Coon,” “kike,” “harp,” and “spic” were conversational terms. It was a world in which “nigger” was not a taboo name, but the second half of “Beavis and Butt-Head” would have been.
Nowadays we can hardly count our blessings, one of which is surely that we don’t have to do all that counting—computers do it for us. Information is easily had. Education is readily available. Opportunity knocks, it jiggles the doorknob, it will try the window if we don’t have the alarm system on.
The highest standards of luxury and comfort, as known only to the ridiculously wealthy a few generations ago, would hardly do on a modern white-water rafting trip. Our clothing is more comfortable, our abodes are warmer, better-smelling, and vermin-free. Our food is fresher. Our lights are brighter. Travel is swift. And communication is sure.
Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner’s Ring cycle takes four days to perform while “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.
Life is sweet. But you could spend a long time reading, going to the movies, and watching TV and not hear this mentioned. Especially, watching daytime TV. Of course, if you’re watching a lot of daytime TV your life probably is dreadful. But, as I pointed out, that’s your problem, not history’s. History is on a roll, a toot, a bender. No doubt it will all come crashing down around our ears one day when a comet hits the earth or Sally Jessy Raphael becomes Chief Justice of the United States. But, in the meantime, we should be enjoying ourselves, and we are not.
I HEAR AMERICA WHINING, crybaby to the world. I behold my country in a pet beefing, carping, crabbing, bitching, sniveling, mewling, fretting, yawping, bellyaching, and being pickle-pussed. A colossus that stood astride the earth now lies on the floor pounding its fists and kicking its feet, transformed into a fussy-pants and a sputterbudget. The streets of the New World are paved with onions. Everybody’s got a squawk. We have become a nation of calamity howlers, crêpe hangers, sour guts, and mopes—a land with the grumbles.
On the Fourth of July 1993, the lead story on the front page of the Boston Globe read:
The country that celebrates its 217th birthday today is free, at peace, relatively prosperous—but deeply anxious. . . . the American people are troubled, beset by doubts, full of anger.
And any peek into the media produces examples in plenty of the same sobs and groans, often from improbable Jeremiahs.
In the April 24, 1994 issue of the New York Times Book Review, Fran R. Schumer made reference to “the modern era, when anomie, caused by any number of factors—the decline of religion and community, the anonymity of modern life gave rise to selfish, obsessive, 20th-century man.” Ms. Schumer writes the “Underground Gourmet” column for New York magazine. All she was doing in the NYTBR was reviewing a book about food.
“In a world with the cosmic staggers, where the Four Horsemen . . . are on an outright rampage” began a profile of harmless comedian Jerry Seinfeld in the May 1994 Vanity Fair.
“Ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market and fear of intimacy confronting his generation” is how that journal of deep thinking, People, describes the subject matter of Douglas Coupland, latest young writer to complain his way to literary prominence. Coupland’s first novel, Generation X, was a detailed account of how wretched and lousy life is for middle-class white kids born after 1960. “Our Parents Had More” is the title of chapter two.
In case you missed the point (or fell asleep while the plot ossified), Coupland included several pages of depressing statistics at the back of Generation X. For example, according to a Time/CNN telephone poll taken in June of 1990, 65 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Americans agree that “given the way things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations.” Of course, it’s difficult for these youngsters to know if they’re going to live as comfortably as their parents did because the kids are so immobilized by despair over ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market, and fear of intimacy that they’re all still living at home.
But William T. Vollmann—the youthful author of An Afghanistan Picture Show, Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and numerous other books (who has been acclaimed a genius by the sort of people who acclaim those things)— knows it will take more than a split-level in the suburbs to redeem our ghastly existences. “I’d say the biggest hope that we have right now is the AIDS epidemic,” Vollmann told Michael Coffey in the July 13, 1992 issue of Publishers Weekly. “Maybe the best thing that could happen would be if it were to wipe out half or two-thirds of the people in the world. Then the ones who survived would just be so busy getting things together that they’d have to help each other, and in time the world would recover ecologically, too.”
MAYBE WE SHOULD also take dope. Listening to Prozac, by Peter Kramer, spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list. An article in the May 5, 1994 “Drugs in America” special issue of Rolling Stone said, “Given the psychic condition of the nation today [heroin] may be just what the doctor ordered. ‘With heroin,’ as a former user points out, ‘your life can be falling apart around you and everything’s still fine with you.”
But no. It’s worse than that. Being and creation are so horrible, even heroin can’t make them better. Otherwise Nirvana lead caterwaul Kurt Cobain would still be with us. And what a tortured cry of existential despair that was when Kurt took a twenty-gauge and splattered his brains, or whatever it was he had in his skull, all over the Cobain guest house.
“That was his message, that life is futile,” a 26-year-old named Bob Hince told Washington Post reporter Jonathan Freedland. Freedland was writing a feature piece for the April 24, 1994 Sunday Show section titled “Generation Hex.” He found Mr. Hince drinking in one of the Seattle bars where Nirvana got its start. “We all feel the monotony, we all feel we cannot control our circumstances,” said Mr. Hince, who is clearly a spokesperson not just for his generation but for all of America and maybe for space aliens.
Freedland reported that “[Hince] has completed six years of study in molecular biology but is now headed for Alaska to work as a salmon fisherman. His dyed red hair nearly covers his eyes, falling behind the lenses of his retro, Buddy Holly glasses. “It’s just ambivalence,” he says. “What am I supposed to be?”
Personally, I think Bob Hince won’t have to worry about what he’ll be if the people who paid for his six years of studying molecular biology get their hands on him. But, as Nirvana would say, “Never mind.” The whole world is rotten. Everything stinks. Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. My name is Legion. I’ll be your server tonight. The special is worms.
Why are we so unhappy? Is it, as that Cassandra of food critics, Fran R. Schumer, would have it, “anomie” caused by “the decline of religion and community”? Sure. Going to church was always one of my favorite things to do. Zoning board meetings are also a blast. And what is it with this anomie stuff anyway? We all know perfectly well we’ve got no idea what the word means. We might just as well say we’re suffering from yohimbine or rigadoon or Fibonacci sequence.
Are we disheartened by the breakup of the family? Nobody who ever met my family is.
Are we depressed by lower expectations? Back in the sixties I expected Permanent Woodstock—a whole lifetime of sitting in the mud, smoking Oaxacan ditch weed, listening to amplifier feedback, and pawing a Long Island chiropodist’s daughter who thought she’d been abducted by creatures from outer space. Show me somebody with lower expectations than mine.
HERE WE’VE GOT all this material well-being, liberty, and good luck, and we’re still our crummy old selves—flabby around the middle, limited out on our VISA cards. The job is a bore. The house is a mess. And “Melrose Place” is in reruns. It’s not our fault, it’s life’s. The world is an awful place so we’re not much good either.
Fretting makes us important. Say you’re an adult male and you’re skipping down the street whistling “Last Train to Clarksville.” People will call you a fool. But lean over to the person next to you on a subway and say, “How can you smile while innocents are dying in Tibet?” You’ll acquire a reputation for great seriousness and also more room to sit down.
And worrying is less work than doing something to fix the worry. This is especially true if we’re careful to pick the biggest possible problems to worry about. Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.
Thus, in fin de siecle civilization, we find ourselves with grave, momentous concerns galore. The Clinton State Department has created a position of Worry-Wart-in-Charge, an “undersecretary of global affairs” who is to be responsible for “worldwide programs in human rights, the environment, population control and anti-narcotics efforts.” Timothy E. Wirth, nominee for this dreary post, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fussed Wirth, “Growth that is all-too-capable of doubling—even tripling—today’s global population in the next century is already a force contributing to violent disorder and mass dislocations in resource-poor societies. Some of the resulting refugees are our near neighbors.” Oh those massively dislocated Nova Scotians, breeding like mink. “Other refugees-in-waiting,” said Wirth, “press hungrily against the fabric of social and political stability around the world.” And that suit’s going to have to go to the cleaner’s.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions, meeting in Chicago in 1993, issued a statement called “Towards a Global Ethic” that opined, “We must move beyond the dominance of greed for power, prestige, money and consumption to make a just and peaceful world.” A just and peaceful world full of powerless nobodies who are broke and have empty shopping malls.
On Earth Day, 1994, the National Council of Churches suggested that Protestants make a “confession of environmental sins”: “We use more than our share of the Earth’s resources. We are responsible for massive pollution of earth, water and sky. We thoughtlessly drop garbage around our homes, schools, churches, places of work, and places of play.” (Which is why Episcopalian neighborhoods are always such dumps.)
Everywhere we see the imposition of grave concern into the most mundane and trivial aspects of life. Lightning Comics, a Detroit publisher of funny books, has created a super hero, Bloodfire, who is HIV positive. Which should cool Lois Lane.
A TV revival of “Bonanza” had as its villain a man who wanted to strip-mine the Ponderosa.
Hanna-Barbera has a “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” cartoon about saving the you-know-what. Margot Kidder supplies the voice of “Gaia,” the Spirit of the Earth. “I am worried about the planet for my daughter’s future,” announced Kidder in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Kidder said her daughter had once told her, “Mom, when we grow up, the world may not be here.”
The May 1994 issue of Barbie comics, featuring the adventures of the doll by that name, had a story about how deaf people are discriminated against. There was a page at the end where Barbie gave a lesson in sign language, showing us the signs for “push-up bra,” “Let’s go shopping,” and “diamond tennis bracelet from middle-aged gentleman admirer.” Just kidding. Barbie showed us the signs for “Friend,” “Hello,” “Thanks,” and that sort of thing.
THE APRIL 1994 ISSUE of Washingtonian ran an article by my friend Andrew Ferguson about corporate “multicultural training.” Andy quoted one of the trainers (or facilitators, as they like to be called), whose job it is to instill “sensitivity” about age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and the kitchen sink into employees of Washington businesses:
“It’s a function of capitalism, isn’t it?” says the facilitator. “Capitalism requires scarcity to function. It’s built into the system—no scarcity, no profit.
“That’s the kind of power relationships capitalism creates. Sharing power is not something a male-dominated culture naturally gravitates towards, is it?”
The facilitator, a male, was being paid $2,000 a day.
And here is my favorite tale of pained solicitude, from an AP wire story that appeared in the Arab News in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, and which I have been saving ever since:
Game wardens and wildlife biologists were among those gathered for nearly eight hours on a farm in northwestern Louisiana to save what they thought was a bear 50 to 60 feet up in a pine tree. A veterinarian fired tranquilizer darts at the critter in an effort to get it down. Deputies and wildlife agents strung a net to catch the bear when the tranquilizers took effect. . . . “People really wanted . . . to help and protect that bear and get him where he was supposed to be,” Norman Gordan, the owner of the farm said. . . . It wasn’t until the tree was chopped down . . . that they discovered they were rescuing a dart-riddled garbage bag.
Some of the folks propounding the above-listed anxieties, cavils, and peeves are amateurs: New Agers who will believe in anything but facts, environmentalist softies who think the white rats should be running the cancer labs, or bong-smoke theorists who would have the world be as stupid as they are. But many of the fretful—the “multicultural training facilitator” is an appalling example—are pros. Professional worriers put our fears to use. Masters of Sanctimony have an agenda. The licensed and certified holier- than-thou work toward a political goal. And whether these agony merchants are leftists (as they usually are) or rightists (as they certainly can be) or whether they head off in some other and worse direction (the way religious fundamentalists do), the political goal is the same.
In fact, if we use the word politics in its broadest sense, there really is only one political goal in the world. Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit. A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty—their power and privilege—to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by … politicians.
Politicians are always searching for some grave alarm that will cause individuals to abandon their separate concerns and prerogatives and act in concert so that politicians can wield the baton. Calls to mortal combat are forever being sounded (though only metaphorically—politicians don’t like real wars, too much merit is involved). The idea is that people will drop everything for a WWII. Remember the War on Poverty? And how Jimmy Carter asked Americans to respond to a mere rise in the price of crude oil with “the moral equivalent of war”? (What were we supposed to do, shame the gas station attendant to death?) Now we’re “fighting pollution,” “battling AIDS,” “conquering racism,” et cetera.
Ralph Nader is as much a politician as Senator Robert Packwood, even if Ralph isn’t as smooth with the ladies. Such professional worriers as Al Gore, Paul Ehrlich, Jeremy Rifkin, Joycelyn Elders, Barry Commoner, Jesse Jackson, and Captain Planet want our freedom, on the grounds that they are better than us. (You may have noticed how politicians are wiser, kinder, and more honest than you are.) Because politicians worry so much about overpopulation, famine, ecological disaster, ethnic hatred, plague, and poverty, they must be superior people. And because they worry so much, they must be experts, too. (Said the Austrian political economist Friedrich Hayek, in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom: “There could hardly be a more unbearable—and more irrational—world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realization of their ideals.”)
The bullying of fellow citizens by means of dreads and frights has been going on since paleolithic times. Greenpeace fund-raisers on the subject of global warming are not much different than tribal wizards on the subject of lunar eclipses. “Oh, no, the Night Wolf is eating the Moon Virgin. Give me silver and I will make him spit her out.”
THE GRAVE WORRIES facing the world today mostly don’t have solutions. That is, they don’t have solutions outside ourselves. We can’t vote our troubles away. Or mail them to Washington either. We can’t give fifty dollars to the Sierra Club, read Douglas Coupland, and sing the Captain Planet theme song and set everything right. Instead we have to accept the undramatic and often extremely boring duties of working hard, exercising self-control, taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, being kind, and practicing as much private morality as we can stand without popping.
To the extent that our worries do have public, collective solutions, the solutions are quite simple. Though, like many simple things (faith, grace, love, soufflés), they are difficult to achieve. It was Thomas Robert Malthus himself, arguably the father of modern worrying, who set forth these solutions in the 1803 revision of his Essay on the Principle of Population:
The first grand requisite to the growth of prudential habits is the perfect security of property; and the next perhaps is that respectability and importance which are given to the lower classes by equal laws, and the possession of some influence in the framing of them.
We have been miserably deficient in the instruction of the poor, perhaps the only means of really raising their condition.
Property rights, rule of law, responsible government, and universal education: that’s all we need. Though no society has achieved these perfectly. Our own nation is notably lacking on the fourth point. (And such things as huge federal regulatory agencies and the Menendez jury aren’t helping items one through three.)
Let us seek out the worries but avoid the worriers. They are haters of liberty and loathers of individuals. They wish to politicize everything. Imagine Bill Clinton conducting your love life for you. And watch out, he may be trying to.
To quote Malthus again:
The most successful supporters of tyranny are without doubt those general declaimers who attribute the distresses of the poor, and almost all the evils to which society is subject, to human institutions and the iniquity of governments.
We should wipe the Gnostic smirk of self-righteousness off the faces of the moral buttinskis. Anyone who thinks he has a better idea of what’s good for people than people do is a swine. Let’s give the professional worriers something to worry about. (And memo to Generation X: Pull your pants up, turn your hat around, and get a job.)