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Peggy Noonan and the American Spirit

August 7th, 2010 - 3:42 pm

I’ve been reading Peggy Noonan’s latest, and it grieves me to find that I’m not convinced. I’m crazy about Peggy, and I have learned a lot from her, but it turns out that we actually live in different universes, and we believe very different things about America. Nothing very surprising there, you will say, and yet there were two themes in Peggy’s weekend ruminations that surprised ME.  A lot.

First, Peggy says that the biggest political change in her lifetime is that “Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did.” I’m not at all convinced that Americans expected things to get better and better, uninterruptedly for the past 200-plus years. I doubt that most Americans felt that way during and after the Civil War, which was, after all, the bloodiest war in the history of the world to date. And I know, first hand, that lots of Americans were awfully gloomy during and after the Second World War.

Nor, it seems to me, were the Depression years particularly upbeat.

I was born a few months before the attack at Pearl Harbor, and my parents often told me that they wondered for many years if they had done the right thing by bringing a child into such a terrible world. Even in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, I daresay that most Americans were deeply concerned about the future, including the American future. Earlier today, in our synagogue, a very wise Rabbi reminisced about his bar mitzvah in 1940. He painted a picture of dark gloom, which to be sure was felt more strongly in the Jewish community than among the Christians, but it was extremely widespread.

It seems to me that it took quite a long time to recover national optimism. As I recall the ’50s, the main themes in popular American literature, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Catcher in the Rye and the “beat” literature of Kerouac and his confreres, were full of alienation, not of “God it’s great to be an American, and our kids are going to have it better than we do.”

I went to college in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I wasn’t at all sure that things were likely to get better in the coming years. My high school guidance counselor told me to forget about going to my number one choice, because of the tiny Jewish quota, most all of which went to legacy applicants. It all worked out, to be sure, but I think my parents were surprised, even though things were certainly easier for me than for them.  Until recently I haven’t had to worry about the country falling apart…

I think there was a brief moment during which Americans deluded themselves into believing that we were part of an irresistible progressive march into the future, until we finally brought an end to history. That particular derangement syndrome, which is very closely linked to a near-epidemic of narcissism, has now thankfully come to an end.

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