Commentary Magazine


Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Kate Christensen

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?


I’m an optimist by nature, and a comic writer; all my novels, dark as they are, end with an uplift. I believe in sweetness and light. But there are some very good reasons to be direly pessimistic about the future of this country, which has come to feel like an amalgam of corporatocracy, fascist police state, and mini-mall. I feel by turns overwhelmed and angry and worried about the environment, the food industry, corporate greed, and the ballooning (in both senses) population. There are seemingly so many systemic failures that facing and fixing any of them, let alone all of them, feels impossible.

Where to start? Our great Constitution is simultaneously disregarded, on the one hand, in the fearmongering interest of “national security,” and on the other, iron-fistedly brought to bear on Supreme Court decisions that hinder necessary social progress. Monsanto is taking control of agriculture and the food industry with non-propagating seeds and genetically modified “Frankenplants.” Obesity already affects a third of our population, and will likely affect 50 percent of us by 2030. Our population itself is projected to reach 400 million by 2043, doubling in my lifetime. The pursuit of oil and natural gas to meet the energy needs of this growing population threatens what’s left of our environment. Weather patterns are changing in drastic and undeniable ways and, by all reputable accounts, it’s too late to stop them.

Public education is primarily concerned now with teaching kids how to pass multiple-choice tests. Health care and Social Security are unsustainable; we can no longer afford them. Our all-encompassing “culture industry” has proved Theodor Adorno right: popular art seems increasingly to exist primarily to feed market interests, and any potential counterculture is immediately enveloped by the market. Then there’s the growing disparity between rich and poor—when our only agency lies in the dollar, not the vote, only the rich have any power—the skyrocketing debt, the crumbling of basic infrastructures, and the toxic divisiveness of our political culture.

What did I leave out? Oh yes, the economy. It’s bad.

How is any of this ever going to be reversed when all indications are that it’s entrenched and accelerating? The idea of protesting unchecked corporate power strikes me as futile, like punching the Pillsbury Doughboy in the stomach—all you do is bury your arm in corrupt goo, and then you’re stuck trying to pull it out again before it gets swallowed. And, of course, full-out revolution is impossible. There’s nothing to topple. Our government is impotent, and the multinational corporations whose interests it serves are like mutant super-ivy embedding itself into the planet’s surface with enormous stems and horror-movie tentacles.

In the face of this clear and overwhelming and deeply upsetting evidence that we’re already in the handbasket to hell, I see no alternative but to abandon all hope. This breaks my heart. I remember believing as a kid that this was a great country, that America was free and strong and full of possibility. I would love to be optimistic, in the end, about Americans pulling together to overcome any crisis. But I can’t convince myself, much less anyone else, that there’s anything we can do, given what this country has become and what it is further becoming. All I can do is mourn.


Kate Christensen is a novelist and the author, most recently, of The Astral (Doubleday).