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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Eric Ormsby

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?

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When America’s future looks grim—and it’s seldom looked grimmer—I take no comfort in the splenetic pronouncements of talk-show hosts or the equivocations of pundits, all of whom reinforce a stubborn sense of despair. It takes bloody-mindedness to be an optimist. Optimism is a bit like religious belief—a faith in things unseen. But such faith is meaningless if it doesn’t take a hard look at things seen. No harder look has ever been cast on our republic than Walt Whitman’s in the years following the Civil War.

Whitman believed fervently in American spiritual energy, in that astonishing capacity we possess for ceaseless reinvention of ourselves. He had no rosy illusions. America, he warned, could yet prove to be “the most tremendous failure of time.” He wrote inDemocratic Vistas, that scathing prophecy of 1871:

Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings) nor is humanity itself believed in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantoms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable.

I’ve lived abroad now for some 25 years, and my perspective on America may be skewed. But it isn’t the obvious dangers that America faces—terrorist attack, fiscal collapse—that most get me down but something humbler, less catastrophic, and yet more insidious. I think of it as the death of discourse. Nowadays, even among friends, a dissenting opinion is met not with rebuttal or debate but with stony silence or Whitman’s “melodramatic screamings.” The purpose of conversation on any serious topic is no longer a “mass of badinage” but an occasion for sniffing out “deviant” views and affixing labels.

I grew up in the South in the bad old times. During Sunday dinners, my family, all Atlanta-born, refought the Civil War, sometimes bitterly. My mother and brother and I displayed disagreeable “Yankee” tendencies: we proclaimed segregation evil. When I went so far as to praise William Tecumseh Sherman, a mighty rumpus ensued. Still, we voiced our beliefs, we raged and we wrangled, and in the end we were reconciled in mutual affection. What has happened in America that no common ground—the simple assumption of good faith, if not of affection—seems open for civil discourse?

If I remain optimistic about the future of America, even against the odds, it’s because I share Walt Whitman’s belief that we still provide “full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” But for that to occur, we need to learn how to listen to one another once again.

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Eric Ormsby is a writer in London whose most recent books include Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (Porcupine’s Quill) and The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems (Carcanet).


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