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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Brooke Allen

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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I am pessimistic. Let me count the ways!

First of all, there is our government: no longer merely dysfunctional, it has now entirely ceased to operate in a coherent manner. The sorry spectacle of the impasse on Capitol Hill over the summer disgusted the American electorate, a majority of whom now believes Congress should simply be dismissed. It has become all too apparent that, with a few valiant, struggling exceptions, the members of Congress no longer represent their constituents and have been bought and paid for by various corporate powers and financial institutions. Perhaps we should require them all to wear uniforms with logos, like NASCAR drivers, so that we can identify their corporate sponsors. The fact that a significant majority of American voters would like to raise taxes for the very rich and to preserve Medicaid and Medicare, while Congress is swinging in the opposite direction, is proof enough that they’ve stopped representing us.

And what about our national debt? Congress can bicker over limiting “entitlements” all they want, but the problem cannot be resolved without overhauling the health-care system and radically reducing military engagements—issues that our government’s corporate and military-industrial sponsors will not allow onto the table. The total price tag for the Bush/Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now estimated at something between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, if one counts the medical costs of caring for maimed and traumatized veterans.

As for unemployment: even if our Democratic president came up with a truly brilliant jobs program and our Republican-led Congress actually passed it, we would still be dealing with the basic facts that industrial and manufacturing jobs are disappearing and much of the American workforce is not prepared for the new information-technology jobs that are coming along. Workers in India and other offshore sites are just so much cheaper, and so much better educated.

Which leads me to one of the root causes of my long-term pessimism: the state of American education. We are constantly confronted with dismal statistics on test scores, our students’ performance relative to other developed nations, etc. But what is the reason for this, and what is the solution? It’s not an answer, I think, to throw more money at the problem. As the parent of college students and as a teacher of college students, I’ve noticed that kids from “good” high schools (both public and private) are often as ill-prepared as any others. The problem seems to me a deep-seated one: we simply have no consensus as a nation, no unified philosophy of what an educated person should know. Perhaps this relates to the breakdown of government; we have arrived at no consensus as a nation about what a government should do.

As he took office in 1789, George Washington admitted in private that he doubted the Union would last for more than two decades. It has lasted, if dysfunctionally, for more than two centuries. But it is no longer a nation he would recognize, and its government is certainly not one he’d be proud of.

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Brooke Allen is the author, most recently, of The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels Through Syria (Paul Dry Books).



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