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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: R.R. Reno

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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Mark me down as an American optimist. True, we face many challenges: the fiscal crisis of the modern welfare state, the end of American military super-hegemony, an elite culture bent on dismantling the Judeo-Christian moral consensus. Add our present economic woes, which seem intractable, and only a naif can but conclude that we face real problems posing real threats. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that America will remain a vital, attractive, and immensely powerful nation in the coming decades.

The overwhelming majority of Americans—elite, middle class, and working class—are visceral patriots. We’re critical, we find fault, we anguish over our racist past, but the Declaration of Independence continues to express what we believe. This fact about America—the fundamental, deep, and rock-solid legitimacy not only of our system of government but also and more important of our common myths and civil religion—gives us an incalculable strength over and against any of our competitors on the global stage.

The American myth, moreover, has a remarkable—an unprecedented—absorptive power. It reabsorbed a defeated South after the Civil War. It absorbed and still absorbs waves of immigrants, even the children of ex-slaves, whose suffering and humiliation should have made them eternal enemies. A decade ago at my church, one of the elderly black members wept as he watched a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in World War II who had to endure Jim Crow while training in the South. “How,” he said to me afterward, “could our country have been so unjust to those men?”

Our country! I defy anyone who understands the anguish of that man (who had himself grown up under Jim Crow!) to be anything other than an American optimist. Deficits, unemployment, new international threats, the fraying moral fabric of society—has any generation, any nation not faced these or similar challenges? A country doesn’t “solve” these sorts of problems but rather meets, ameliorates, and endures them. In these times of threat (and we certainly live in such a time), a nation is only as strong as its common culture, and ours is very strong, very strong indeed.

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. My elderly friend at church is a rock-ribbed Democrat, and I have little doubt that he disagrees with me about how to solve our present fiscal woes. Other friends think me a religious fanatic in my opposition to same-sex marriage, easy divorce, and abortion on demand. Still others have dreamy ideas about global conflict, the United Nations, and international law. They take the Rodney King approach to national defense: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Their views and those of others on the left are wrongheaded, and if they control our national future we’ll suffer accordingly. But a nation hobbled by its own stupidity is almost inevitable. What makes us great is the fact that underneath our political and moral debates we have a healthy, robust common culture, a backstop, a bottom line.

Osama bin Laden was stupid enough to imagine that America’s all too real and obvious corruptions—our wanton hedonism, our empty materialism, our reality-TV political culture, our supine, bleating efforts to placate enemies with our vast treasure rather than meet them with military resolve—constitute our national essence. He was very wrong. As we face and fight these corruptions, let’s not make the same mistake.

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R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.



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