Commentary Magazine


Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Michael Dirda

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?


Can I just say that each morning I look at the paper and grow increasingly despondent? Back in the 19th century there was a Know-Nothing Party, but I never thought I’d see its revival. We now have elected hicks who have apparently spent their lives reading nothing but Ayn Rand and the King James Bible, who express grave, very grave reservations about evolution and global warming, and who would like to rescind any social or economic law of the past century that helps the working class.

Some days, I say to myself, that it was ever thus. Nearly a hundred years ago, H.L. Mencken described the America of his day:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

Mencken had no children, so he could afford to be entertained at what he viewed as a carnival of bunkum. But I have sons, just starting out in life, and I weep at the state of this country and the gimcrack, meretricious mall-world of the 21st century. As a child of the frequently maligned 1960s, I grew up on dreams of, on the expectation of, a better, more equitable and peaceful world. Progress was made, no question. Yet, look back on this past decade and what stands out? Suicide bombers and a forever war, the economic destruction of our country by venal plutocrats, and our young blithely sedated by the addictive distractions of their digital toys.

Americans are taught to believe that somehow our country is uniquely indestructible, that we can bounce back from anything. But in 1911 the British Empire—the one upon which the sun never set—felt and believed exactly the same. Forty years later, it was gone. These United States of America are, of course, absolutely exempt from such a possibility. We’re special.

As for literature, my own field: I worry that e-book culture actually inhibits serious reading. A work of art requires a slow, steady interaction between a reader and a text, a contemplative frame of mind, a kind of immersion in a poem or novel’s waking dream. Screens, however, are all about speed, the quick retrieval of facts, the gathering of data. But the getting of information is not the same as the getting of wisdom or aesthetic delight. Will an e-book user slow down enough to appreciate the great and sometimes demanding books of the past?

I really hope I’m dead wrong about the future of America and about the negative consequences of screen technology. Maybe, just maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. That Dirda, such a dreamer.


Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prizewinning literary journalist whose books include four collections of essays, the memoir An Open Book, and the recently published On Conan Doyle (Princeton).

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