We Americans talk continually about out times -- in a way that seems designed to guarantee we won't have to think about them. Anything but that. When, as is currently the case, a presidential year coincides with a change of decade -- a major astrological event in our political universe -- the high priests and seers go nuts. We name our decades. We fondle our "history" (I put the word in quotes because anything that happened before last Wednesday becomes, in the parlance, "history"). And we line up at the tents of the crystalgazing futurologists, though apparently more for titillation than for guidance, since we pay not one whit of attention to their counsel and forebodings. Forgive me for being the skunk at the garden party as the national summing up and looking forward begin: it's just that I have a sense we are going to use the occasion for yet another exercise in diversion and avoidance.
Anyone who lives in Washington and works around the central political hustle knows that there is only one thing people all over the country say to you when you come calling. They say it whatever their class, race, religion, income, age, sex or degree of happiness or irritation at the moment, and it is this: "What do you think's going to happen?" The question is vague, open-ended, all-encompassing and addressed to everything and nothing in particular. Once answered, it asks itself again.
I first noticed the distracted and insatiable quality of it during the Abbott-and-Costello phase of Watergate. The morning paper would serve up more bizarre occurrences -- burglaries and shreddings and buggings and the rest -- than anyone could begin to accommodate in a day. But by nightfall, as if there were nothing to chew on, people would be hungering again. "What do you think's going to happen?" they would say. For the moment at least, Ted Kennedy seems to be the latest casualty of this habit.He has "happened" -- and wrecked the prolonged national pleasure in wondering whether he was going to.
There are a couple of things to be said about this restless peering ahead, neither of them very agreeable. One is that it is too bad that so few people really are paying any attention to the answers to their question, because occasionally the answers are worth hearing. But you could say that nuclear war was what was going to happen, and the response would likely be -- "Oh, really? And then what do you think will happen?" The trivial and the cataclysmic have the same weight in these discussions, because basically no answer is being sought.
The second and self-evident cost of this guessing-game approach to public business is that by training our attention on what is going to happen, we manage to ignore what already has happened. True, we don't seem to be neglecting our "history." But our scrapbook conception of it suggests that we are really rejecting where we have been and what we have done, and rejecting it before there has even been time to muse on its consequences or meaning.
Accordingly, we take a snapshot and give it a name and put it in the great album of our national past and express nostalgia for it -- even if it was only the day before yesterday. That was the "me" decade and that was the "activist" '60s, which came right after the "conservative" 50s, and so forth. It all is disjoined from the present and, more important, from us . It's as if it had happened somewhere else to someone else.
Now here, in my view, is the really depressing part: the only thing worse than our national penchant for evading our history (real history), our responsibility and even our identity is our occasional attempts to retrieve them -- all that "facing up to" and coming to terms with" stuff that usually amounts to neither. I am thinking of the Lesson Syndrome, a third-grade way we have of disposing of great big grown-up problems. This week it is "the Lesson of Three Mile Island." We have already had "the Lesson of Watergate" and "the Lesson of Vietnam" and assorted other lessons in the primer we are always compiling -- for other people, presumably, to read and profit from.
There is something coy and fake in the very usage.These lessons tend to turn out to be little one-line maxims, such as: we must never intervene again; we can't trust our executives with any authority, etc. As lessons they have, to me, all the plausibility of something resolved and sworn to by a drunk or a fatty on New Year's Day. But the schoolroom implications are even more important. These lessons are all so one-dimensional and unambiguous and slick, they take you no time at all to memorize and utter . . . without conviction or understanding, or in my view, relevance. And then, if you have learned your lesson you may go out to the schoolyard, where we are all gathered to play another rousing game of "What's going to happen?"
The impact of all this on our politics is terrible. We take nothing -- or nearly nothing -- serously. We create presidential politics as a series of challenges, tests and "happenings" and are perpetually unable to concentrate on the result we bring about. By the time there is a result we are bored with knowing it and ready for another, for a surprise, a change. Where presidents are concerned, the American public has increasingly become a kind of Aztec priest, waiting up there with gruesome knife at the top of the pyramid for the exhausted unfortunate who finally makes it to the top. And, having done the requisite priestly thing to him, we look around brightly and invite his successor -- "Next." There are really only certain kinds of people who will volunteer for this climb, and that displeases us, too. We never tire of complaining about the quality of the folks who answer our ad.
What's going to happen?I would say something pretty big and disruptive in the Persian Gulf and among the oil producers elsewhere as well. Probably within the next five years a reminiscently ugly military testing and confrontation between us and the Soviet Union. Maybe civil disorder proceeding not from radical-intellectual left discontents but from a squeezed and drained American middle class. We will be arguing about whose fault it was -- eternally looking for our little one-liner lesson -- and whether the time has come for a revival of '60s activism or whether that has been discredited or whether some other thing is true that is completely off the point. I wish we would think about now.