In a popular journal the other day, I noticed a statistic, cited with the obligatory alarm by a professor of economics, to the effect that only 68 percent of the nation's industrial capacity is still in use. The lost 32 percent, measured in rusting assembly lines and empty factories, apparently has fallen into ruins as melancholy as those of ancient Rome. The professor cast the familiar prophecy about the dying of the American light.

Variations on this mournful text appear in so many articles and news broadcasts that I wonder why nobody ever makes the same sort of estimates about the nation's moral and intellectual capacities. Admittedly, the statistics would be hard to come by and difficult to arrange in the ritual form of an IBM database. How is it possible to measure the emptiness of a human mind? Most people recognize the phenomenon when they see it; they also know when they are looking into the faces of weakness, superstition and greed. But how is it possible to translate these certainties into numbers acceptable to the stock market, the econometric models and the Defense Department?

Judging by what I can see in New York, not only in the faces of the resident oligarchs but also in the pages of both the tabloid and literary press, I think it is probably fair to guess that the nation has remaindered about 50 percent of its capacity for thought and moral effort. The booming of the market in cocaine testifies to the urgency of the retreat from reason, and the political nostrums so far promulgated by the Democratic candidates seeking the presidency in 1984 bear out the suspicion that their speechwriters still hold fast to the belief that nothing much has changed in the world since the election of 1964.

Lacking specific recommendations, the candidates join the professors in the crying of doom, which, as has been explained to me by Georgie Garbisch, a reader in Maryland, allows them to avoid the even more dismal prospect of having to think. She went on to make the further observation that as Americans, "We do not ask nearly enough of ourselves--not of parents, not of children, not of women, not of men, not of our institutions, not of our talents, not of our national or our personal character, not of our Constitution's promise, which we betray." In that one sentence, she says most of what needs to be said about the emptiness of the nation's factories and the hollowness of the nation's politics.

George Orwell once observed that almost everything that goes by the name of pleasure represents a more or less successful attempt to destroy consciousness. The United States now spends upwards of $350 billion a year for liquor, tobacco, pornography and drugs. The Cold War against the American intellect thus constitutes a more profitable business than the traffic in nuclear weapons.

Subsidized by the state and supported (sometimes with the First Amendment) by the peep show operators of the mass media, the continual state of siege works against man's hope of freedom. The sado-masochistic entertainments hold the mind in chains. Tethered to the posts of sexual fantasy, intimidated by the confusions of lust, murder and fear, the imagination cannot escape the bureaucrats and the soothsayers.

The idea of freedom stands in as much need of revision as the geography of the supposedly lost frontier. Within the circles of advanced opinion, it is taken for granted that high tech will save us all, that man has vanquished Nature, that his machines have made nonsense of the seasons and subjugated the tribes of Paleolithic instinct. The illuminati who make these confident announcements then proceed to talk in a lighter and more conversational tone of voice about the corporate cul de sac in which they find themselves penned like so many sheep, about the faithlessness of their husbands, the forgery of their tax returns, the silence of their children.

They neglect to associate the violence of Nature with man's inability to know, much less to conquer, himself. Most people have the same hopes and aspirations--work in which they can find meaning and a way in which they can express their capacity to love. And yet, in this most advanced of nations and most enlightened of times, how few people manage to achieve those deceptively modest ends.

If we could stop thinking of ourselves as omnipotent, perhaps we could relocate the frontier to that point in time where men can sense, but cannot quite see, the looming shape of the future. Suppose, for instance, that the frontier could be understood as being always and everywhere present--as near at hand as the wish to murder, cheat, steal, lie and generally conduct oneselves in a manner unbecoming in an ape.

Suppose that we could learn to recognize it in the death of a child in the next street, in any afternoon's proceeding in any criminal court, in the faces of people stupefied by anxiety. Think how many of its large and various capacities the United States could put to use if only it knew why it was doing so.

Copyright (c) 1983, Network News, Inc.