Jimmy Carter was famously pilloried for saying that America suffered from national malaise. What!? American’s suffering from malaise? Nonsense! And so began our experiment with Reaganism, which, by itself, was not much, but it opened the door to so called neocons and neo-liberals (I never have understood the difference between them) who championed the devices of real malaise.
That hadn’t occurred to me until I ran across a citation from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars about the deep cultural malaise that affected the Hellenistic world at that time. With very little adjustment, it seems to capture our own time. So with apologies to philosophers and scholars of Greek history who may take justifiable umbrage, here is my interpretation of what he wrote as applied to our own nation in our own time.
The whole of American society was convulsed with the sufferings inflicted on it through decades of unceasing war and civil unrest. Words began to change their ordinary meaning. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal citizen. Prudent hesitation became specious cowardice. Moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness. Willingness to consider all points of view became unwillingness to act. Frantic violence became a sign of manliness. Cautious planning became a target for attack. Glib platitudes became means to unethical ends. Thus every form of iniquity took root in the land. Any thought to working across the aisle was laughed down, and our society was divided into camps in which no person trusted another.
However malaise is understood, the mood of the nation is not a good one. Public longing for return to better times is always about a time that never existed. It’s a romanticized ideal, but it is a true longing. The subtext for many people has to do with a 1950ish time in which social and racial classes were stabilized with white people at the top, and access to the middle class, at least for white males, was almost assured. Leaving it at that with a smug dismissal would be a mistake. It also harkens to a time in which representatives of conflicting interests intended to hammer out workable agreements between them. Not that fringe groups specializing in irrational fear mongering didn’t exist. There were many, and sometimes, like the John Birch Society, they had enough public support to gain a modicum of power. Nevertheless, those in control of our legislative processes found ways to work out their differences in acceptable ways. That time began to unravel under Reagan through an intentional movement toward polarized politics engineered by neocon/neo-liberal apparatchiks who were fed up with compromises, and wanted to keep all the marbles for themselves.
Now, I think, we have entered fully into the Hellenistic time of which Thucydides wrote. The Republican Convention now underway is prime example number one. I don’t know what this election cycle will bring, but I hope that it is the nadir of our descent, and that at every level of government more rational minds, faithful to the highest values of our national myth, will begin to prevail.