|Last week, an author called Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Royal Society of Arts, an organisation that I chair, about her latest book, Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America .
I profoundly disagree with her theory. As Michael Skapinker wrote in the FT yesterday , optimism built America, and without it the country will never recapture its glory. Aldous Huxley said about the place: “The thing that most impresses me about this country is its hopefulness.”
Yet there appears to be a disturbing and broader case of doubt in the US. In December, Time magazine carried a front cover with the headline: “The Decade From Hell”. And meanwhile, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that the past 10 years had been “The Big Zero”, because average wages, stock and houses prices in the US had stagnated.
Even the American far right has doom-mongers. I appeared on the Glenn Beck show on Fox News last year. I found it difficult to take his apocalyptic views seriously, yet he has a huge following. Everywhere it seems there is a feeling of pessimism that recalls the dark period in the 1970s following the Vietnam war.
I’m afraid the US remains mesmerized by the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, even nine years later. The recent overreaction to a bomb on an aircraft on Christmas day is proof of an inability to put such threats into perspective. The Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are part of this disastrous pattern. Those ill-advised wars have fed the sense of gloom.
Meanwhile, arch-defeatists such as Al Gore have created a vast “global warming” propaganda machine to frighten us all into submission about climate and energy. And the financial crisis, with its after-effects of unemployment, bankruptcies and debt, appears to have compounded the national feeling of misery – or at least that’s how it appears to a foreigner who has always been an unremitting admirer of the US.
The west needs a confident America – indeed, capitalism demands an America that is bullish about the 21st century. More than anywhere ever, industrial inventions and technological advances originated there. The US needs to recapture its hope and vision, its enthusiasm and vigour.
It should not look to Europe for examples. The Old World has a tendency to be cynical. The loss of empires, the end of deference, the rest of the world catching up, an inevitable diminution of economic and political might – these trends have inclined too many Europeans to fear the worst and be nervous about the future. This attitude to life is not good for the soul, and it makes progress seem like a concept from the past.
Because progress is precisely what the US – and even Britain – has been making in the past 10, 20 or 50 years. Be it in health, real standards of living – you name it – in more or less every aspect of work or leisure, there has been improvement in a pretty relentless fashion, thanks to free enterprise, science and democracy.
Unfortunately, many of these advances are incremental and do not create headlines. I suspect that the media and politicians believe they get more mileage from worrying us. And plenty of left-of-centre academics and commentators prefer the spectre of decline and fall to the idea of rising prosperity. It gives them something to complain about, in their masochistic, gloating way.
So, for example, California, which has always been at the cutting edge, needs to get a grip, shrug off the blues, ignore the depressives – and help lead the recovery. Despondency cures nothing. America has space, it has ingenuity, it has freedom, it has scale. By most measures it remains the best place on earth to start a business. A spirit of adventure, of limitless possibilities, of manifest destiny, lies at the heart of the American psyche. The rise of China must not dim the American zest for growth. And in spite of Barack Obama’s “audacity of hope”, I do not believe big government is the cure.
How would intellectuals such as Ehrenreich have us behave? Life provides its share of cruel and inescapable truths, but despair or denial are surely not the answer. Give me a belief in the power of opportunity any time.