In Herbert's view, one I largely share, the nation is stuck in the conventional belief that we Americans just won't and may even think we can't make do without petroleum in earth-parching quantities. Perhaps we should do to the car company ad campaigns what we did to the tobacco company ad campaigns...we are after all a very suggestible population.
Herbert asks but does not quite answer this question:
The correct response to Mr. Gore’s proposal would be a rush to figure out ways to make it happen. Don’t hold your breath.
When exactly was it that the U.S. became a can’t-do society? It wasn’t at the very beginning when 13 ragamuffin colonies went to war against the world’s mightiest empire. It wasn’t during World War II when Japan and Nazi Germany had to be fought simultaneously. It wasn’t in the postwar period that gave us the Marshall Plan and a robust G.I. Bill and the interstate highway system and the space program and the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the greatest society the world had ever known.
When was it?
Now we can’t even lift New Orleans off its knees.
But he does confirm that that sense of helplessness is more substantial than mere perception by a few liberals like myself:
Americans are extremely anxious at the moment, and I think part of it has to do with a deeply unsettling feeling that the nation may not be up to the tremendous challenges it is facing. A recent poll by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time magazine that focused on economic issues found a deep pessimism running through respondents.
According to Margot Brandenburg, an official with the foundation, nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds “feel that America’s best days are in the past."
Well, I have my suspicions. And unfortunately, my generalizations don't sound any more tolerant or aware than Mike Savage's. In a word, I have to blame my own generation, the so-called Baby Boomers. We were the most privileged and pampered cohort...and one of the largest economic forces...in human history. We quickly took for granted our ease and the historical aberration of having resources that cost a tiny fraction of our incomes. We came to act as if this accident of prosperity were our earned entitlement. When? It is hard to say because it creeps up on us as we grow accustomed to ease. The relative fossilizes into the absolute. The phase becomes the norm and expectation. I share the view that it was that coddled mindset, unconsciously wincing at the vicissitudes of age and the clamoring third world, that quietly betrayed its future and its fleeting '60s values. We did not grow soft suddenly, but by turning from the dogged do-good morality of Jimmy Carter to the comfortable twaddle of Ronald Reagan, we marked a point of testing when we came up against something hard to do. Reagan was too simple to be the cause of anything. He was the symptom.
While the "greatest generation" had worked hard and suffered to bring us to the height of what was in fact a very unbalanced advantage:
- so far ahead of the undeveloped world we could buy them out
- so unscathed relative to the European countries that we could buy cars and dishwashers while helping fund their reconstruction of ruined cities and factories,
It is also true that America's decades of apparent ascendancy carried two distinct messages around the world:
- We seemed to have found some key to prosperity and lived a desirably luxurious life
- We took our prosperity as a mark of our superiority in every other measure you can make of a people.
They too are human. They can do this.