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A Cheer for Self-Doubt
Posted 9th January 2007
The “can do” spirit and “walking on the sunny side of the street” are as American as the flag itself. A 2005 Harris Poll found that Americans are more likely than Europeans to respond that their existence has improved over the last five years, and to expect that their lives will get better in the future. This is true whether people are thinking of their personal lives, their financial situation, or their country’s economy.
Polls of course can be notoriously unreliable and superficial - the nature of the questions posed shaping the kinds of answers given. But throughout our history we have been a nation projecting an overweening - and often morally blind - self-confidence. It began with the Puritans setting sail from England in 1630 for Massachusetts Bay to create a city on the hill (that they believed was based on their special pact with God to build a holy community). It continued with the pioneers and the nation itself expanding westward, settling the virgin land and fulfilling their inevitable Manifest Destiny. The latter term combined a belief in expansionism with other popular ideas of the 19th century, including a belief in America’s uniqueness, Romantic nationalism, and the conviction that what was then called the "Anglo-Saxon race” was naturally superior. Leaping over the centuries, we see sanguinity triumphant once more with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfield and Dick Cheney and their neo-conservative advisers’ version of self-righteous optimism in their unilateral mission to bring democracy to Iraq. Of course this is not to preclude the fact that the invasion of Iraq had a number of other undeclared, even less tenable aims as well.
The most eloquent and imaginative version of American optimism emerged in the writings of the great 19th century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay Self Reliance he urges the reader "to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men….” Emerson believed in the infinite capacity of Americans. He was optimistic about human nature, about the universe’s goodness, and about our ability to know the truth.
There is much that I find seductive in Emerson’s vision. His belief “that nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” meant he affirmed individuality and repudiated conformity to moribund tradition and public opinion. And he always viewed the life of ideas as more than mere speculation; he saw it as an investment of one’s whole being. For Emerson, “to think was to act.”
Much as I admire Emerson for this, I myself am more intellectually and emotionally at home with the scathing vision of the American Dream in Phillip Roth’s novel American Pastoral than with Emerson’s cosmic optimism. Roth’s novel’s protagonist, Swede Levov, is a successful fourth generation Jewish manufacturer and a handsome, responsible, emotionally balanced, well-meaning liberal--who has found his version of the American Dream of upward mobility and assimilation in rural WASP New Jersey. Though Swede is a truly decent man, he suffers from one tragic flaw, a lack of self-awareness. Roth, who conveys only contempt for American innocence and optimism, sets Swede up for a sudden fall that shatters his serene existence. In this book Roth sees the world (both personal and social) as having “no order,” where everything seems “wildly out of control.” It’s chaos that rules, for ”life makes no sense.”
One doesn’t have to live a life like the Swede’s and be swallowed up by emotional tumult and violence, to feel that neither political nor personal utopias exist. To return to Bush and his cohort—though they are much too cynical to be seen as utopians, their Iraq policies and rhetoric still convey a murderous overconfidence built on a belief in America’s invincibility. Like the Swede, they are devoid of a sense of tragedy, but they even lack his capacity for expressing ruefulness or despair about what their actions have wrought.
One can’t simply equate the complacency that defines some people’s psychic lives with the callousness and blindness of governmental action. However, just as an arrogant government that is symbolized by George W’s cocksure strut, dangerously avoids being self-critical—so on a personal level one suspects that people who speak about being totally contented are hiding a darker more dissonant emotional dimension.
In the realm of politics, that sense of certitude can lead a nation down a precarious road where intolerance, repression, and military aggression become the norm. I suppose that what I am personally committed to is a private and public life where self-questioning and self-doubt are the rule. And where the personal answers and political solutions we arrive at are always ambiguous and tentative ones. I choose a world bound by contingency with all the pain that that carries, rather than closing myself off in a smug, well-defended carapace.