A Nation Not So Pessimistic

Richard Reeves

November 29, 1990|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR,N.Y. — ANOTHER Thanksgiving gone. And if you believe half of what you read, this year we will be living on leftovers for a lot longer than these few days. America, we are told, is in deep decline, and this is to be the winter it shows, the winter of our discontent.

I don't believe it. In the worst case, it seems to me that America's glass is half-full rather than half-empty. Our imaginations are running away with us, partly because we seem incapable of understanding the difference between relative and absolute or terminal decline. The fact that our one time enemies, Japan and Germany, are doing well does not automatically mean we are doing badly. Being No. 1 is meaningless if there is nothing to go around.

The key to a lot of America's public pessimism is polls. The questions that produce instant and gloomy wisdom ask essentially whether you, the respondent, believe you will be better off in five years and whether you think your children will live better or worse lives than you have. They're loaded questions, and people answer them not from the gut but in imitation of what they think Bill Moyers or George Will would say.

My conviction was formed or confirmed during a series of trips I took around the country last spring and summer for a special year-end edition of Money magazine. ''In Search of the American Dream'' was the assignment, and there was something of a presumption that I would find it and us all shriveled up.

Fifteen thousand miles later, I found it wasn't that way at all. ''It may be true statistically and even spiritually that the United States is in relative decline,'' I wrote, ''but I had trouble finding individual Americans who actually think so.'' All the doomsday -- scenarios are based on the assumption that 250 million people are going to roll over and play dead in the face of hard times, new challenges, new ideas, new realities.

That isn't going to happen. Americans can take care of themselves and their families -- most of them, most of the time, anyway. And if there are those of us who stumble and fall, there are a 100 foreigners ready to take their place. They are waiting in line this very minute at the U.S. consulate on Garden Road in Hong Kong and crouched behind the 8-foot fence that separates Tijuana, Mexico, from San Ysidro, Calif.

The best and the brightest of them, like our forebears, will get here, legally or illegally. The American Dream is a force of nature, a wind on the world, because it is no longer the property and privilege of Americans only, if it ever was. It is an option for people everywhere on the globe if they feel cut out of the action at home because they were born in the wrong family or in the wrong town or failed the tests most countries use to channel new ruling classes produced by old elite schools.

The great freedom in America is the freedom to fail -- and to try again and again. You can't do that in many places. George Lang, the New York restaurateur and writer who lived in Hungary and France before coming to America in his 20s, was asked the other day what surprised him most when he arrived. His answer was that everyone he met had changed careers or professions. In Europe he had never met or heard of a single man or woman who did that.

In my own travels, the matter of relative decline was put in perspective half-seriously by a middle-aged lawyer in Minneapolis, David Lebedoff, who told me his dream as a kid was to have his own movie theater at home, to be able to watch whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. ''My dream came true,'' he said. ''I just didn't know everyone else would have the same thing.''

On the question of whether American lives would be better in the future, Garry Matocha, a 33-year-old chemical engineer in Houston, where they've seen some hard times, said: ''Oh, yeah. If nothing else, new technology will make it better. You lose something, too.''

You lose a certain kind of security and stability. My generation lost that, or we think we did, after our lives were extended and enriched beyond imagination by new technologies -- medical miracles, jet planes, air conditioning and the computer I'm writing this on. Stability, though, often means nothing more than fewer options, less freedom to succeed or fail.

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