America 1992

January 02, 1992

America at the year's turning is in a contradictory mood. It is profoundly depressed by recession yet bemused by a Christmas spurt in the stock market to new heights. It is celebrating victory in two wars -- the little hot one against Iraq and the big cold one with the old Soviet Union -- yet feels curiously ill-prepared for the economic conflicts posed by the European Community and the Japan-led Pacific rim. Mostly, it is obsessed with the internal failings of the most prosperous and successful polyglot society in all of human history. Its own.

What to do about this strange New World Order (Disorder?) and the poverty, drugs, crime and pollution that plague American life will undoubtedly be major preoccupations as 1992 runs its course. It will be a year of national elections and international Olympics, public events that will be metaphors for the private introspection that seems so much a part of the American scene. The more culture homogenizes, the greater is the search for individual expression. The more government lurches in trying to find a workable social contract, the more people feel impelled to rely on themselves.

All this may be normal in so obvious a period of transition. All this may in the end prove a healthy form of wringing out excess and returning to truer values. What is encouraging is a rising national demand for a health care system that is inclusive and efficient, for schools that turn out citizens who can support themselves and their country, for an environment that preserves the future and makes life more livable in the present.

A generation that is all too aware of its recent profligacy may resent having to think more about what it will leave its children. There even may be rebellion against that very notion, as witness the no-new-taxes movement and the virulence of fringe groups. But if one looks for brightness on the horizon as a new year dawns, it may be in a renewed impetus to fulfill the American dream.

Perhaps the lack of self-congratulation over a flawed victory in the Persian Gulf is a mark of maturity. A year ago, the American people were deeply troubled and divided over the wisdom of resorting to force to reverse Iran's conquest of Kuwait. The war itself was mercifully short and light on friendly casualties, but it left Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad, a tyrant still bent on trouble. So, too, with the Cold War. The old enemy -- the Communist superpower -- was dismantled but left adrift were nuclear-armed republics that are a menace to themselves and the world.

The new enemy, according to protectionist rhetoric, is Japan. Most Americans, however, adhere to the more humbling and strangely encouraging thesis that the enemy is us -- and is therefore correctable. If the new year accomplishes anything, it will be to make American society more caring, more tolerant and more determined than ever to achieve great things through self-reform.

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