The misery's fine

Russell Baker

July 08, 1992|By Russell Baker

SOMETIMES I infuriate myself. Just the other day, for instance. On television selling a book I was, but too much the gentleman, too much the eleventh-rate salesman, alas, to look the camera dead in the eye and say:

"My book will not only make you smell better, relieve your headache, transform dingy yellow teeth to gleaming white and add five miles per gallon to your gas mileage; it will also make you live twice as long while enjoying twice as much happiness and getting twice as young every year."

Instead, with mouth rattling along completely free of brain control -- television cameras always do this to me -- I started talking about America's anger. Why was the country so filled with anger? What in the world did Americans have to be furious about?

It had just prevailed in the 45-year Cold War. The threat of nuclear holocaust was suspended. Stores were overflowing. The choice of entertainments was infinite. There were millions of cars to carry Americans wherever whim or necessity dictated.

There was easy access to deadly weapons for every temperament, be it sporting, criminal, political, entrepreneurial, suicidal, self-pitying, paranoidal or just plain fun-loving.

Moreover, Americans could worship such gods as they chose, or none if they chose. And what about other people from all over the world risking everything to get here? If the place was really such a hate-filled sinkhole, why were foreigners dying to get here?

I hate to hear people talking like this, and afterward I hated myself for having done it. It is un-American. Misery is the new American condition, and making a loud noise about your misery is now the most American thing you can do, having replaced washing your car on Saturday afternoon.

Remember when you could sing that old spiritual, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," and mean it? Not anymore. Nowadays everybody knows the trouble you've seen. That's because you've told them.

You probably told them at the top of your lungs, too, maybe out in the streets screaming it to television cameras or even inside a TV studio shouting it on a misery panel to some competitive boaster who claims his troubles have been worse than yours.

There is so much competition for the misery championship these days that you have to scream to remain a contender.

Thoreau wrote 150 years ago that most people lead "lives of quiet desperation." What an antique idea. Nowadays most people lead lives of noisy desperation, and if you're not shrieking your laments you will be dismissed as a mere flyweight in the misery department.

What we're seeing is a competition to be Number One in Pain and Suffering, to win a statuette for Most Victimized, or Most Oppressed, or Most Forgotten, or Most Abused, or Most Unfairly Treated, or Most Tax-Ridden, or Most Bureaucracy-Persecuted, or Most Medically Ill Treated, or Most Telephonically Violated, or Most Supreme-Court-Deprived . . .

The fact, of course, is that contrary to the whine that everything was better in the old days, almost everything was actually much worse in the old days.

True, the old days weren't afflicted with the telephone, much less the fax, but they didn't have air-conditioning either, or the electric car crank, or television, or unemployment compensation, Social Security, or overnight dry-cleaning, or movies right there in the parlor alongside the cast-iron wood stove with the isinglass windows.

Easy now with those poisonous pens, ye angry millions: I am not saying we ought to count our blessings instead of whining, moaning and wailing it up.

It's natural for each new generation of modern times to think it is born into the worst of times. This may even promote happiness. In a century that has lost its certainty about the purpose of life, it can be comforting to believe you are needed to do hero's work.

Deprived so abruptly of the Cold War's "long twilight struggle" between heroes and monsters, we haven't found much in the way of a new heroic task to pick us up.

Perhaps this fascination with our own troubles is a healthy omen, portending a real effort to use this quiet time to neaten up the American act. Omen or not, it beats washing the car on Saturday afternoon.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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