I have just spent a rainy afternoon reading the current issues of two magazines: Time, which devotes its cover story to"The Agony of Africa," and Forbes, which devotes almost an entire issue to answering the question, "Why do Americans feel so bad when they've got it so good?"
No doubt the appearance of these two articles in the same week is pure coincidence but, in some odd way, they belong together: Each brings to the other an additional perspective.
Forbes, a magazine devoted primarily to issues of money and business, approached its subject by asking "eleven of our best writers and scholars to give their non-economic explanations for the blue funk oppressing Americans." Among those weighing in are novelist John Updike, TV sports commentator Dick Schaap, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and former Bush speech writer Peggy Noonan.
Of course, Forbes has already loaded its question by assuming the majority of Americans do in fact "have it so good" that it's unseemly to "feel bad." Not all of the commissioned essayists, however, agree with this assessment.
"We live in an age of unparalleled technological power and scientific advance," writes literary critic Alfred Kazin, "but the spirit is tired, political authority is discredited, civic violence is on a mass scale, race relations are at their worst in the vast underclass, public education is a catastrophe; the general dependence on commercial television sets the tone, the speech, the morale of our national life toward an irreversible mediocrity."
On the other hand, Peggy "A Thousand Points of Light" Noonan takes the long view, writing that "in the long tape of history this is a pretty good few inches." And she blames "journalists, screenwriters, novelists, newswriters" for fostering the false notion that Americans aren't doing well. In fact, Noonan is of the opinion that it's not only Americans who are better off, it's everybody. She writes:
"The life of people on earth is obviously better now than it has ever been. . . . This may sound silly but now and then when I read old fairy tales and see an illustration of a hunchbacked hag with no teeth and bumps on her nose who lives by herself in the forest, I think: People looked like that once. They lived like that. There were no doctors, no phones, and people lived in the dark in a hole in a tree. It was terrible. It's much better now."
Which brings me to Time magazine and "The Agony of Africa."
I am looking now at a photograph of a naked, emaciated Somalian child kneeling face-down in the scorched African earth. It reminds me that I've been feeling guilty for weeks now because, try as I might, I cannot bring myself to look at the television images coming out of that sad country.
Although it is painful to see the disaster left behind in Florida by Hurricane Andrew and the terrible war ripping through what was once Yugoslavia, there is something especially horrifying about Somalia. On television, what one sees is the Landscape of Hell: a barren, scorched country filled with walking skeletons. There are no tent cities. There are no apartment buildings that, although half-bombed out, are at least still standing. There is not even a tree with a hole in it. There is nothing.
Nothing but these wizened-looking Somalians who no longer resemble human beings but bear a striking similarity to E. T., that extraterrestrial from an alien planet.
In terms of suffering, this has been a terrible year for so many: In Bosnia, in Florida, in Louisiana and in places we've never heard of, people despair. And yet somewhere inside they manage to hang on to some shred of hope: hope that their homes will be rebuilt, their families reunited, their lives restored to some semblance of normality and order.
But hope seems to have turned its back on Somalia. Words turn away, too, when it comes to describing what Time calls "Somalia's descent into desperation."
Still, some see a chance to profit from Somalia's misery. A Kenyan newspaper reported recently that Italian companies are planning to benefit from Somalia's chaos by shipping toxic waste there next year for an estimated profit of $4 million to $6 million.
Meanwhile, back in Forbes magazine, Noonan continues to explain America's malaise, writing: "You are a boomer, and obscurely oppressed. But there is nothing obscure about your predicament. So many people are relying on you! You and your wife waited to have children and now they're 8 and 10 and you're 48 -- too late to start over, to jeopardize the $75,000 a year you earn. And if you tried, you would lose your medical coverage."
Read together, the two articles give new meaning to Einstein's theory of relativity.