Everybody's bullish on America -- except Americans

March 26, 1996|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES -- With the national political spotlight shining on California momentarily because of today's big but irrelevant presidential primary, the people of the state are being subjected to even more than the usual torture by polling. In Friday's Los Angeles Times, the front-page data headline was: ''Confidence Is Up . . . ''

Confidence about what? Well, it turns out that 22 percent of 1,337 people surveyed by the pollsters offered the opinion that the state's economy will be better in three months than it is right now. That's better than the last time the question was asked, in September, when only 18 percent gave that answer.

''Class optimist''

Big deal, as they said when I was a kid. I was very optimistic then, to the point that I was voted ''Class Optimist'' -- you could look it up -- in my high school yearbook. At the time, I remembered being disappointed that I was not ''Most Likely to Succeed'' or, holy of holies, ''Most Popular.''

I think now that I actually did win the big one. I find I prefer optimism to almost anything in other people, and my children Richard Reeves

are sometimes driven crazy by Daddy's unwavering optimism and general cheerfulness. I am almost Reaganesque most mornings in America. When I look at my country, I see the most successful in the world, the most popular, too -- and most of the people seem to be complaining most of the time.

It's ridiculous! Presidential funks, the unrelenting negativity of current politics, and the idea that what's good about Tylenol is that it's not as bad for you as Advil are examples of looking at America butt-backward.

In fact, life is better than it has ever been. We have produced miracle drugs if not miracle politicians, and the greatest problems we do have -- exponential changes in the work economy and racial separation -- are now being talked about openly if not yet directly confronted.

All of this raced through my mind while reading an essay on Los Angeles by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish writer whose work I admire, in a new book called ''At Century's End.'' The book is a collection of work that has appeared in New Perspectives Quarterly, a journal of ideas created in Los Angeles by Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum. (They financed it by selling a painting, Willem de Kooning's ''Pink Lady.'' But that is another story.)

Mr. Kapuscinski has a gift for seeing countries (or societies) whole, which he first exercised in poorer countries, beginning with Ethiopia in his great book ''The Emperor.'' In talking about Los Angeles and the United States, he begins with the point that Americans are routinely focusing on the decline of Europe's role and position in the world (and the inevitable reflection of that in Europe's greatest child, the eastern United States), and more or less ignoring the effects of what is happening on the other side of the country and world.

''It is so hard to think of this nation in decline when you know there are vast regions of the planet that are absolutely paralyzed, incapable of any improvement at all,'' he writes. ''Historically speaking, America may not decline, but instead fuse with the Pacific culture to create a kind of vast Pacific collage, a mix of Hispanic and Asian cultures linked through the most modern communications technologies.''

Unburdened by the past

That may sound like California utopian babble, but remember Mr. Kapuscinski is no Californian. This man is an Eastern European, a Pole. Writing from that perspective, he sees an America unburdened by the weight of the past. It is not in true crisis; quite the opposite. He writes:

''In a society in crisis . . . the past plays a disproportionate role. It blocks the imagination. The past is the only thing the society can cling to in order to confirm itself. . . . A man sees the future as a time more dangerous than the past. He sees that everything that is good has already taken place. He says, 'Well, today, somehow, I got by.' This lack of perspective is far more damaging, far more dangerous than economic or political troubles.''

Finally, he says, in what amounts to comparison with Europe or Japan or Islam:

''The world is growing up. We have more of everything -- more people, more goods, more communications. This growth of everything demands more cultural space, and will destroy whatever does not accept this reality. That makes systems that don't accept plurality obsolete. . . . Two-thirds of our planet will not be able, in the foreseeable future, to come anywhere near matching American development. We know now that large parts of the planet will be left far behind. This is a pessimistic statement, but it's true. Those who can, try to emigrate to America.''

It seems that the rest of the world is optimistic about what most of us are complaining about. It would be going too far to say that the only thing for Americans to be pessimistic about is pessimism itself, but all the moaning and general negativism do tend to make things worse rather than better.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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