The More Things Change…

cumberland-mts-1937Eight years ago, the first time I left for America, I was particularly keen on discovering a ‘world vision’ specific to Americans. My answer revealed itself with no great effort, as all and sundry hastened to describe the American as an ironclad optimist: that he is born with this quality; that it is in his blood. The single word was enough to define an entire state of mind. Optimism was not merely a quirk of the national character: it was a standard for human behavior — remarkably well suited, as it happened, to commercial interests. And plainly, there existed in America no interests beyond the commercial.

[…] Such optimism rested on a deeply-engrained moral belief: the conviction that every American, be he such through birth or naturalization, was the steward of his own destiny, and that greatness lay within arm’s reach. He could one day become president, or, better yet, a millionaire. This was democracy’s very essence, and everyone believed in it—partly because one still heard examples of newsboys grown into oil magnates; partly out of habit or reverence towards the country’s founding legends. For the story of America is one of massive exploitation, unparalleled even by Europe’s own colonization: exploitation of the forests and of the soil; exploitation of the gold and coal mines; unchecked industrial development ensuring an insatiable need for manpower.

knoxville-tn-1937Until recently, America has had no social conscience, no sense of responsibility towards either the human community or its own natural resources. Each citizen had his potential, his opportunity. The farmer, having farmed his fields into oblivion, had only to emigrate Westward; the lumber trader, having deforested one surface, simply bought a second; the recent immigrant, sacrificed to the vilest and worst-paying jobs, was assured that nothing prevented him from climbing the social ladder: one had only to be hard-working, moderately unscrupulous, and — of course — an optimist. And so the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘optimism’ served as shorthand for a distinctly American philosophy, feeding into the idea of ‘liberty’ as a particular range of motion, one easily confused with the right of the mighty.

The America I find today is a country shaken to its core. In the past, it has known its share of crises—at least one calamity and a smattering of collapses—but it has always had backup. Its Western frontier was open; it had limitless possibilities and indefatigable optimism, that assurance of inner greatness. The current crisis is of a different nature. It drags. It reached its highest point, ebbed back, and in doing so, revealed a slurry of social and economic problems with which the public never expected to contend. [….] And yet, I noted with surprise that yesteryear’s optimism has not been wholly extinguished. Much like the doctrine of opportunity, much like America’s secular ‘liberty’, a day does not go by without someone mentioning it—on the radio, in the newspapers— and vouching for its tenacity, its legitimacy, its necessity. There is but a single difference: those preaching optimism are exclusively Republican, and Hearst’s reactionary press is the only one who would dream of using the old slogans of a glorious nation [….]

market-street-knoxville-tn-1937Americans are finding it difficult to admit and own up to the state of things, industrialists more so than anyone. Rather than tolerate a challenge to their control — which they call their ‘freedom’ — they prefer to rely on increasingly violent measures in the ‘war of all against all’. [Today], this freedom exists only as a decoy, cloaking a hereditary state of mind that considers the country and its economic resources not as shared property, but as a free pass for individual exploitation. Today, […] the concept of freedom, stripped of all vitality, is defended by aging reactionaries, desperate industrialists, nonagenarian Civil War veterans, and by their daughters, arranged into countless women’s leagues—these are the current backers of Opportunity, Optimism, Freedom: self-evident terms whose meaning has been curiously rerouted.

American youth, meanwhile, can find its majority regrouped over a new party line. In it, I had expected to find the optimism, which had so impressed me, reunited with its authentic meaning [….] This was a mistake: one which might appear harmless, but which, within this new party, earned me rather a strict upbraiding. Here, the slogans of optimism and opportunity are seen as groundless at best, deceptive and dangerous at worst.

“Even if these notions were once beneficial” — maintain the young Americans of the Democratic Party — “today they are used only to spread confusion. In Europe, certain governments might have succeeded in duping their citizens and clouding the facts of the matter with their nationalism or racism or other sentiments of that order. Here, such things could never happen, or at least, not to the same extent, because we have learned to think more clearly and rationally. We know that the unemployed cannot generate opportunity if nothing is done to help them — but we also know that we live in a wealthy country, in which, if we play our cards right, we can completely eliminate unemployment, famine, and misery.”

These young people are, of course, resolute supporters of President Roosevelt, and of his grand program, which aims to place the United States’ economy under the moderate control of the government; these are the “New Dealers”. Self-declared pessimists, they view American optimism as resulting in a laissez-faire indifference which America can no longer afford, and which, if left unchecked, would dangerously weaken the power of the individual […] until there remained nothing left to do but submit, with all of the fatalism inspired by a natural disaster. We Europeans know this sentiment only too well.

[….] An influential employee in the ‘New Deal’ office told me: “We are going to educate the best of our young people in the spirit of pessimism, to turn them into fighters before it’s too late.” It is a radical departure from Spengler’s “heroic pessimism”… [but] I have yet to let on, since our little chat, how much this active pessimism, in an America freshly aware of its responsibilities, has rendered me optimistic.

-Annemarie Schwarzenbach, 1936 (reprinted from here; photos found here)

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