Pessimism USA

Pessimism USA

So numerous are our problems and so grave our failures that we fully merit being described as the most grim people on earth. The gap between the Arab rich and poor is expanding while the less fortunate despair of their circumstances ever improving in the foreseeable future. For most Arabs, repressed rights and freedoms far outstrip those that are permitted. Our countries remain the primary chessboard upon which Western powers and their clients conduct their most dangerous imperial manoeuvres, and currently our governments are being propelled towards hostility against countries that have always been closer to us ideologically, emotionally and in terms of a common destiny than Western countries.

Some, if not all, of those Western nations are telling our governments to alter the modes of behaviour of our societies in ways that are not necessarily in our interests. At the same time they are extraordinarily brilliant at sapping our revenues by penetrating our markets with outrageously priced goods and products the technologies in the manufacture of which are protected by international law. As the Arab thinker Al-Sayed Yassin put it so aptly, the Arab world has become a world of spas and slums, a nation of disparate individuals or groups, a nation without a middle class and, hence, without a future. And on top of the sufferings of individuals and societies, we have the pains of Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan and the immigrants to Europe, or at least those who made it before losing their way or ending up refugees in some camp or detainees in another type of camp.

There”s a malicious devil in our midst, turning us against one another, sewing hate and rancour among the members of the same religion and between the members of one religion and another. It is occupying our land, killing and scattering people as it expands, ridiculing our dreams and our attempts to rise to our feet, and fanning hatred around the world against our people, our governments, our beliefs and our aspirations. Surely we have the right to be the most pessimistic people on earth. Apparently, however, some American experts decided that it was time to elbow us out of first place on that score and that pessimism is now the word that best encapsulates the current American condition. Even Amr Hamzawy, the Carnegie Endowment researcher who always chooses his words very carefully, wrote of the mood in the US at the moment, “the land of optimism has grown pessimistic.” His opinion has been echoed in most commentaries on the presidential campaigns currently in motion.

I personally do not recall an election year in the US when the mood was so grim. When I observed campaigns in the past I would generally come away favourably impressed by the American political system and the way the people interacted with it. As campaign seasons kicked off, the media — that manufacturer of leaders and images — would swing into action, candidates and their supporters would lock horns in debate, lobbies would intensify their lobbying, trading would get lively on Wall Street and things would generally look up. Not this time. I too have to cast my vote alongside dozens of analysts from the American press, research centres and academia, that some essential factors have caused a radical shift in the American mood after centuries of uninterrupted optimism.

According to some analysts, the beginning of the swing towards pessimism in the US can be pinned to Dick Cheney”s famous prediction that Iraqis would pave the paths of incoming American forces with flowers. His prediction evoked, as it was intended to, images of the flowers and kisses that Parisian women rained on American soldiers following the liberation of France from the Nazi occupation towards the end of World War II; images that played no small part in boosting post-war optimism.

But nothing of the sort happened in Iraq. There American forces were in for a shock; a reception that over the following months grew viciously hot and bloody. If that reception brought the first crack in the edifice of American optimism, the crack broadened with Bush”s famous proclamation aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf but weeks after the invasion that the mission had been “accomplished” and Iraq had been successfully liberated. Suddenly the Americans realised that their president had been lying to them, or, at best, that he along with the rest of the American people had been duped by his advisors who propelled him towards a war the needs and consequences of which had not been sufficiently studied beforehand.

But the Iraqi quagmire was not the only cause of the decline of American optimism. After all, it would likely take much more than a single defeat to transform a people that had been so inveterately upbeat for so long into a downbeat people, all the more so considering that Iraq was not the first war the US has lost in its history. A transformation of this nature, I believe, has its roots in the fact that the US has entered a new phase in its evolution and with this phase came a two-fold revelation. On the one hand, the “American dream” has burst. This is the opinion of the British Financial Times, a confirmedly upbeat periodical, virtually by definition. In July 2006 it wrote that, henceforward, the American dream would remain precisely that — a dream. American society had long taken heart from the erroneous perception that high growth rates were proof of economic progress; but the palpably evident fact that the returns from this progress are garnered only by the privileged few has put paid to the vision of America as a “land of opportunity”.

On the other hand, the American people discovered that their unique immunity as a nation protected from the east and the west by two vast oceans is no longer as absolute as they had thought it was. The events of 11 September 2001 drove this home dramatically, but incidents on the borders with Canada and Mexico continue to make the point on a daily basis. Add to this the losses suffered by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasing erosion of American prestige around the world.

Meanwhile, some members of the clique surrounding the US president continue to subscribe to the tactic that stirring alarm against foreign ogres is a means of alleviating the pervasive sense of insecurity that arises from domestic threats such as economic decline, rising crime rates, violence in schools and slums, declining educational standards, and deteriorating health and remedial care systems. But whether that new generation of US leaders knows it or not, harping on foreign threats only aggravates existing anxieties and propels people towards heightened pessimism. Indeed, only two weeks ago, David Thomson, writing in The Guardian, cautioned against the policy of waging wars abroad to cover up for failures at home, predicting that the attendant climate of intimidation and fear would lead to the spread of domestic violence.

Of all the peoples in advanced industrial societies, Americans are the most vulnerable to the ills of the market economy and the declining role of the state in social welfare. According to the New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman, current economic conditions in the US threaten a crisis of the magnitude of those that occurred in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico again, Thailand, Indonesia and Argentina again. Merely by drawing this comparison, Krugman betrays a sense of pessimism unusual among American commentators.

There is a close connection between the recent rise of rampant capitalism and the surge of pessimism, not only in the US but also in Egypt and other countries of Africa and some countries in Western Europe, such as France. The reason for this, I believe, is that people feel increasingly vulnerable and uncertain of their continued ability to ensure the welfare of themselves and their families as governments move more and more towards abandoning them to fend for themselves against the caprices of market forces. Some commentators have — rightfully I believe — accused Bush, personally, or his government, of having robbed America of its confidence. At the same time, I have to agree with those who maintain that the rise of pessimism is a universal phenomenon.

Some claim that the media is responsible for creating the current wave of pessimism. The press invariably airs bad news first; things that are better not deemed newsworthy. Indeed, recent studies have linked pessimism with frequency of television viewing. It has also been suggested that people who participate in formulating policies and decisions are less pessimistic than people deprived of this opportunity and freedoms of expression in general. It follows that people under tyrannical governments are particularly pessimistic. The same would apply to any people deprived of a voice in their government”s most fateful decisions, such as Bush”s decision to go to war against Iraq or the economic shock policies once undertaken by Latin American countries and currently being taken up by Arab governments.

One journalist who accompanied Bush on his recent tour of the Middle East quoted the US president as saying that he had found the Arabs “in a bad mood”. For once, Bush might have been right. But we”re probably right in observing that Americans are in an even worse mood. Both situations do not bode well.

* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.