One of our defining national traits is the belief that somehow, some way, we will emerge from our troubles and become a better country. The mantra “Yes we can” got Barack Obama elected, after all. He was a symbol of change. His presidency was historic from Day One because of his race. But the luster of his ascension to the presidency has become not the beginning of a new era of togetherness, but instead, to a significant degree, an excuse for divisiveness — certainly to the frightened people who cling to the poisonous fiction of white supremacy.
In the wake of the massacre in Charleston, there is another appearance of some halting steps toward reconciliation, particularly around removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. After testing the winds, Republican leaders have joined Democrats in stating their desires to take down that symbol of hatred. Those of us in the half-empty-glass camp have to wonder why it took 150 years since the Civil War to conclude that maybe, just maybe, the time had come to remove that vestige of slavery — or least consider it. Still, it’s not a done deal.
President Obama, who came in on a wave of optimism, is making it clear that he believes he’ll be departing from power stuck in an undertow of cynicism and pessimism.
He blames an entrenched political system operated by those who enrich themselves and their rich benefactors at the expense of the country. They have proven to be impossible to extricate. Meanwhile the debilitating problems that threaten to overwhelm the nation, which is stuck in pettiness.
Those of us in media share a huge amount of the blame. During his interview, Mr. Obama used the unedited n-word to say that simply avoiding the use of it is “not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination.” That was his larger point, but where was our focus? Most of us fixated on his uttering that single explosive word. Of course, some of us came up with shameless and mindless TV stunts to try to get people to watch, like the guy on CNN, where I once worked. In the process, we are forfeiting our journalistic responsibility to inform. Instead, we go for the cheap shots.
That leaves a clear track for the politicians to pretend that they have ideas for turning around the country. Michael Lind, writing in Politico, makes the excellent point that nobody is coming up with truly new ideas to reverse our decline, just “stale, old familiar ideas.”
I have one problem with his premise. Lind suggests that we need creativity, that when some leader comes up with new approaches in this era, the U.S. can once again regain our forward momentum. He spends little time on the growing possibility that it’s too late … that we are over, too far gone or at least on the verge of it.
The great bulk of Americans no longer seems to care; they’ve given up in disgust on our calcified system of government. Yes, they salute the flag (the Stars and Stripes, not the Stars and Bars), and they pause during their picnics and ballgames on patriotic holidays, but they don’t really participate.
There’s a pervasive belief that taking part doesn’t make a difference, that our leaders are bought and paid for. So the erosion continues, and unless there is some massacre of little children in Connecticut or black worshippers in Charleston, they don’t bother. Even when something grotesquely inhuman does take place, they don’t pay attention for long. A democracy can’t survive that way. Unless a leader comes up with a way to inspire our greater instincts, we’re over. It doesn’t look promising.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.