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The Battle Between Achievement and Self-Doubt

By Robert Tracinski

I've never been a fan of Charles Dickens, but recently I've found his most famous line rolling around in my head: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." It seems appropriate to the current era.

Last week saw two magnificent milestones: the birth of the 300 millionth American and the Dow hitting 12,000 for the first time, finally surpassing the high mark it set at the height of the Internet stock boom six years ago, reflecting the 18th consecutive quarter of growth in corporate profits.

Both American population and American business are booming. We are a vibrant, expanding, relentlessly creative and productive society.

Yet the overall mood at the moment--especially if you judge by the public's dyspeptic attitude toward the mid-term election--is one of foreboding and dissatisfaction. In the unofficial polling places of the stock market and the delivery room, we express our confidence in the future. In official public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority say that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

And there are some good reasons for pessimism. Shiite militias plunged Iraq into civil war earlier this year, and Iraq's political leaders--mostly beholden to those very same militias--can't seem to bring themselves to stop it. Sensing that America is paralyzed and that Israel is in disarray, Iran is expanding its malevolent influence across the Middle East. North Korea has decided that this is a good time to openly go nuclear.

What is disturbing is not just these external threats, but our failure to respond to them effectively. For much of this year, the Bush administration has abandoned "cowboy diplomacy" in favor of passivity. And the administration's critics on the left have become outright advocates of retreat and appeasement.

This is all part of a wider pattern of despair about the state of our civilization, even as we soar to new heights. While we go out and buy the latest computer, which is four times as powerful as the one we bought a few years ago, the doomsayers on the left complain that the common man is about to be ground into poverty. The environmentalist left adds that our growth in wealth and population is "unsustainable"--even as we keep on sustaining it, decade after decade.

To be fair, the right has its own doomsayers. The religious right fears that biotechnology is leading us to a "Brave New World" dystopia, while the anti-immigration right wants to wall off our borders to stave off the economic and cultural collapse they imagine will result from an alleged barbarian invasion.

And it is not just Americans. Thanks to global capitalism, billions of people in China, India, and Eastern Europe are now poised to enjoy the opulence of a First World standard of living. Yet much of the world is unhappy, grumbling resentfully about American "imperialism."

That's the whole picture: America, with all of its enormous economic achievements and military power, is crouching defensively against the resentment of the world.

This has been the odd character of the world for as long as I can remember. It seems that we are simultaneously rising to the stars and collapsing into the abyss. It is a sense of enormous achievement combined with crushing self-doubt.


Ask yourself: who is responsible for our enormous achievements? Our high-technology was built by scientists and engineers; the homes that house our 300 million people are the product of builders and financiers; our railroads, jet airplanes, plasma TVs, and portable music players--the whole panoply of a vibrant, prosperous civilization--are all the products of inventors, businessmen, entrepreneurs, financiers. All of our wealth and all of our power, including our high-tech military, flow from these achievements.

But who speaks for these creators? Who defines, defends, and celebrates their achievements? Where are the "idealists" who will fight for the political and economic system that enables them to produce?

For a while, the creators had their admirers and spokesman: the visionaries of the Enlightenment who believed in the power of reason to bring freedom and progress. But just as this vision was about to be realized, the intellectuals turned against it. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Mary Shelley summed up the reaction of the intellectuals when she wrote Frankenstein, the story of a man so carried away by the "hubris" of scientific knowledge that he creates a monster. We have been suffering under that curse of Frankenstein ever since.

While rational thinkers in science and business were figuring out new ways to improve human life, philosophers like Immanuel Kant "found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith." While America's Founding Fathers established the most advanced and progressive political system the world had ever seen, political theorists like Rousseau pined for the unspoiled barbarism of the "noble savage." Artists like Picasso ignored the extraordinary modern world growing around them in order to stare inward at their own anxious, fractured personalities. And modern-day "idealists," following this lead, rush to smash the windows at the nearest McDonald's or Starbucks to express their rage against the machine of modern civilization.

In short, the people responsible for action have done a magnificent job. But the people responsible for reflecting on the nature and meaning of our action, have walked off the job. Seeing the edifice of modern achievements constantly rising around them, most can't be bothered to figure out what makes it possible or how to defend it.

We are a society that is constantly, relentlessly out and doing--but with hardly anyone to help us figure out what we are doing and why. Hence our typical modern mixture: comfortable prosperity combined with anxiety and resentment; military power combined with self-flagellation and defeatism; a beacon of human liberty engaged in one long apology to the world's dictatorships.

It doesn't have to be this way. But if we want to change it, the doers and creators--the people who believe it is possible to go out into the world, understand it, and get things done--are going to have to take back the responsibility that we expected the old artists and intellectuals to carry for us.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and

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