The modern United States is less hopeful than ever. We live in a time when cynicism about government is at an all-time high, when lack of trust in our most sacred institutions is the norm rather than the exception. Our knowledge has made us wary of politics; our modern pace of life has made us hard and unkind. Charlie Chaplin’s famous quote—we think too much and feel too little—rings true now more than ever.
Every day we are told to reason, to think, to be rational. This is at the heart of what our nation’s elite universities teach future leaders: Be rational and—yes—use your head, not your heart. Behind these narrow exhortations is another: Be realistic; do not hope for anything better.
Emotional thought and rational thought are perceived as incompatible.
This cynicism is problematic—not only because of its inaccuracy, but also because it is contrary to the philosophy that made America great. It is the sort of perspective a country adopts when it has lost its vigor and resigned itself to decline. It is the sort of mentality that enables the Bannons and Trumps of the world to scoff at anyone who dares hope for something better.
No leader has ever inspired by speaking only to the mind. No one has ever felt with his fellow man without using his heart. Our unique American history has been marked by visionaries who used reason and passion in tandem—reason like the tiller that guides a sailboat’s course, passion like the wind that propels it forward. Although reason can reveal the means to an end, it cannot motivate us to get there.
Let’s do better in 2018; let’s at least try to adopt a sense of empathy towards our fellow Americans. We’re all in this together, and if we wish to solve our most vexing national and international problems, we cannot rely solely on our reason. Some realities are too complex for that.
Viewing the world as a zero-sum place where the interests of states, corporations, or ourselves take priority over all else cannot help the poor. Thinking solely of oil or nationalism or one’s legacy or the next election cycle when deciding whether to go to war—while at the same time ignoring the broken families, the crushed bodies, the corrupting of morality and religion and humanity, the shattered dreams, the countless tragedies—cannot yield peace.
Today, we live in an America where individuals are expected to lift themselves up by their bootstraps even if their bootstraps are so worn there is no place left to grip.
We live in a polarized America where we doubt the sincerity of our closest friends, family, and mentors, where we assume that all our politicians have ulterior motives. We live, in short, in an America where cynicism is seen as good, where optimism and hope are derided as weak and ineffective.
This depression of the American spirit is profoundly alien from the country our forefathers knew. To someone who still believes in that America, whose Lebanese parents immigrated because they believed in it, it is frightening. One wonders what the Founding Fathers—steeped in religious idealism and the Enlightenment, striving for “high-mindedness” in all aspects of life—would think. They would likely be disgusted at the pessimism that swells modern airwaves. Did they not live in a time when the circumstances were infinitely more difficult, when the very creation of the country was uncertain?
This is not to say that cynicism played no role in the American past. It did. Nor is it to say that we should completely cast away pessimism or pragmatism. Sometimes—as in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, and Operation Enduring Freedom—wars are necessary. And often, teaching a man to fish is more effective than simply handing him that fish whenever he asks for it. Rugged individualism is not fundamentally flawed. A healthy dose of cynicism is no bad thing.
However, too much cynicism is. For it is the mindset most responsible for the quagmire that is modern politics, a politics full of statistics and strategy and harsh words and (increasingly) tweetable soundbites, yet largely lacking what makes life full—religion, spirituality, morality, philosophy, and a long-term vision of optimism. Most of our current leaders are not able to plan past the next quarterly budget, much less project a long-term vision of hope for a future in which the United States of America plays an active, positive role.
While we used to feel inspired by our country, we now feel disenchanted. While we used to hope, now we doubt.
As things stand, the type of mindset that allowed us to defeat Hitler and land a man on the moon is gone. And rather than listening to leaders who unite us, too often we pay heed to demagogues like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh—whose chief source of profit comes from division and discord.
The few modern figures (like pre-2010 Obama) who retain belief in the equal importance of empathy and reason are derided as weak, ineffective, and—most damningly of all—naïve. Indeed, in 2018, we find ourselves led by a man who may lack not only a head, but also a heart.
That’s a problem. If we want to recover our former greatness, we must first recover our hope. It’s a new year; let’s get started.
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