Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | June 13, 2010


Most folks know that Jimmy Carter didn’t actually use the word “malaise” in his infamous “malaise” speech of July 1979. (Fewer know that the word “malaise” became associated with it through interview comments from the indefatigable Clark Clifford, who was at Camp David with Carter for his 10-day “domestic summit” in advance of the speech.  Clifford, alert readers will remember, is the memorable wordsmith who christened Ronald Reagan an “amiable dunce” because of Reagan’s opinions on strategic relations with the Soviet Union.)

Making war on malaise

At any rate, Carter took a lot of well-deserved criticism for that speech.  It was inappropriately introspective, but it was also depressing, negative, and unsatisfactory, in a way everyone understood instinctively.  Carter surveyed a “national crisis of confidence,” spoke of Americans discovering that “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning,” and then proposed to address the problem by setting fresh numerical goals for a US energy policy.

Talk about tin-eared.  Carter wasn’t even a competent demagogue.  But here’s the interesting thing.  In 1979 Carter took criticism from all quarters, including the mainstream media.  That little clause – “including the mainstream media” – is a remarkable thing to remember.  Because 30 years later, the MSM (and the avowedly partisan left-wing media, which mostly overlap) are all over the Carter Malaise speech.  They’ve thrown the red pens out the window and are now referring to it as “the speech that should have changed America.”

(Not kidding.  See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a sampling.  Who knew the anniversary of the Malaise speech was something leftists marked on their calendars?)

Carter was wrong about America then, and the left is wrong about America today.  The wrongness of their heads is deeply entrenched.  And the truth is that it’s they who have the malaise.  They are the ones with the crisis of confidence, the unsatisfied longing for meaning, the empty lives with no confidence or purpose.

Three recent op-eds have forcefully highlighted the genuineness and depth of this malaise.

1.  StatesmanshipOne was by Richard Cohen at the Washington Post in May.  Cohen is a long-time fixture of the journalistic opinion world (which speaks volumes about the journalistic opinion world), and in May he threw up his hands about all the yucky stuff going on in foreign lands and said, “Ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.”  More specifically, he was saying ain’t nothin’ Obama can do about it.  The oil surging toward the Gulf coast was his metaphor:  Obama making gestures but failing to arrest its progress is like Obama going through the motions of representing America to the world but failing to make any kind of dent in the intentions of all the hard-charging self-starters out there, with their designs on their neighbors’ property and livelihoods.

Here is Cohen’s ineffable conclusion:

Obama presiding over the unpresidable, the president overseeing the incomprehensible, the full panoply of meaningless power — Air Force One, Marine One, the limo, the motorcade, the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes — all amounting in this case to man railing against the sea, a somber lesson for us all. The spill goes on. The war goes on. The debt grows — and so, for too many of us, does denial.

Now, your malaise has to be really profound to make you say “the debt grows” as if Obama had nothing material to do with that, and is merely presiding over the unpresidable.  But the truth is that Obama could be doing a lot of things he isn’t doing, and could avoid doing a lot of things he is.  There are millions of Americans who can see that, about everything from Islamist terrorism to Iran to the Gulf oil spill, Obamacare, “crony capitalism,” and the national debt.

Cohen is the outlier here, the one who is out of touch with the humble reality that things would be different if our leaders changed what they are doing.  “There is a tide in the affairs of men,” Cohen seems to be saying, “and sometimes it brings thousands of gallons of oil ashore with it, and there’s not a blessed thing you can do about it.”  But, of course, you could deploy more ships with booms, for starters.

2.  Marriage.  The attitude of leftist opinion toward marriage is a bellwether of the nihilistic twilight settling over the Western left.  A link to this week’s argument against marriage in Newsweek (collected with other arguments, some “pro,” under the banner “Marriage Reconsidered”) appeared on Saturday in the Hot Air Headlines.

Now, for the overwhelming majority of people who heard Jimmy Carter’s Malaise speech in 1979, one of the top three things that gave their lives meaning, confidence, and purpose was marriage.  Along with faith and children, marriage has been the bedrock of all advanced civilizations.  It has never been solely about survival or propagation of the species:  it’s one of our most important sources of individual meaning and hope.

The authors of the Newsweek piece, meanwhile, marvel that although marriage, for many people, doesn’t even mean getting a tax break, Americans are still getting married in staggering numbers.  They speculate that this is due to our crass consumerism and consequent idealization of the ceremony.

There’s a lot of incoherence in the article’s argument, some of it unintentionally hilarious.  The authors ask the question, for example: if you’re going to wait to [get married], why do it at all?  Part of the answer unfolds here:

…the idea that we’d “save ourselves” for marriage? Please. As one 28-year-old man told the author of a new book on marriage: “If I had to be married to have sex, I would probably be married, as would every guy I know.”

Well, yes.  I’m not sure how that makes the authors’ point, but they deploy this passage as if it’s a trump card for their argument.  Bless their hearts.  Unlike Richard Cohen, they at least seem to understand that there’s something going on that they don’t get.  The rest of America hasn’t lost its sense that commitments not only can be kept, but are worth keeping.

“Healthy partnerships are possible, for sure,” they say, “but the permanence of marriage seems naive, almost arrogant.”  At least they have some awareness that others don’t see it this way.

3.  Life itself.  Peter Singer, who occupies a chair in bioethics at Princeton, wrote a 6 June op-ed for the New York Times in which he asked “Should this be the last generation?”  He poses his central question thus:

All this suggests that we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing the child into existence. This has come to be known among philosophers as “the asymmetry” and it is not easy to justify. But rather than go into the explanations usually proffered — and why they fail — I want to raise a related problem. How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?

There’s a lot more in this vein.  Singer – the author of Rethinking Life and Death, a book much criticized by conservatives, as well as a proponent of euthanasia and of tolerating bestiality as long as no harm is done to the animals – goes on to conclude that “it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe”; i.e., wrong to choose to let our race die out.  But for him it all hinges on “sentience” – and his endorsement of human continuation is decidedly tepid.

Richard Fernandez has a superb treatment of the Singer piece at Pajamas.  What strikes me about Singer’s op-ed is its utterly self-referential tone, and the wan conclusion such self-reference produces.  But it’s also striking for its lack of resonance with the mental and spiritual reality of millions of Americans who don’t harbor any such existential doubts.  Singer’s musings are weird and irrelevant: certainly not worth adjusting one’s behavior in response to.  They’re also emblematic of the outcome when you argue with yourself over “bioethics” and other related topics.  You can’t talk yourself into the irreducible posture of hope and belief that stands guard against nihilism and despair (however carefully the latter is euphemized as a commitment to “sentience”).

It’s easy to see why Singer has a malaise.  But, like Jimmy Carter and Richard Cohen and the Newsweek authors, he is epically unrepresentative of the great majority of Americans.  And one thing is certain about these people and their malaise:  they cannot triumph.  They literally cannot; they are a black hole of paralysis and weakness.  Like Nero, they are going to implode on themselves, and then someone else – for good or evil – will take order to the future.

Existential ambivalence is a parlor game; it doesn’t put food on the table or keep our property secure; it doesn’t do for us anything we actually need.  The people who indulge in it do so at the sufferance of the others who don’t.  But unlike these dilettantes of nihilism, I believe the American people – with their irreducible hope and belief, their pragmatic idea of compassion, their “git ‘er done” approach to life, their incredible capacity for forgiveness and renewal – will be standing, when the Carters and Cohens, Newsweeks and Singers have faded from the landscape.

The task of ignoring them we are performing well, as evidenced by the declining circulation of the media outlets involved.  Malaise is debilitating, but we are not its sufferers.  The prose of those afflicted by it is off-putting, bizarre, and pathetic to our minds.  The greater task for many of us is to define why it is, and from David Frum to Glenn Beck, those on the right are working on it diligently, in their different ways.  Remember this, in the meantime:  believing in good and doing good are strong, stronger even than evil.  Doubting and deconstructing good is weak.  The hubristic modern ascendancy of “deconstruction” is collapsing of its own fragility and irrelevance today.  It may not be morning in America just yet, but there is a faint golden-pink glow on the horizon.

Cross-posted at Hot Air.



  1. “There’s a lot more in this vein. Singer – the author of Rethinking Life and Death, a book much criticized by conservatives, as well as a proponent of euthanasia and of tolerating bestiality as long as no harm is done to the animals … ”

    Speaking of hypérbolé.
    The gratuitous last descriptor was really unnecessary. I love your work, (and this one too) but let’s remain grounded, shall we?


    • In demonstrating that Leftist mainstream thought is utterly incapable of defending America’s legitimate national interests (a matter of societal survival) is opposed to the most fundamental, foundational building block of societal organization and in questioning the desirability of societal survival itself is suicidal in outlook, labeling illustrations of Singer’s outlook as hyperbole is not only inaccurate but indicates an attempt at either minimization or outright denial of the issue.

      So for those of us less ‘grounded’ and thus more obtuse, please explain how mentioning that Singer has promoted euthanasia and expresses ‘tolerance’ of bestiality, to provide an explicit illustration of just how far from the mainstream of public opinion he is, qualifies as ‘hyperbole and unnecessarily gratuitous’?

      Cohen is expressing not only Carter’s but Obama’s basic attitude in foreign policy and Cohen writes for the Washington Post.

      Newsweek is, or was, a major media outlet, commonly thought to be mainstream Left in outlook.

      Singer wrote an op-ed for the New York Times…certainly the most mainstream of ‘liberal’ viewpoints.

      None of these have ever characterized themselves as far-left rags, yet all are expressing far-left, virulently radical points of view.

      The left has moved so far beyond Jack Kennedy’s liberalism as to now be unrecognizable. You are either willfully ignorant of that reality or being purposely disingenuous.

  2. I think there is a distinction to be made between the deliberately suicidal and those playing at suicide. Peter Singer and others are richly rewarded for coming up wtih “transgressive” ideas; and they are not expected to work them out in action. Thoreau went and lived at Walden Pond, however briefly, though he never lived in a packing crate as he suggested poor people culd. Singer has not been called upon to draw up plans for euthanasia for his family members or to actually experiment with bestiality and study the effect on man and beast. Writing up the ideas is what gets him and hundreds or thousands of his fellow academics and workers in NGO’s their fame and fortune. So we have corrosive assertions being continually reported, without any reports of experience and results to serve as a reality check.

    Yes, Singer’s assertions as reported by JED are hyperbole, and you might say JED is indolging in hypoerbole since she is reporting them as serious assertions, when in a sense that are not serious–not anything that Singer has ever tried to bring into action.

    But Singer’s ideas undermine the society in two ways. First, the destructive content of the ideas seems “well founded” because the ideas come from a prestigious university, as JED noted. Second, offering such ideas repeatedly and very confidently without any experience of how they work in practice attacks and undermines our habit of testing ideas against experience. In other words, muych of Singer’s work is a repeated assertion that it is not necessary to see how ideas have worked or do work in human society before adopting them.

    An example: Gardner many years ago promulgated a theory of multiple intelligences in teaching, wrote several books on the subject, and declared his intention of never supporting the theory with research with learners. REsult: hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers adopted the theory as a basis for action.

  3. I appreciate the comments here and agree with many of the points. I don’t actually think my statement about Singer’s view on bestiality is hyperbole, however, since it’s pretty much a quote of his own words on the subject.

    As for whether it was gratuitous to mention it, I appreciate hearing from Rocketman on that. It it didn’t seem gratuitous to me in composing this post, and on reflection, it still doesn’t. For one thing, Singer is widely known for this view, so for many readers it’s a memory cue, not an out-of-context zinger.

    But it’s also a useful shorthand method of conveying Singer’s intellectual posture, which Margo characterizes nicely as “transgressive.” He’s not someone who is mostly mainstream but has talked himself, through marginal excursions outside our ethical norms, into endorsing euthanasia and “quality of life” over “sanctity of life.” He operates, in terms of his intellectual musings, well outside our ethical norms. (Although as Margo suggests, he probably doesn’t go quite so boldly when it’s a pragmatic issue in his own life.) He makes a point of not cavilling at the implications of his “transgressive” ideas; referring to his expressed view on bestiality is a way of communicating that in fewer words.

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