Jimmy Carter's Malaise on Steroids
Back in 1979, Jimmy Carter gave a televised address that has been called the "national malaise" speech. It's true that the word "malaise" doesn't appear in it, but Carter's remarks on America's "crisis of confidence" basically boiled down to the same thing. Most political analysts agree that the speech — and Carter's ineptitude dealing with the Iran hostage crisis, which began four months later and continued through the rest of his administration — not only ensured he'd be a one-term president, but probably paved the way for the Reagan landslide.
Americans don't like negativity. "Don't worry, be happy" is the smiley face we like to put on things. Optimism and a conviction that things will have a happy ending seem to be our expectations.
This is what bothers me about a particularly dangerous spot, where that malaise seems to have metastasized: our expectations about the future.
The New York Times ran an op-ed September 18: "The World's Population May Peak in Your Lifetime. What Happens Next?" It notes that population replacement levels in virtually every developed (and less developed) country are now below replacement level. In other words, we are on the verge of an era where, absent disease or war, the human population will shrink radically.
Those folks still in a 1970s time warp — who still think Paul Ehrlich and his Zero Population Growth groupies were right — may applaud. They will probably be joined by climate fundamentalists who begrudge the human carbon footprint on their idyllic world of lichens, pine trees, and babbling brooks. (But if there's no human being there to listen, does a brook babble?) But Dean Spears, the author of that op-ed, rains on their parade, claiming that human shrinkage may "arrive far too slowly to be more than a sideshow in the effort to save the planet."
Spears seems most worried by the clash between many people wanting fewer or no children amid their more prosperous material living standards and the economic realities that declining demographics means for the welfare state they believe provides those standards. Without children, a top-heavy demographic pyramid of old people will topple, whether we are talking about the lack of those children actually to care for their elderly parents or to contribute to social security schemes that pay the state to do that job. Inter-generational compacts work only when there's a generation coming to assume the task.
But what I find most incredible about these discussions is what they say about our cultural, social, and mental mindset. Jimmy Carter's malaise seems to have blossomed in our attitude toward the human future.
For most of humanity, the idea of "life going on," of passing on oneself and one's family through one's children, was self-evident. Being able to pass something on to one's children — most basically, being able to pass life on — was seen as a blessing. "May you live to see your children's children" (Ps. 128:6) was a blessing in Israel.
What has gone wrong? For most of human history, that aspiration drove people forward, even despite adversity. Indeed, it was typically amid adversity that the instinct for survival was strongest. In the depths of the hell of the Holocaust, how many fought for life?
And today — without disease and war in the picture — we are dying off?
Have we become such slaves to our things that our very lives are given away in the process? Has our aspiration for a certain standard of material prosperity corroded our love of life itself? Back in 1969, long before most people in the world had heard of him, a Polish cardinal named Karol Wojtyła looked at the flight from fertility and presciently asked: "Why is opposition to [the giving of life] in inverse relation to proximity to the 'hunger belt'?" In other words, why was the alienation from life greatest in the countries where, objectively speaking, life was easier?
This is not a problem for "data-driven analysis." It is a question of values. It was captured by an observation made in conjunction with a family-planning campaign launched to decrease population in 1960s India.
How does one communicate in a country of many different languages and many people who cannot read any of them? Pictures. On the left, a picture of a multi-child family in a poor hovel, minimal standards, poor clothing, and simple food. On the right, a picture of a middle-class family in a nice apartment with two children, a phonograph, and a bountiful table. Except that many people viewing the poster looked at the picture on the right and commented, "Poor family! Only two kids!"
Sometimes a picture — and the words that follow — are worth a thousand op-ed pieces.
If there has not been a seismic shift towards a culture of death — toward a culture that has made its peace with gradually dying off — consider simply the current phenomenon of "affirming" the chemical castration and/or physical mutilation of minors in the name of "identity." A number of jurisdictions are already toying with the idea of setting norms that parents who "affirm" such barbarism are the kinds of parents the modern state wants to encourage. Consider what that means. It means the ideal parent is the parent who is willing to say that his child should never be able to be what today's parents themselves are: parents. It says that bringing your family's lifeline to an end is a legitimate, indeed laudable, "choice."
The 20th-century American poet Carl Sandburg once wrote that "a baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." The problem is whether 21st-century man shares that divine opinion.
John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.
Image via Raw Pixel.