American optimism not obsolete yet

posted at 7:45 pm on July 8, 2011 by Tina Korbe

The first news of today was a disheartening humdinger of a jobs report, but it’s Friday evening and I’d rather not worry the entire weekend away with frets and fears about the economy and the ongoing deficit reduction talks (which might or might not net a plan to tackle the nation’s economic problems). So, when I came across this blog post on The Washington Post website, I couldn’t help but smile. The piece, by Post reporter and author Dale Maharidge, captures a few lessons Maharidge learned while traveling the country documenting the plight of the jobless for a number of books, the most recent of which is called “Someplace Like America.”

It’s evident to me that Maharidge and I wouldn’t agree about much in terms of what would help to solve the increasing problem of joblessness in America, but we certainly agree about one thing: The innate and irrepressible optimism that seems to characterize so many Americans across the country is an attitude to celebrate. Maharidge writes:

It’s very American to try to find the bright side. This goes way back in our history. I’m a student of the 1930s’ Depression and its literature. Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” saw a better future in the passage where Tom says he will be “Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy,” and people can build houses and grow the food they eat, and so on – it was an anthem to optimism amid bleakness. …

I’m encouraged by this positive attitude. In reporting our new book, “Someplace Like America,” … [o]ver and over, we found people who are changing their lives in a better direction. The message of “Someplace Like America” is that we all can learn from the people we documented.

As usual, citizens are ahead of politicians.

That last sentence Maharidge seems to write with a tone of lament, as though it would actually enhance American optimism if political activism (of the sort to encourage and solicit government intervention) automatically accompanied it.

But, to me, that last sentence is the capstone. Historically, Americans have rarely been known to wait for the government to give them the go-ahead to improve their lives. The history of the United States is peopled by pioneers, explorers, inventors. Always, the frontier appealed to the American consciousness and, even after we’d settled the vast space between one ocean and another, we found new frontiers — in space, for example, or, now, online.

Certainly, politicians need to catch up to the rest of the country, to recognize that what will spur job creation is, in a nutshell, smaller government — and that’s why countless voices in print, on air and on the Internet have called for action, for cuts, for caps, for general fiscal discipline from the president and Congress. The truth is, American optimism has already found an outlet in political activism, just not of the sort Maharidge would prefer — it’s called the Tea Party.

But until the federal government heeds the call to retrench somewhat, I’m happy to find something to celebrate in those intrepid, entrepreneurial Americans who live out the great experiment of self-government day after day by taking responsibility for their own lives, by living with discipline, by taking worthwhile risks and, above all, by choosing freedom over government favors.

 

 


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