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posted at 4:08 pm on June 13, 2010 by

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 The Optimistic Conservative.

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Excellent piece. My father lost his business during the Carter malaise. He reinvented himself and started another. He was resourceful, energetic and determined. He was an American.

But the Carters are always with us. Perpetual, arrogant, corrosive. It seems there are far more of them now. I can’t help thinking that simply “going on” with our work and self-reinventions isn’t going to work this time around. They are too much in our lives and faces. We need to do battle this time. We need to name them, discredit them, rout them.

rrpjr on June 13, 2010 at 4:44 PM

Nice take on this issue, J.E. I am hoping that Obama, who espouses the importance of reading opposing views, will read it. He might learn something useful about himself.

Howard Portnoy on June 13, 2010 at 5:01 PM

As long as they have to compete with the moral conscience of the morally conscious, they will always proselytize malaise and losers will flock to them.

ericdijon on June 13, 2010 at 6:59 PM

I am optimistic that one day soon all of the liberals will personally subscribe to Pete Singer’s way of thinking, and he will boldly lead the way for them into his brave new world.

Maybe then we’ll get some peace and quiet around here.

VelvetElvis on June 14, 2010 at 8:52 AM


Definitely one of your best. Great insight, timely issue, and your style just keeps getting better. Keep it up!

materialist on June 14, 2010 at 8:58 AM

Nice job. I keep waiting for Obama to summon the socialist graybeards to Camp David and pose this philosophical question: “anybody have any ideas”? When that happens, we will have come full circle to the bad ol days.

james23 on June 14, 2010 at 9:05 AM

Excellent. In my own naive way, I’d concluded in a much less elegant way that liberal’s always demonstrated a few collective character traits. There is an internal anger or bitterness that directly relates to authority. Not hateful oppressive authority but a natural authority. Like Jane Fonda.. did she really hate the US as much as she did or was that displaced anger at her own father. There also always seems to be some major character flaw. Like Sam Kennison’s “I can’t kill the best so I might as well enjoy it.” I hope that sometime soon it will again be good to be “good”, right, noble, upstanding, and all the rest of the Boy Scout law.

lm10001 on June 14, 2010 at 9:09 AM


stenwin77 on June 14, 2010 at 9:35 AM

I don’t respect anyone who doesn’t harbor “existential doubts.” In fact, I don’t even take such people intellectually seriously, just as I wouldn’t put much stock in the confidence of an antelope (if one could talk). I do respect people who have doubts and overcome them, just as I sympathize with those who succumb to them (although I probably wouldn’t prescribe such a capitulation as a way of life).
Life is certainly more fun when you think positive, but that doesn’t prove it has any ultimate meaning and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone his or her epistemological dyspepsia, so long as he or she doesn’t chew my ear off . Whoever actually wrote “the fool says in his heart there is no God” was protesting way too much.

Seth Halpern on June 14, 2010 at 9:40 AM

Damn nice piece. Thanks for the read.

Typhoon on June 14, 2010 at 10:10 AM