Roberto Rossellini’s film “Germany Year Zero“ from 1948 can hardly avoid frightening anyone who sees it with its vision of post-war physical and moral desolation. Is it a picture analogous to America 2016? Not to Kevin Williamson. Williamson, officially National Review’s “roving correspondent” and a writer I admire greatly, took aim at the ever-present “drama queens,” gloom-and-doomers by another name, who see America’s current state much as Rossellini saw Berlin’s.
In short, Williamson advised American pessimists to calm down: the country is not where it ought to be, but its state is a far cry from the sad condition our earlier countrymen of 1968 or 1860 knew all too well. He didn’t mention Rossellini.
Believe me, as one who grew up amid the voices of doom and gloom—in my family, for example—I appreciate Williamson’s line of argument. There are folks in this world who see apocalypse in every headline—quite literally for some evangelical Christians; it’s their knee-jerk reading of current events. In my youth I heard my share of “the end is nigh,” the same refrain I’ve listened to during the intervening years, and it’s a pretty sure bet that I’ll hear it the next time I visit my hometown in Texas. The fact is, after being subjected to dire predictions of impending doom for decades, I tend to be skeptical though not as surely as Kevin Williamson is.
But, since this is a time to confess my inner thoughts on the subject, I’m not exactly sanguine either about the state of nation. I remember 1968 pretty well (I was nearly seventeen on election day that year) and the end—of America, I mean—may not have been quite as eminent as some people believed, but there was reason to be concerned: the War in Vietnam was raging; the Chicago Seven and company did their dirtiest, rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, just as Mayor Daley did his dirtiest, crushing them; Richard Nixon, a hardball politician of the worst kind, beat Hubert Humphrey, a socialist disguised as a Democrat; the government had debased our money by suspending the coinage of silver (actually in 1965); free love and “mind-expanding” drugs were the going crazes among all too many of the young; and LBJ’s Great Society and the remnants of various New Deal programs were beginning to show how un-great they really were, with the welfare state and the noxious Aid To Families With Dependent Children just beginning to work their wicked wonders on black families as illegitimacy began to rise in direct proportion to subsidies to black women.
That’s all to say that 1968, along with the immediate years leading up to it, wasn’t the best of times. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Kevin Williamson’s other benchmark very bad year, 1860.
Well, all right: today things could be worse. And there’s much that is worth celebrating. As Kevin points out fairly regularly, America is an economic dynamo, violent crime really is falling, and no matter how much we lament the takeover of Hollywood, the universities, and the central government by the denizens of the Left (see Michael Walsh’s book The Devil’s Pleasure Palace if you don’t believe it), Americans remain, if not ideologically capital-C Conservative, at least temperamentally conservative. Yes, things might be much, much worse.
Allowing for all of that, I can’t say I’m ready, pace Williamson, to start huzzahing the apocalyptic close call we avoided that was not a close call to begin with. If 1968 had Vietnam, 2016 has ISIS and internet-inspired terrorists, a group even harder to identify than the Vietcong. The “Summer of Love”? We’re dealing today with the effects of a drugs-and-sex culture today so prevalent that it appears the norm. The black families that were entering the federal welfare line in ’68 are now in their third generation of government dependency—keeping in mind that to use the expression “black family” is almost an exercise in irrelevance.
The government that spent so much in 1968 to fuel its statist projects seems frugal compared to our current monetary profligacy. And the American business dynamo, which must be one of the wonders of the modern world, has not seen three percent growth during Obama’s two terms. How robust it will be under the burdens of a national fifteen-dollar minimum wage, a fully implemented Obamacare, and the draconian regulations dancing in Hillary’s mind makes one’s head spin.
Still, Kevin Williamson is right in much of what he says. We are a resilient people. But traditions of toughness and flexibility do not guarantee survival, especially when common sense, historical knowledge, reason, sound principles, and the bedrock of faith are sneered at as outmoded. True, the abysmal pessimism dogging the steps of so many of the prophets of doom and gloom offers no remedy for a country in these dark times; but neither does a Pollyannaish suggestion that the “drama queens,” as Williamson’s article’s puts it, “take a chill pill” (although a staffer may be to blame for that phrase).
America today may be a far cry from Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero,” but all one has to do is look at Detroit to realize that losing a war isn’t the only way to achieve a state of complete physical and moral ruin.