Since Kindergarten, maybe even earlier, people have told me things like “Trust your instinct” or “Don’t second guess yourself,” and of course that old chestnut, “Go with your gut.” Yea, I know I’m starting out this article sounding like Andy Rooney, but I promise that I have a point. The idea behind all of these clichés is simple: reflection is bad. Reflection muddies otherwise clear vision. Your initial reaction is usually the right one. In other words, instinct is better than thought.
This notion, of course, is nonsense. Always second guess yourself. Ignore your gut; what does your head say? First reactions are always unreliable. Our instinct as a species is to overreact. Consider our collective first reaction to the United States’ credit downgrade a few weeks ago on the heels of our self-inflicted Debt Crisis.
Here’s what I typed the day after the downgrade:
I guess it's official now: the United States is in Decline. We narrowly escaped default in the eleventh hour with a plan that promises to cut trillions from programs that benefit the working and middle classes without asking a penny more in tax revenue from the richest one percent. But at least that meant that China didn’t own us quite yet and our impeccable credit history would remain untarnished. Unfortunately, Standard & Poor’s, the very company that helped cause our recession with its inaccurate ratings of banks, decided to downgrade us anyway just for the hell of it. That’s right, the United States is now officially the country equivalent of your neighbor that bought that brand new Corvette he couldn’t afford and stuck gaudy custom rims on it, destroying the car’s resale value and his credit in process. We’re that guy. So like the Romans or Mayans before us, we’ve reached our Decline.
Even before the downgrade there had been plenty of other symbolic moments this year that suggested our best days were behind us. The U.S. shuttle program— you know, the program that put a man on the freaking moon, just so he could plant an American flag there as a way of showing the Soviets and every other nation on Earth who's boss—is over. Superman, who has long stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!” actually renounced his U.S. citizenship. Perhaps most tragically, Japan defeated us in our cherished national pastime of women’s soccer.
But is Decline really such a bad thing? Think about it. Whenever you’re on a rollercoaster aren’t the drops the best part? You only fear them for that brief moment of pause when you’re looking down, but once you get moving that’s when you feel the most exhilarated. Now that we’re going down, we might as well enjoy the ride. There’s a lot to look forward to, actually. For one thing, we’ll no longer need to travel abroad to see the ruins of a once great civilization. We can do that at home. Why go to Rome to visit a crumbling Coliseum, when you can do that in Oakland?
When I was younger, I was optimistic about the future and figured it was going be exactly like the one presented in Back to the Future Part II, but now that we’re a mere four years away from 2015 I see no signs of hoverboards becoming a reality [ed. note: the shoes exist, though!]. It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that the future is going to be a lot more like Road Warrior: a post-apocalyptic wasteland with no central government, populated by gangs of lawless marauders battling for what little oil supply remains, and the only way to survive is by using your wits and a sawed-off shot-gun. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the Tea Party’s vision for America: no meddlesome government to rob people of their freedoms by providing wasteful services like healthcare and waste management. Every man, woman, and feral child for themselves (and believe me, if we cut the education budget anymore, American children will only be able to communicate in grunts and growls). The few people who could survive in this brutal, Darwinian landscape would look to charismatic, deeply religious right-wing frontier heroes like Rick Perry and Mel Gibson.
...On second thought, however, I guess I overreacted didn’t I? It’s been a few weeks now and it seems our society did not collapse. The United States has not yet descended into tribal warfare, and the dollar continues to be legal currency rather than those rocks I started hoarding when I assumed that we were headed for a rock-based economy. Boy is my face red. Civilization continues, somehow.
* * *
Shortly after our flirtation with financial collapse, across the Atlantic they faced some more serious social upheaval. The Huffington Post had fun using the titles of old punk seven inches as headlines: “London’s Burning,” “Anarchy in the UK,” “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” (well, not that last one, but I really hope they use it as a headline one of these days). Time magazine took things a step further with its cover story “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West).” While I admit Europe’s political and economic prominence in the world has certainly faded (and will likely continue to do so) isn’t it a little rash and defeatist to declare the fall of the entire continent? I mean, hasn’t Europe seen worse? Perhaps around 1939 to 1945? Does that ring a bell?
Seriously, how short is our memory as a species? I don’t mean to minimize the dire status of the US economy at present or suggest that the Western world in general does not face great challenges in the coming decades. But it’s silly to confuse conflict with collapse. Every generation faces upheaval and adversity. Let’s not throw in the towel prematurely. Why do you think they call our grandparents "the Greatest Generation?" It’s because of the adversity they overcame rather than the success they achieved. Why back in the ’30s they used to have beans with a side of dirt for dinner— if they were lucky!— and that was after they had walked fifteen miles home without shoes from their after-school job at the steel mill. You get to have pizza with unlimited toppings and then play X-Box on your couch until you pass out.
Anyway, my point (slow to emerge, I know) is that rather than throwing collective tantrums about the direness of our plight every time a new challenge arises, how about we spend a bit more time reflecting on solutions? Stop predicting our doom once a month, because in the immortal words of Richard Pryor we, “Ain't Dead Yet, Motherfucker!!
Forget your first reaction to this article, what’s your second thought?