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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Nation of skeptics

Neither rhymes nor eloquent speeches are enough

Issue: "News of the Year," Jan. 2, 2010

It was an admittedly super-patriotic parody that someone slipped into my childish repertoire more than half a century ago. Of course, I knew the traditional lines from Mother Goose:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. / All the king's horses, and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again.

But to that sad account, I also learned somewhere along the line to add:

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But an American doctor, with patience and glue,
Put Humpty together, as good as new.

In the process, it wasn't just my boyish memory that got altered. My whole sense of optimism was enhanced, my trust in my country, my confidence in the competence of all those gifted people around me, and my expectation that even shattered dreams could be put back together. The little ditty wasn't much, and it certainly wasn't Christian-but like the doctor's glue, it helped cement my worldview into place.

As the year 2009 dissolves into 2010, I can't help wondering who feels more like Humpty Dumpty: President Barack Obama, or the people whom he has served as president now for nearly a year. Either way, there's a lot of scrambled egg on the floor.

What strikes me in the midst of that mess is how little believable optimism there is to counter it. Whether it's the rotten economy, the costs of ObamaCare, the spillover effects of Copenhagen, or the likelihood of Iran's latching onto half a dozen nuclear weapons, almost nobody is standing there-like the American doctor with patience and glue-and promising to take everything that's so wrong and make it just as good as new. And to the extent that anyone is making such promises, almost no one believes the glib guarantees.

ObamaCare is a great example. It has become, according to analyst Pete Wehner in Commentary magazine, "one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation we have seen in quite a long time; it borders on being radioactive. It also happens to be what Democrats, including Obama, are pinning their political hopes to. It is an amazing predicament Democrats find themselves in: they will suffer if they don't pass health-care legislation; and they may well suffer more if they do."

Could it be that what we're really watching is the final frustration not just of one long-cherished Democratic goal-nationalized healthcare-but of either party's ability to win the trust and confidence of the American people? Maybe what we're seeing is a rapidly accelerating ascendancy of skepticism. In the overall assault on ultimate truth, maybe we've reached the point where we've become a nation of agnostics with reference to public policy of virtually every kind. Nothing works, we've concluded. They're all rascals. Why should we trust any of them? The Republicans betrayed us-so we thought we'd give the Democrats another chance. Now they've done it too. Except that the cycles get shorter and shorter.

Some folks say what we really need is an American doctor with patience and glue.

What we've got instead is a president who came to his office not by virtue of his demonstrated experience in leading any complex entity or organism to a basic level of successful achievement or accomplishment. He hadn't. But he could inspire us, his supporters said. He was a thinker, and he could give passionate and eloquent wings to his thoughts, and he would help us soar toward goals we had never dreamed of. But the American people, the pollsters say, are tired of speeches. Some of the president's former friends in the mainstream media agree; they're saying he talks too much and does too little. Except that some of the same folks also say he tries to do too much.

All those are reasons that the floor looks so messy. Right now, the Great American Experiment looks more like the Great American Train Wreck. Any one of half a dozen factors, both internal and external, could explode in our leaders' faces. So something a good bit more super­natural than an American doctor, even with lots of patience and a bucketful of glue, is called for. These times beg for a good bit more than mere boyish optimism.
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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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