4.04.2008 | The cheese stands alone

"The cheese stands alone. The cheese stands alone!" So says loveable loser Carter Doleman in the 2003 flick Scorched, a movie in which a group of small-town bank employees working dead-end jobs individually decide to take action to improve their lives by robbing their employer. Carter, the only one whose idea of success is to land a job at the bank, yells this realization in a moment of self-empowerment before deciding to get dressed up for his interview.

And so we have President Bush staring blankly into the camera, alone, in the midst of world leaders at Thursday's group photo at the NATO summit in Bucharest. The photo waa seized upon by the German publication Der Spiegel to suggest that he looked like "a defiant child with his head against the wall." Certainly it has echoes of Bush's adventure with a locked door in China in 2005, but perhaps he was just more eager than his counterparts to get the thing over with.

All this serves as pretext, then, for a new New York Times/CBS poll, which has asked since the early 1990s whether Americans believe America is "on the right track." For the first time since the poll was taken, 81 percent of us have said "no," including a majority of Republicans. With all the headlines that have greeted us about the falling Dollar, rising oil prices, job losses, etc. this might sound like a reasonable thing.

But not to a talk show host I found on the radio dial this morning, who mocked The New York Times for declaring that "the sky is falling" and said that "wrong track" is "pretty strange language for a poll" (perhaps it was so strange to him he didn't realize "wrong track" doesn't mean "end of the world" — it's the start of a process). He then took his first caller, who happily declared that he wasn't worse off than he was four years ago, and that people should just "go to a restaurant" (assuming people can afford one these days).

Pessimism such as that displayed by The New York Times, the host argued, "becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," and he declared himself proudly to be one of the one in five Americans who believe everything is going just fine and dandy, thank you very much. The caller told us Ronald Reagan showed us optimism is key to addressing our problems. While it helps to face them with a sense of optimism that we can solve them, it certainly doesn't help to pretend everything is going just fine to the point that it prevents us from identifying problems to be solved.

Caller and host agreed on a bumper sticker slogan — "Annoy a liberal — work hard, raise a family and be happy." I prefer to remember the lesson of Voltaire's Candide, in which the eternal optimist Professor Pangloss refused to make any judgments about his own hanging — or in Sondheim's dramatization, praised the design of the rope even as it was being drawn around his neck.



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