By Bob Herbert
Maybe the economic stress has been too much. Looking back at the past few months, it’s fair to wonder if the country isn’t going through a nervous breakdown.
The political debate has been poisoned by birthers, deathers and wackos who smile proudly while carrying signs comparing the president to the Nazis. People who don’t even know that Medicare is a government program have been trying to instruct us on the best ways to reform health care.
The administration’s most popular anti-recession initiative was a startlingly creative economic breakthrough known as the cash-for-clunkers program. Over the weekend (presumably while the president was sleeping, because this occurred in the wee hours of the morning), White House officials whispered the official announcement that Van Jones would no longer be working in the administration.
The White House wishes it had never heard of Mr. Jones, who was hired to be its point person on green jobs. It turns out that Mr. Jones had used a nasty anatomical slur to refer to Republicans and once signed a petition suggesting that George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
There is no end to the craziness. The entire Republican Party has decided that it is in favor of absolutely nothing. The president’s stimulus package? No way. Health care reform? Forget about it.
There is not a thing you can come up with that the G.O.P. is for. Sunshine in the morning? Harry Reid couldn’t persuade a single Senate Republican to vote yes.
Incredibly, the party’s poll numbers are going up.
We need therapy. President Obama is planning to address the nation’s public school students today, urging them to work hard and stay in school. The folks who bray at the moon are outraged. Some of the caterwauling on the right has likened Mr. Obama to Chairman Mao (and, yes, Hitler), and a fair number of parents have bought into the imbecilic notion that this is an effort at socialist or Communist indoctrination.
As one father from Texas put it: “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement.”
The wackiness is increasing, not diminishing, and it has a great potential for destruction. There is a real need for people who know better to speak out in a concerted effort to curb the appeal of the apostles of the absurd.
But there is another type of disturbing behavior, coming from our political leaders and the public at large, that is also symptomatic of a society at loose ends. We seem unable to face up to many of the hard truths confronting the U.S. as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
The Obama administration’s biggest domestic priority is health care reform. But the biggest issue confronting ordinary Americans right now — the biggest by far — is the devastatingly weak employment environment. Politicians talk about it, but aggressive job-creation efforts are not part of the policy mix.
Nearly 15 million Americans are unemployed, according to official statistics. The real numbers are far worse. The unemployment rate for black Americans is a back-breaking 15.1 percent.
Five million people have been unemployed for more than six months, and the consensus is that even when the recession ends, the employment landscape will remain dismal. A full recovery in employment will take years. With jobless recoveries becoming the norm, there is a real question as to whether the U.S. economy is capable of providing sufficient employment for all who want and need to work.
This is an overwhelming crisis that is not being met with anything like the urgency required.
We’ve also been unable or unwilling to face the hard truths about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the terrible toll they are taking on our young fighting men and women. Most of us don’t want to know. Moreover, we’ve put the costs of these wars on a credit card, without so much as a second thought about what that does to our long-term budget deficits or how it undermines much-needed initiatives here at home.
There are many other issues that we remain in deep denial about. It’s not just the bad economy that has thrown state and local budgets into turmoil from coast to coast. It’s our refusal to provide the tax revenues needed to pay for essential public services. Exhibit A is California, which is now a basket case.
The serious wackos, the obsessive-compulsive absurdists, may be beyond therapy. But the rest of us could use some serious adult counseling. We’ve forgotten many of the fundamentals: how to live within our means, the benefits of shared sacrifice, the responsibilities that go with citizenship, the importance of a well-rounded education and tolerance.
The first step, of course, is to recognize that we have a problem.