Writers are always, to some extent, intruding on the patience of our readers by asking you to put aside a few quiet minutes to hear us out. (And believe me, we’re grateful when you do.) To ask you to indulge us even more frequently, as I’m doing here, should at least come with a promise to do my best to neither bore you nor hector you. No one needs that every week.
Before I tell a lie right at the outset, however, I’ll just admit I might have to backtrack on the hectoring thing now and then, because I’m worried. I fear for the survival of our democratic experiment both at home and abroad, because I can’t shake the feeling that the United States is no longer a serious country.
Of course, we’re still a powerful country. We have military muscle, from bullets to nuclear weapons, beyond measure. And we’re awash in money, with a GDP nearly as large as our next three competitors combined. We hold bags of patents and buckets of Nobel Prizes. The products of American institutions from universities to movie studios are exported across the planet.
But when it comes to seriousness—the invaluable discipline and maturity that allows us to discern matters that should transcend self-interest, to set aside churlish ego and emotionalism, and to act with prudence and self-restraint—we’re a weak, impoverished backwater.
Consider that in the same week that China surprised the United States with the test of a new hypersonic weapon, a study found that vaccine refusal in the summer of 2021 alone caused some 90,000 preventable American deaths. The Democrats openly bickered in Congress over an infrastructure bill they all want but have taken forever to pass, while the Republicans encouraged former government officials to ignore subpoenas investigating a violent insurrection.
While all this was going on, Donald Trump, an actual former president of the United States, stood before an adoring crowd and, unprompted, assured them that he did not, in fact, find “golden showers” to be sexually exciting. (If you do not know what that means, consider yourself among the fortunate few.)
Somehow, this was just another week in the life of the most powerful nation on Earth.
My cherished hope was that the election of Joe Biden would represent something of a symbolic return to seriousness, to a renewed understanding that politics is a mostly boring business that requires wonky debates about policy. And Biden, whatever his occasional goofy or unguarded moments, is indeed a serious man.
But one president can’t sober up an entire nation. We’re facing a slew of challenges, from reinvigorated foreign enemies to a dedicated authoritarian movement at home. And yet, as a people, we and our elected officials seem unable to focus even for a nanosecond with enough seriousness and deliberation to muster the cooperative, can-do perseverance that once characterized the American spirit.
I know, I know: Where do I get off telling other people they lack seriousness? I am, in many ways, a deeply unserious person. I am entering my seventh decade of life, when I should be complaining about the portions at the early-bird dinner. Instead, I play video games on a computer with lots of pretty blinking lights on it. My favorite genre of literature—science fiction—hasn’t changed since I was a teenager. I sometimes make juvenile lunges at humor and laugh too loudly at my own efforts. And I am burdened, if I am honest enough to admit it, with a fair amount of churlish ego myself.
But I believe in seriousness as a virtue, and I hope that I have learned when its presence in our lives is essential.
When I began my career teaching and writing about international affairs, learning Russian and studying the terrifying apocrypha of nuclear deterrence, I was young and callow, but I knew that I was engaged in matters of deadly seriousness. When I worked in the U.S. Senate during the Gulf War, I was sometimes caught up in patriotic fervor, but I knew—and my boss never let me forget—that real human beings, from America’s sons and daughters to innocent Iraqis, were going to die.
Later, I became a teacher to U.S. military officers. There was a lot of joking and camaraderie in the classrooms of our war college, but I was always aware that many of these men and women had seen horrors around the world that I could only imagine.
None of this means that we can’t be serious and joyful at the same time. Without laughter, we are lost. I firmly believe that the use of sarcasm—and its lesser forms, snark and scorn—is an art form. But I worry, as C. S. Lewis once warned us, that we are degenerating into pure flippancy, in which people discuss “every serious subject in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.” Such a country, to say nothing of a democracy, cannot long sustain itself on this kind of civic vapidity.
Anyway. This is getting too serious.
I hope you’ll join me in thinking seriously about challenges we face. In return, I vow to use my curmudgeonly powers only for good. And of course, I will continue to inveigh about important topics like the awfulness of people taking their shoes off on public conveyances. I will revisit the Cold War now and then to remind you that we’ve faced worse than what we’re up against now. And I will hold fast to my spiritual conviction that Led Zeppelin did not actually produce very good music.
If you think you’d like to come along for that ride, I’ll do my best to be an invigorating traveling companion.