America’s ‘Can’t Do’ Spirit

Susan J. Douglas

Between plunges into despair and peaks of possibility, January has been a roller coaster ride. Let’s stand back and consider what we’ve witnessed, especially as each new event seems to roll over and eradicate memories of what preceded it.

During the State of the Union address, the stench of 'can't do' was everywhere. The 'party of no' means it.

Eight days into the new year, a crazed gunman opened fire in a supermarket, killing six people including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and injuring 13 others, most famously Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who remains hospitalized as of this writing. When President Barack Obama sought to soothe the nation through his eloquent speech in Tucson, Sarah Palin, having deservedly been criticized for her repeated use of ballistic, bloodthirsty language and imagery to describe her opponents, accused the press of indulging in a blood libel” against her. (In a happy moment, her already high disapproval ratings soared even higher.) After utterly hollow calls for more civility in politics, the House voted to repeal the healthcare bill. Then we got President Obama’s Happy Face” platitudinous State of the Union address, followed by possibly the most delicious moment of the month, Michele Bachmann delivering the Tea Party response while appearing to look off to the planet Neptar. And then the streets of Tunisia exploded, forcing the exile of its corrupt dictator, followed by the historic demonstrations in Egypt. In the middle of all this, Sargent Shriver died.

What’s been striking about this very short period is how we have been pulled, dramatically and in often very short sequence, between cynicism and demoralization on the one hand, and not just optimism, but a desire for the naïve energy of optimism (the audacity of hope?) on the other.

Many of us still want what Obama promised in 2008, of which he has given precious little. And in all of these events, the media – some quite traditional, some quite new – have played a crucial role in delimiting what is and is not possible. Are the ossified television news broadcasts now part of the can’t do” media, while Facebook, Twitter and blogs are their can do” counterparts?

With the exception of the magnificent Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and Gail Collins and Bob Herbert in The New York Times, we were told repeatedly that the Tucson shooting will not, I repeat not, result in increased gun control, not even to regulate the size of the magazines used by the likes of Jared Lee Loughner to mow down nearly 20 people. Indeed, in the wake of the shootings, what was most salient was America’s can’t do” spirit. Can’t control guns. Can’t have civil discourse. Can’t have better mechanisms for identifying and treating crazy people. 

During the State of the Union address, in which President Obama’s flat delivery did not match his optimistic rhetoric about claiming the future, the stench of can’t do” was everywhere. The party of no” means it.

So while it is now hard to think of which Republican can beat Obama in 2012, and it is also looking like the GOP is already overreaching politically, the Republicans constantly succeed where the Democrats don’t: in asserting what can’t be done, and having that impossibility become common sense in the media. They’re now trying to say we can’t have Social Security. Or Medicare. Or food safety regulations. The frame of deficit reduction,” no matter what, sustains this can’t do” mantra.

In the midst of this, we were reminded of the career and achievements of one of the greatest can do” public servants in recent memory, Sargent Shriver. Founder of Head Start (which was named by my friend, Holmes Brown, now 96, who worked with and adored Shriver), founder of the Job Corps, and the driving force behind both the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty,” Shriver was in many ways the embodiment of that energetic optimism of the 1960s. While watching old footage of him bounding from one challenge to the next, one recalls that while there were Dixiecrats, John Birchers and the KKK back then, they weren’t kowtowed by the media, and so couldn’t constantly say No Way in Hell” repeatedly to a national audience. Optimism had space to breathe.

The Tunisians and Egyptians, especially the young, are using Twitter and Facebook to say Yes we can!” The Republicans and teabaggers should watch this. Because what’s happening in North Africa is exactly what you get when you prop up only the rich and say No you can’t” to everyone else. 

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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