Published on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Somethings Happening Here
Is America Going to Change Now?
by John Balzar
It's not one of those everyday conversation starters, is it? It's not one of those questions we raise after having formed our own opinion as to the proper answer. Not like asking what did you think of so-and-so's speech. Or how about the Lakers' chances this year.
Perhaps it's a measure of change already underway that we're asking an important question for which none of us has an answer. The president tells us to get back to business, but it won't be business as usual. For travelers, life will be more tedious. For workers, more uncertain. For men and women in the armed forces, more dangerous and tougher. For New Yorkers, emptier. For many thousands of mourning families, less joyful and more painful, forever.
But there are broader, if not always so poignant, degrees of difference suggested when we look at our nation and ponder the question of change.
Fear is the foremost consideration, of course. How will life change with our homeland as a battleground? When will we next hear screams and see carnage? Will worries about safety distract us from other concerns, such as civil liberties, the environment, education, health care?
But something else is embedded in this question of national change: Hope. As in, let's hope for change, and for the better, in our everyday pursuits. For my liking, America has grown both too soft and too hard in the last quarter-century. Too soft in spirit; too hard of heart.
Individualism, which is our heritage, betrayed itself as a mass movement absorbed chiefly with wealth and celebrity. There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but they too narrowly defined our aspirations and success.
The fact that few of us could make it to the front of the pack created a national sense of malaise, even as we prospered materially. Some people got trampled along the way. Others became lethargic. A few violent. We spent our evenings as voyeurs, peering in on lives that somehow felt more meaningful than our own.
At the same time, those who triumphed became a new Gilded Class, the likes of which we have not seen in a century--a small group segregated by gated streets, private guards, personal jets, political privilege.
In countless ways, our values became trivialized. Gary Condit. Apocalyptic thinkers warned that we were lapsing into baby talk in our civic discussions. Monica Lewinsky.
If America is to change now, let's hope that we begin by rethinking those ideals we live by.
Not so many days ago, it was possible to alarm people at a social gathering by wondering aloud: Say, what do you suppose the meaning of life is, anyway? You'd scatter a crowd as fast as if you had lit up a cigarette in the host's living room.
I don't see the same reaction now. Introspection has been forced on us.
Is America going to change?
I believe the country, in fact, has reached a transformational moment.
War and economic upheaval hit like floodwater. The ordinary flow of events, when charged with peril, can jump banks and carve new channels.
Prior to the attacks, there were countercurrents building strength in our culture. Volunteerism was on the rise. More of us were relearning the pleasures of cooking and knitting and woodworking and gardening. Artisans and craftsmen were gaining social standing. Poetry, even if bad poetry, was resurgent. Prosperity became something to enjoy, not just table stakes in the ruthless competition for more. It was no longer presumed to be a face-saving lie when someone left a high-powered position to "spend more time with the family." Just beneath the headlines, throngs of Americans went searching for meaning in different directions.
So is America going to change now?
The answer won't be found by looking out across our vast landscape.
It will arise as the sum of a different question, asked 280 million times over, by each of us: Am I going to change? Then we'll know if America is going to.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times