Years ago, President Nixon nominated a legal nonentity named G. Harold Carswell for a seat on the supreme court. Derided by the newspaper columnists as "mediocre," Carswell was defended by a conservative Nebraska senator, Roman Hruska, who said, memorably: "There are a lot of mediocre people in America who ought to be represented."
Now Hruska has been reincarnated in Senator Charles ("Chuck") Grassley of Iowa, who said the following a few days ago:
"You know, what? What makes our economy grow is energy. And Americans are used to going to the gas tank (sic), and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve (sic) our standard of living, you have to consume more energy."
Like the true-blue mediocre Americans of the Nixon era, American consumers (as we like to call ourselves) have the representative they deserve today in Senator Grassley. He expresses perfectly the dominant thought out there, which is as close to being not-a-thought as any thought can be. And this kind of proto-crypto-demi thought is exactly what is going to lead this country into a world of hardship.
Instead of preparing the public for changing circumstances that will inexorably require different behavior on our part, our leaders are setting the public up to defend a way of living that can't continue for practical reasons. The question remains: are our leaders doing this out of cynicism or stupidity, or some other reason that is hard to determine?
Cynicism would mean that they know exactly what the score is with the global energy situation and our predicament in relation to it, and don't trust the public to deal with the truth. Two weeks ago, I was on a speaking program in Dallas with investment banker Matthew Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert, an alarming book about the state of the Saudi Arabian oil industry. I asked Matt what he has encountered the time or two that he has had an audience with George W. Bush. Apparently, the president's reaction to Simmons' message (which is that we are in big trouble) is a kind of curious incomprehension, as in the old expression, is that so?
Personally, I don't believe that Mr. Bush or the people around him do not understand that oil production worldwide has about topped out, and that whatever oil is left belongs mostly to other people who don't like us very much. But public acceptance of this reality would mean the end of many illusions supposedly crucial to our national life, most particularly that we can continue to be an easy motoring society, and continue running an economy based on its usufructs.
But the psychology of previous investment is a curious thing. It compounds itself insidiously, and now we not only suffer from our misinvestments in an infrastructure for daily life that has no future, but we also suffer from the political investment in continuing to pretend that everything is okay. That is, if Mr. Bush went on TV tomorrow and told the public we have a problem, the public would want to know why they weren't told sooner, and why they were not directed to some purposeful adaptive behavior, and Mr. Bush's team, the Republican party, would be discredited for failing to do so.
While I doubt that the President and his posse are too dim to comprehend the energy trap we're in, there certainly is plenty of plain stupidity in the rest of our elected leadership, of which Senator Grassley's remarks are Exhibit A. To be more precise, actually, Grassley's statement displays something closer to childishness than sheer stupidity. It comprises a set of beliefs or expectations that are unfortunately widespread in our culture, namely, that we should demand a particular outcome because we want it to be so. This is exactly how children below the age of reason think, in their wild egocentricity, and it is the hallmark of mental development to grow beyond that kind of thinking. But the force of advertising and other inducements to fantasy are so overwhelming in everyday American life that they may be obstructing the development of a huge chunk of the population, something that becomes worse each year, as proportionately more adults fail to grow up mentally. This state-of-mind is made visible in Las Vegas, our national monument to the creed that people should get whatever they want.
What I wonder is: when will my fellow citizens discover that their thinking and their behavior are unworthy of their history? That we are entering a time when these things simply aren't good enough, aren't enough to meet the challenges that reality now presents. Or are we too far gone? It's possible that we are. After all, life is tragic, meaning that happy outcomes are not guaranteed and that people who forget that usually come to grief.