If you want to understand why America is dissolving in chaos, check to see if a certain melodramatic exaggeration has turned out to be eerily wrong.
Whenever people are confronted by a prediction for the future that they simply cannot or will not believe, they always say, “It will never happen in my lifetime.” If the prediction is something they deplore and fear, they say it with calculated bravado, often adding a smug, snorty hhrrummph. If the prediction is something they have secretly longed for but given up hope of ever realizing, they bring the words out on a long sigh while shaking their heads. Whether spoken in dread or in hope, it is more than a comment. It’s a chant, like “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” The speaker is wise to spit three times through his fingers to ward off the jinx.
How often people make lifetime predictions depends upon what period of history we are talking about. After Rome fell, nobody did it because all lifetimes looked alike in the Dark Ages. The lifetime as we know it came into being in the ages of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings, but it was not a good idea to talk much about it because its exact length could be arbitrarily decided for you. It was only much later that discoveries and inventions like gunpowder, running water, and steam engines inspired the blend of imagination and superstition that make lifetime predictions irresistible. The coming of the railroads produced a bonanza. William Wordsworth was against them because they spelled the end of “vagabondage,” while the Duke of Wellington was against them because they “made it possible for the masses to move about.” Both of them located their own demises on the day before the last spike was driven.
It fell to Americans to turn “It will never happen in my lifetime” into a headline. Thanks to the endless stream of innovations that began with the approach of the 20th century—the “American Century”—we were vowing to beat airplanes to the great beyond, electric lights to the eternal darkness, radios and phonographs to the blessed silence, horseless carriages to the glue factory, and votes for women to hell. The lifetime predicters lost so many bets that by rights they should have given up entirely and faded away, but they kept at it, sustained by one last hope, in this case a great white one.
Since the end of the Civil War, our foremost unbelievable prediction had been “One day we will have a black president.” For decades a majority of confident whites both in and out of the South predicted, “It will never happen in my lifetime,” while a majority of discouraged liberals and their sympathizers spent the same decades predicting, “It will never happen in my lifetime.” This rare unanimity was almost sensual, like incompatible lovers arranging a politicized tryst: your lifetime or mine?
As things turned out, they were both wrong, which made November 4, 2008 the day that almost everybody died. Our progressive opinion-makers preferred to call it the opening day of “post-racial America,” but opinion polls during the campaign gave them pause. Black voters were coming in at 94 percent for Obama, so the non-black majority would have to provide the proof that the post-racial nirvana had arrived in time to meet all the lifetime deadlines that were by now at stake.
The most informal of all our political polls is the Just Because opinion. Inarticulate but stubbornly certain, it is the real voice of the average American voter of every stripe. Every presidential candidate is put through his Just Because paces. (“I don’t like him…” “Why?” “I just don’t…” “Give me one reason why not…” “Just because…”) This response is revealing, but it could not work the same way this time around because to express instinctive dislike or distrust of Obama was to brand oneself a racist, and nobody dared do it.
Armed with this guaranteed silence, our opinion-makers began adding “Like Him Personally” to their polling questions. It began popping up everywhere and dominated TV coverage. People opposed to Obama discovered that while they might “Dislike His Politics,” they had nothing against the man himself. (“Do you like Obama personally?” “Er, yes.” “Why do you like him?” “I just do.”) It was the Just Because opinion stood on its head. Voters didn’t know why they liked him personally, it was just one of those things. Thus the opinion makers could claim that post-racial America had arrived because so many people had found Obama personally amiable.
Election-night coverage also took care to highlight vote totals in warmer, fuzzier terms. What used to be called populations, precincts, and districts were now called “communities.” This started well before 2008 but since then it has gone from inclusive to compulsive. Our population now consists of the African-American community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community, the Native American community, the Muslim community, and non-Hispanic whites (i.e., the white community). This wasn’t supposed to happen in our lifetimes, but we have gone from E Pluribus Unum to Ex Uno Plures in much less time than it took to establish the former.
Having too many communities and not enough nationality has exposed us to the identity crisis described by Edward Everett Hale in his novella The Man Without a Country. It’s the cautionary tale of Lieutenant Philip Nolan, an American army officer court-martialed in 1807 for his innocent but unwise association with the traitor Aaron Burr. Raging at the unfairness of the verdict, he shouts out in court: “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
The judges give him his wish, sentencing him to live for the rest of his life aboard U.S. naval vessels. He is well-treated, and his military rank is always observed, but officers and crew are forbidden to mention their country’s name in his presence. He dines alone lest he hear the inevitable conversations about home. He sails around the world time and again, but he is never allowed to debark when his ship makes port. Forbidden to know the feel of land under his feet, his periodic transfers to different vessels are done by boat at night. When he asks for a map so that he might at least keep track of where he is, he is given one, but with the United States cut out. When he asks for newspapers, he is given censored ones with every mention of the United States scrupulously “redacted.”
It goes on like this for 50 years, until at last a sympathetic young officer speaks their country’s name to him and describes its growth, victories, and achievements since he last saw it. Weeping with joy and release, Nolan gets his country back in his lifetime, but only just. He dies that night.
(I read The Man Without a Country as a seventh-grade English class assignment in 1947 in the public schools of the District of Columbia. I tell you this in case you want to bet your lifetimes on its return to America’s curricula anytime soon).
What can we do today to banish the kind of identity crisis suffered by Philip Nolan? Shouting, “Damn communities! I wish I may never hear of communities again!” doesn’t have the same ring, and the word has been so enshrined by political correctness that it could be dangerous. Alternatively, you can out-community communities: collect a “family” of this or that, live in the woods, and have nothing to do with anybody. Or you can announce, “This is who I am,” take up narcissism, and be your own native land.
This last seems to be the preferred solution for the usual suspects: anybody named Kardashian, for instance, or somebody named Obama, or everybody in favor of same-sex marriage. For the rest who have nothing to be narcissistic about, there is the attention-riveting chaos that we see all around us. Routine crimes like normal murder are so last year, but beheading somebody because beheadings are the latest thing is narcissism for the masses.
The burgeoning dominance of what was once inconceivable is giving lifetime-predicting a second wind. We are starting to hear that word again. During the GOP’s 2014 midterm sweep, news anchors too young to remember Harry Truman’s 1946 Congress did not say, “that was before my time” but “that was before my lifetime.” The difference today is that the odds are stacked against the lifetime-predicter as never before. So many people are now so blasé about smartphones that take photos and deliver e-mail that the predicted event will have to be something really stupendous. You will have to move fast if you want to be the first to bet your lifetime against it, but not to worry: there will be an app for it.
Florence King is the author of With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy.