Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Doom and Bloom

Someday they’ll have a softball game or food fight between the Yea-sayer’s and Naysayers to settle the matter. The two strains run through our national character as the punitive voice comes up against the permissive. Our Enlightened Deist founders had to contend with those anal Puritans. But maybe the differences are more hard-wired than a function of theology or politics.

If language is any bellwether it’s no contest. Negative words far outnumber the positives. Google, which tallies our every utterance in some grand ledger, has it that un words swamp their counterpart by huge numbers. The bad to good ratio is 5 to 1, unhappy to happy 260 to 1. The Thesaurus lists twice as many synonyms for unpleasant as for pleasant.

Are we a species of sour pusses? Do we see out of jaundiced eyes? Why do we get such kicks from bad news, and ads from candidates which smear and scandalize their opponents? Make a vampire movie and they will come. The grizzled, womanizing, recovering alcoholic anti-hero trumps the Boy Scouts of America model every time. Flawed characters feel like us, that’s why.

Freud and Oprah have consorted to encourage us to spill our guts. Anyone without a deprived childhood has been deprived. We are all in recovery. When asked at random for the intersecting event in their lives most people single out a death or trauma that forced them to be the way there are. Victimization is our default position and a vocabulary has been amassed to describe it. Have we become as melancholic as the Russians?

Maybe our negativity is an antidote to those insufferable happy faces, good fellow, well-met, painted smiles and happy endings. Perhaps cynicism is a natural response in a consumerist society with a built-in sniffer for hype and the inauthentic. Pessimism might be well-aligned with the decline of the American empire.

On the other hand it could be just a lag in language. Words for community, for caring, and all the varieties of love seem to have been nearly taken out of public discourse. We speak of childhood scars more than the nourishment we received. We are more fluent in varieties of despondency, despair, dejection and depression than in permutations of love. Boys have trouble using the word, love. If everything is described as awesome or cool the language becomes impoverished. Unlike the Eskimos relation to snow we seem to lack the words to express empathy and compassion without risking ridicule.

Hallmark cards have pillaged the warm and fuzzy words and sucked the life out of them. They have raided the common tongue and now we mistrust sentiment. Writers seem more inclined to prowl the darkness than shine a light and critics hone their barbs rather than their faculty for appreciation. In the end, of course, life is a tender and clumsy dance, violins and kazoos, petals and nettles.

Now I should follow these words and hold my vituperative tongue against the new Confederacy and their slate of mendacious fools. But it comes so easily and if I swallow my rage I may break out in a rash. Besides, there is so much malignant about them that has earned my scorn. Maybe it’s enough to know when to scowl and when to sing.

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