WASHINGTON -- We journalists love to spend our time wondering what is the current mood of America. For one thing, when you write about one person or one group or even one city, the story involves only those immediately mentioned, whereas the country's mood is an all-inclusive designation.
Mood is also something people can fight over. One man's mood today may be fighting words for another man's mood tomorrow -- or a woman's instinct aroused to bash her husband over the head with a frying pan. In short, writing about the American mood almost always gets you an audience.
But when, for reasons that lie embedded deep and invisible in the psyche, I set out this beautiful early day of autumn to examine the country's mood, I was soon hit with a terrible -- indeed terrifying -- new reality. There IS no new mood. You can't very well write about a resignation being a mood unless you want to bore your readership to death, but that seems to be what we have on our national dinner plate.
I should have guessed from some of the headlines and depressing leads in recent stories. "Gunman kills 12, but the media are moving on" -- that was the second-day headline in The Washington Post on the man who shot up the Navy Yard right here in Washington. "Looming shutdown feels old already" -- that was the Post's second-day headline on the potential government shutdown over funding Obamacare.
It reminded me of a time when I was working in Africa and interviewed some Tanzanian newspaper editors in Dar es Salaam. It was around 1980, high anti-America time in the Third World, and the editors kept criticizing the U.S. for intervening in Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc.
It took me not long to get irked. "Look at the French," I said. "They just moved into Central African Republic. They stopped in Mali and were looking around as to where to go next. Why don't you criticize the French?" I paused and threw them a confident look of derring-do. Finally, the leading editor said, with just a touch of grandness, "The French do not respond!"
I knew I was defeated. Likewise, it seems to me that the mood in America today is one of non-response. I noticed it first after one of our brilliant recent politicians, President George W. Bush, led us into two hopeless "wars of choice." When I was one of the few columnists who wrote against this policy, I received almost no response from my readers.
And when the White House began eyeing Syria last spring with one of those strange, panting looks (after, of course, locating Syria on a map), I still held on. Surely, I thought, THIS time we will not -- we would not, we could not, we shall not -- get into another war! Not, at least, without a great uproar moving like thunder across the country from the people -- no angry protests, no marches in the streets.
Just shows how wrong you can be.
President Obama might be feeling some of my same anger. When he spoke Sunday night on behalf of those killed by yet another American gunman in the Navy Yard, he said in anger that he senses "a creeping resignation" in the country and that such mass homicide "is somehow the new normal."
"We cannot accept this," he went on. "As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there's nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. ... These families have endured a shattering tragedy. It ought to be a shock to us all. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation."
But where is the transformation? Oh yes, I know there is a great conversation on the Internet, on Facebook, on Twitter, a good deal of it about how porno movies are made, about Anthony Weiner's own little obsession, about bullying nice kids to their deaths. But where is the great old conversation we used to have about our nation, indivisible and with liberty and justice for all? Let me give it a try.
In the 1960s, I was a board member of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, and many of the other members were officers of big corporations, banks and companies then based in Chicago. With this backing, we could -- and did -- do marvelous things. Clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, the Masons, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, innumerable women's groups and clubs organized programs that left few Americans untouched by feelings of belonging and of caring.
Today, those corporations celebrate their selfishness by moving their companies to Hong Kong and Brazil. Service clubs still do worthy jobs, but they are not very strong anymore. Today, America is divided by a lack of institutional unity, by immigrants who generally come for jobs and money, and by technologies of communication that only divide and demean us further.
I guess I'm not as crazy as I thought I was about a resigned populace. Couldn't you do me a little favor and show me how terribly I'm wrong?
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)