Outside column: Entering Sector D

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008

There's something about the word "disembowel." Or "depravity," or "disfigurement" - about so many words that begin with the letter "d." Divorce, destitution, doubt, drugs, dirt, dwindle. So many of them are on our lips just now - though not "disembowel," and we should be thankful for that much. Once more, as a nation, we have entered Sector D.

As in: debacle, depression, debt and debauchery.

Which is to say: mission unaccomplished in Iraq, world stock markets on tumble-dry, subprime mortgages imploding, Britney Spears.

People watch their houses plummet in value and say: "We'll just have to make do."

Do. D. Do as in doom, which is mood spelled backward, as in the national mood that dotes on rising global temperatures, falling test scores, and death from diseases such as mutant tuberculosis strewn across the continent by defiant airplane passengers.

Dyslexia. Dementia. Dysfunction.

Our leaders have a new motto: Defeat is not an option. If it isn't, why do they keep saying it all the time? Distraught Democrats dread demagoguery and decline.

If the '70s were the Me Decade, this one, the Zeros, has been the D Decade ever since the 9/11 terrorists demolished the World Trade Center.

Dearth. Disgrace. Dirt.

This keeps happening. As a nation, we veer like bad drunks from triumphalism to despair. Maybe it's an American thing. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville spotted Sector D but didn't know what to call it when he said of even our upper classes that "a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and they seemed serious and almost sad even in their pleasures." Henry David Thoreau was the genius who discovered Sector D when he said: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

When Franklin Roosevelt said we had "nothing to fear but fear itself" and Jimmy Carter decried a national "malaise," they were talking about Sector D.

Depressed, doleful, daunted.

Sector D is a neighborhood in the American mind, the psychic equivalent of the neighborhood you find yourself lost in after getting off at the wrong exit on the New Jersey Turnpike, a winter neighborhood strewn with broken glass, and packs of dogs circling your car as you struggle to fix a flat tire on a dead-end street while derelicts glare at you over a barrel fire and darkness descends.

Sector D can also be found in the very best neighborhoods. You know that house with that perfect family with all the dogs and ski racks and those golden children who have perfect scores on their SATs and then the parents divorce and the kids end up kicking drug habits in rehab and writing memoirs about incest? Released from their envy, their neighbors indulge in another of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride, by describing the family as "dysfunctional."

The hymn "Abide With Me" was written for those who find themselves in such neighborhoods, metaphorical or real. Come on, sing along, you know the words: "Life's little day ... Earth's joys grow dim ... change and decay in all around I see ..."

Sector D in our schools: passing, but just barely. The next grade down is F. We will not discuss Sector F.

Day of Judgment, deadlock, drunk driving, default. But thankfully, not disembowelment.

• Henry Allen writes for the Washington Post.

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