National optimism uniquely American

Posted: Thursday, March 05, 2009

When people outside the United States ask me to tell them about this country, I describe one aspect of it that I have always found extraordinary - and strikingly different from the rest of the world. America, or more precisely, Americans, are the most optimistic people on Earth. That's what I told an Iraqi refugee last year in Amman, Jordan, as she eagerly awaited the papers that would allow her to move to America.

Success, of course, is the mother of optimism. Success has marked American history, and optimism has moved into America's genes. Conversely, failure is the father of pessimism. A past filled with disasters teaches you to see the glass half empty, or to worry that it will break when it's full.

The greatest danger the United States faces in this time of economic crisis is permanently losing that sense of optimism; that edge it has enjoyed over the rest of the world. America's outlook is key to its willingness to take risks. It is the secret ingredient in its achievements and it's an essential element in that most American of ideals: the pursuit of happiness. It is the reason why the country is a magnet to ambitious and talented people everywhere.

In Europe, true optimism went out with the catastrophes of two world wars and the failures of utopian ideologies. Even the idealists there seem tainted with dark suspicion. America's sunny outlook is quietly mocked in the continent, with Europeans sounding like the mature adults who smile knowingly at the naive enthusiasm of dreamy young ones across the sea.

In Latin America and much of the developing world, the odds of dramatically changing one's station in life are so remote that poor people often believe they are condemned to a life of unrewarded struggle. In Asia and Africa, the idea that government is inevitably corrupt puts a limit on national confidence. I was in Moscow when the Soviet Union was collapsing. I remember thinking then that the Russians' seemingly congenital cynicism would prove the greatest obstacle in their post-Soviet life. After all, time and time again their attempts at a better life had brought ruin

For all the troubles the United States has seen - and every country has its share after more than 200 years - America's past has escaped some of the most devastating experiences that have befallen the world. It's easy to see how disaster has a way of sapping the sweet syrup out of optimism. The experiences of Sept. 11 and New Orleans after Katrina showed us we can wake up one day and find our world tragically transformed in a few hours.

My friend from Iraq has now arrived in this country. The America she has come to is not exactly overflowing with good cheer. (She must think I was lying when I swore this was the land of optimism.) The latest measure of consumer confidence shows that when we squint into the horizon all we notice are storm clouds. The economy is shrinking, and the markets are suffering from free-floating anxiety. The new president, who described himself as a Hope Monger on the campaign trail, spent his first month in office trying to push us into despair so he could convince Congress to pass his rescue legislation. After Bill Clinton told him he'd gone too far, his rhetoric soared again, and he promised America will be great again.

This economic crisis will end. There is no question about that; ask any economist. We don't know how long it will last or exactly how much it will hurt. But it will end. One day, we will need to replace our cars and our stoves. One day, what economists call pent-up demand will spark commerce and industry back to life. When that happens, some of the people who are taking risks now will be rewarded with extraordinary success. Dynastic fortunes will be made. The great-grand children of those people will recount how their ancestors built their fortunes during the Crisis of 2009.

My Iraqi friend has arrived at a time when the country's confidence is being tested. I still believe she will be amazed.

• Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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