Narratives of Hope

Article excerpt

America once again considers itself the capital of the future," wrote Ronald Brownstein, commenting recently on "the return of America optimism." "Return" may not be quite the right word: even in its more pessimistic moods, mainstream America exudes a kind of optimism rarely found elsewhere in the world. Which makes talk about the "return of optimism in "America" even more significant. By all standards, this is optimism extraordinaire.

At the end of the century, pessimistic fin-de-siecle moods seem in retreat before a "pitiless procession of good news. The economy, now in its sixth year of growth, has driven down unemployment to its lowest level in a quarter century. The federal budget deficit, which once threatened to submerge Washington, is evaporating like a puddle on a sunny day. Crime is way down, and the rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock birth are stabilizing after years of explosive growth."

The consequence? Bright-eyed Americans, buoyed by a heightened sense of security, are smiling at the dawn of a new millennium. The "city on the hill" of past centuries has become the "capital of the future" -- a vision not too far removed from Ebenezer Baldwin's musings in 1776 that America would be "the principal seat of that glorious kingdom, which Christ shall erect upon the earth in the latter days."

Observing the capital from the periphery, one gets a sense that something has gone wrong -- the same sense one gets when reading about American teenagers with unexceptional academic skills who nonetheless extol the superiority of their mathematical performance as compared to that of their peers in other countries. The problem is not that they feel good about themselves even though their performance is shabby; the problem is that they need to believe that they in fact perform better than others in order to feel good about themselves.

The mainstream culture seems to reason: If you keep pumping personal and national egos, the world will be all right. Don't worry about actual math scores or the many lamentable public schools. Don't worry about the "dead streets" of inner cities, about low wages for unskilled laborers, about racism that still raises its ugly head. Instead, indulge in dreams about "the capital of the future." For when Americans feel good, they have babies, they work, they achieve.

But will the "feel-good" strategy work? And if it does, at what price?

The controversial film Amistad, which chronicles an 1839 slave mutiny, casts a brief shadow over the dawn of the new millennium by relating a messy story that threatens our sense of optimism, even superiority. We need precisely this kind of complex narrative which compels us to confront the underside of our history and thereby helps us imagine a just and peaceful future.

Named after the Spanish slave ship that was commandeered by its African captives off the coast of Cuba, Amistad portrays the capture and imprisonment of rebel slaves by American authorities and their subsequent grant of freedom after their legal claims reached the U. …