Maureen Dowd : Affluenza Nation

Friday, April 3, 2009

You know you’re in trouble when Old Europe chastises you for being too socialist.  But, hey, nobody’s perfect — except maybe Michelle Obama, who landed in London with a huge Obama entourage, wearing a daffodil yellow dress and looking like a confident ray of U.S.A. sunshine.  As President Obama renegotiates the terms of American leadership this week in Europe, those of us left at home struggle to get over our affluenza.  That condition, the bane of the middle class, is defined in a book of the same name as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”  The president is obviously worried about leaving us alone and under the economic weather; that must be why his Department of Health and Human Services put up some advice Tuesday on its Web site about “Getting Through Tough Economic Times.”  “Economic turmoil (e.g., increased unemployment, foreclosures, loss of investments and other financial distress) can result in a whole host of negative health effects — both physical and mental,” the government Web page sympathized, offering warning signs such as “persistent sadness/crying” and “excessive irritability/anger” and tips for managing stress, including: “Trying to keep things in perspective — recognize the good aspects of life and retain hope for the future.”  And one particularly useful for Rick Wagoner and those of us in the newspaper business: Develop new employment skills.  It even went so far as to list suicide warning signs that sagely included “looking for ways to kill oneself.” 

I heard a French scientist on a radio show once explain that Americans would always insist on supersizing things because our “reptilian brain” likes things big.  We’re still big, as Norma Desmond said.  It’s everything around us that’s collapsing and shrinking…..That’s the big nettle we’re grasping.  How big do we need to be to still feel American?  How big can our national debt grow?  How big can our cars be?  And how big is our clout abroad these days?  Will Michelle’s style in Europe make as big a splash as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s?  The cowboy push by W. and Dick Cheney to be a hyperpower and an empire left America a weakened and tapped-out power, straining to defend its runaway capitalism even as it uneasily adapts to its desperation socialism…..President Obama must nurse us through our affluenza, addressing both our visceral need to be big and our cerebral decision to be leaner — and much, much smarter.

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