Like no other nation on Earth, the United States reconciles the human capacity for skepticism and optimism. Our political system is based in large measure on rank skepticism: the idea that individuals, factions, parties and states will always seek advantage often, an unfair one.
The genius of the Founding Fathers was to devise a Constitution that finessed rather than ignored human frailty. Other systems of scientific secularism and religious fanaticism cling to the hope of the perfectibility of mankind. Think Marxism or al-Qaida style Islamism.
The American system and to a larger extent, capitalism seeks to tame extremist passions to improve the human condition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the two-party system that vies to control a government that divides power among three branches.
If you don't think the separation of powers is a profoundly skeptical concept, read the Federalist Papers that helped shape the Constitution. "Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape?" Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6.
"Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?"
In spite of this healthy skepticism maybe because of it the United States is also the most profoundly optimistic nation in the world. All people, our founding document states, are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "The New Colossus" pronounces: "Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning."
Lately, though, the torch shines a bit less brilliantly, the lightning flashes a little less brightly against the darkness.
Government institutions that were supposed to protect citizens have blundered. Businesses allegedly too large to fail are going bust. A governor tried to auction off a Senate seat like a mule. A crooked Wall Street philanthropist took investors for $50 billion, and hardly anyone noticed.
Our lives are suddenly filled with many more zeroes financial zeroes and ethical zeroes. Economists like to talk about Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction. There's a lot of destruction right now, but not much creativity to be found.
Bonds of trust have been broken. Economic, political and social relationships are suffering.
In today's darkness, poisonous skepticism has shoved healthy skepticism aside ... and then given way to a dangerous cynicism. Those perennial prophets of American decline and failure are attracting new followers. They've been wrong in every decade for the past 50 years. "Maybe this time," a lot of people are thinking, "they're right."
The danger now is that optimism is vanishing. The great American edifice is tilting precariously, skeptically.
Who will restore the balance? Who will repair the broken bonds? Who will kindle a light against this darkness? The same representatives and regulators who presided over the current debacle? Probably not. George W. Bush? Bless his heart, no. Barack Obama? Let's hope so. There's no greater task this dark winter.
At this time of year, Christians celebrate a major holiday, Jews a minor one. Both celebrate light.
Think about that. Why would ancient people people bereft of LCD flat screens and halogen headlamps optimistically choose to celebrate light at the darkest time of year? Because there's no better time, no more important time to do so.