40 Years Ago Carter Warned of a Loss of Confidence in our Institutions and General Lack of Unity

Scott Deshefy


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On July 5, 1979, President Jimmy Carter canceled his scheduled address to the nation, communing instead with workaday citizens to find causes of America’s problems. His “malaise speech” followed 10 days later. Carter, first president to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, intoned about our inabilities to solve underlying problems, especially energy. To blame, he posited, was a national loss of confidence in our institutions and general lack of unity, meaning and sense of purpose in our lives. At crossroads, Carter urged us to choose paths of common purpose instead of fragmentation and self-interest. The latter, he warned, led to canards that freedom was a “right to grasp for ourselves advantages over others,” a road of perpetual conflict between narrowing interests.

Fatigue complaints, flooding Google searches and medical advisers, suggest Carter’s prognosis was right. A new malaise confronts us, one digitally enhanced and built upon aimless, intractable conflicts between Democrats and Republicans. Lacking personal fulfillment and bored, Americans increasingly resort to social media to get a rise, finding “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But, because anger is easier to incite and exploit than other emotions, repetitive exposures to anxiety on social media are taking emotional and physical tolls. Anger creates stress, stress induces fatigue; profits rekindle from anger. Unsurprisingly, Frances Haugen’s “60 Minutes” interview and Senate subcommittee hearing exposed Facebook’s decision to maximize user engagement by allowing algorithms and apps which amplify misinformation, divisiveness and hate speech. By putting “astronomical profits before people,” Facebook not only endangered young girls’ mental health on Instagram, but eroded consensus reality, fostering isolationism which led to the January insurrection.

Alarmist rants over 15,000 Haitian refugees, poised beneath a bridge connecting Ciudad Acuna to Del Rio, were just another jolt of cortisol for white nationalists and xenophobes. Border policy reforms with Mexico have been warranted for decades. But despite spikes in immigration, U.S. population growth (0.58% in 2021) keeps falling, thanks in part to aging demographics. Asylum seekers and other migrants, forced to leave their homes by violent expulsion, warring factions and climate change, need streamlined paths to American citizenship with comprehensive vetting. While awaiting hearings, provisions must be made with Mexico for humane detention, vaccination and other healthcare, family cohesion and fair deportation when needed: all on massive scales. Migration is a natural phenomenon of population dynamics, resource limitations and competitive exclusion. When habitats deteriorate, animals move or die. Humans are no exception, be it ecological or political impetus, and climate change means worsening problems.
A democracy trailblazer, Haiti was enslaved by European colonists from Portugal, Spain and France from the time Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 until the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the only successful slave revolt in history. During the U.S. occupation (1915-1934), chained Haitians were forced to build roads defending against resistance-fighter countrymen. For centuries, plantations and slave-grown crops made Haiti foremost producer of coffee, sugar and molasses. Many Connecticut businessmen made fortunes accordingly. But combined deforestations from sprawling plantations and charcoal production impoverished the nation, making Haiti particularly susceptible to natural disasters (e.g. heavy rains). In the past 11 years, Haitians have suffered earthquakes, hurricanes, devastating floods and mudslides, cholera, COVID-19 and political violence, including the assassination of Jovenel Moise. That constant conveyor of crises has forced many from our hemisphere’s poorest neighbor. What occurred in Texas happened in Florida in the 1970s. Then, roughly 56,000 Haitian migrants, fleeing political chaos in search of asylum, forced construction of America’s first modern detention center. Then as now, Haitian refugees were met with force, not empathy, and those caught by U.S. immigration cops, unlike other migrants, were immediately deported to Haiti, not intermediary countries for hearings. Title 42 and fear-mongering are means to expel asylum seekers without giving them due process.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.