Thirty-five years ago today, President Jimmy Carter gave a live television address to the people of the United States. It was one of Carter’s most memorable and impassioned speeches while in office.
In his address Carter spoke to many of the challenges facing America in the late 1970s. The country was in a deep economic recession. We had become overly dependent on OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) for our national petroleum supply. Just as importantly, Carter argued, the country suffered from a lack of “moral and spiritual confidence.”
By 1979, Americans were still in the grip of OPEC’s cut from six years earlier. Carter, fresh from a meeting with business, labor, education, political and religious leaders at Camp David, had emerged with a new perspective on many issues, energy policy among them.
In his talk before the nation he quoted an attendee of the Camp David meeting as saying that America’s “neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife.”
To make matters worse, inflation had reached an all-time high. None of this instilled confidence in the national leadership. Carter acknowledged this difficult point.
The federal government — and indeed government in general — was seen by many as a bloated, ineffectual millstone impeding the success of the country.
Most evocatively, Carter claimed these problems grew out of a deeper, “fundamental threat to American democracy” — a “crisis of confidence” that metastasized into economic stagnation and “the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Bleak as his pronouncement was, Carter espoused a hope that our nation would regain its faith in itself and that we would march on to the “the battlefield of energy [where] we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.”
As history records, the rising wave of late 1970s conservatism squelched Carter’s calls for progressive energy policies and independence. Of all the casualties of the so-called “Reagan revolution” this is among the greatest.
Of course conservatives might argue that the nation’s existential reflection did provide a renewal of faith — just not a vision that Carter, a deeply religious man himself shared.
In this story there’s an important lesson for the people of Pine Bluff. While the energy crisis of the 1970s is not afoot, our community suffers from a persistent economic malaise, a City Council racked by petty division and no discernable plan to wrench the community from the jaws of blight.
Some of this comes from a well-practiced program of denial. Some of this is provincialism and cronyism, but the most damaging part of it comes from a lack of unified vision.
As a community we have no core purpose other than the fact that we’re already here. No longer a cotton town, a mill town, a railroad town, or a port town, we don’t quite know what to do with our collective self. We have no compelling positive self-definition. So, in its place we have become a place of crime, a place people leave.
It does not have to be that way. But if we are to reinvent and reinvigorate our city, we will have to first repurpose it. Only through a common sense of purpose can we expect things to improve.