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by William H. Benson

January 14, 2010

     Robert Downey, Jr. stars in the new Sherlock Holmes movie that Hollywood released this past Christmas season. Because it is an intricately-woven plot with a fair number of turns and twists, movie-goers must listen closely to the characters, an unusual request of most of Hollywood’s productions and made more difficult in this movie because Downey’s words come so fast and soft, almost unintelligible.

     The story includes all of the standard Sherlock Holmes trappings: Holmes himself—peerless and brilliant; Dr. John Watson, who, with Sherlock, lives at 221 A and B Baker Street; Mrs. Hudson, their domestic housekeeper; LaStrade, the inept London police detective; Irene Radler, Holmes’s female counterpart, played by Rachel McAdams; and a mastermind criminal, who, for this story, is named Blackwood. And then there is the gray and dreary nineteenth-century London setting—the Thames River, Big Ben, and horses pulling coaches over cobblestone streets.

     According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon on Sherlock—four novels and fifty-six short stories—the master detective was born in 1854 on January 6, a day I find most appropriate, at the year’s beginning. January derived its name from the Roman god, Janus, two-faced, seeing into the past, but also peering deep into the future, much like Sherlock. In the present Holmes can step into a crime scene, see from the clues what happened in the past, and using detective reasoning and logic determine what he, Watson, and LaStrade must do to trap the perpetrator in the future.

     The new year, 2010, yawns before us, inviting us to live it, and we wonder what it will hold. George Will in Newsweek considered 2009 “A Clunker of a Year.” And, Jon  Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, called for “The Case for an Optimistic Stoicism,” and then quoted from Meditations, written by the second-century A.D. Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever. The same substance, the same form. All of it.”

     Our ears long for a healthy dose of optimism, perhaps even a Marcus Aurelius stoic variety. A headline by Daniel Gross, another Newsweek columnist, shouted, “Snap Out of It! The dangers of economic pessimism.”

     Thirty years ago, America was adrift, suffering from galloping inflation, an Iran hostage crisis, a sluggish economy, and a cerebral but ineffective Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. Suddenly, from the wings, we heard a new voice, the California Republican governor Ronald Reagan, who startled everyone with his words, “There are those who think that America’s best days are gone, that we are now a has-been, a finished republic, but I say to you that America’s best days are in the future. We are the city on the hill, a guiding light for all the world to see and admire.” He was right.

     That kind of language uplifted and motivated a downtrodden American people then in 1980 and would do so again in 2010. But instead we read headlines: “How Great Powers Fall: Steep Debt, Slow Growth, and High Spending Kill Empires—and America Could Be Next,” and “An Empire at Risk.” Few words could be more debilitating.

     There are those who argue that the Republican Party must pull itself together, capture the independents and moderates, focus upon fiscal restraint, hold taxes down, finish and be done with these excessively foolish wars in third world countries that squander our people and resources, and then discard unaffordable federal government programs.

     Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor in Minnesota said, “You can’t say you are going to be fiscally disciplined and then go to Washington and spend like crazy. You can’t say, ‘We are against corruption and bad behavior,’ and then engage in corruption and bad behavior. I mean, people aren’t stupid.” Pawlenty further believes that “we should pass an amendment to require a balanced budget.”

     Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s Republican governor, believes that the Republican Party, instead of struggling for a grand political theory, should take back the moderates. “People are crazy if they think we win by getting more pure. We win by getting big.”

     “Elementary, my dear Watson,” supposedly said Sherlock Holmes, once he had explained how he had solved a crime, but according to Doyle’s canon, Holmes never did say that phrase, for Doyle understood that seeing into the future is not ever elementary.

     And yet the clues are all there for what we face in 2010, and we try to focus upon it and see it, but pessimism and a helpless feeling have obscured and colored the picture gray, like a dreary day in Sherlock Holmes’s London. Let the sun shine on America.