Though the title of this post indicates that I’m going to be looking ahead – and I am – looking ahead often requires that we look back as well. This not only provides perspective, but also can demonstrate that our efforts are not futile. What has succeeded before can succeed again.
Certainly we can’t ignore what has happened in 2020. As for me, the most horrifying, after the onset of the virus, was the unsettling of our society after the murder of George Floyd and what came after, with all the protests and the accompanying unsettled state of affairs in America. Others took a more hopeful look and helped me move back into my natural optimism. It’s the usual way I am but even I was scared as I tried to deal with what faced in 2020, and I found out how hard it is to be the most positive fellow in the conversation.
One of the most encouraging essays I read on the subject helped me very much. And it not only was good for me, it offered a direction for Americans. But wisely the article began by helping us remember where we are, and how much needs to be done. It was former Vice-President Al Gore, writing in The New York Times. In his essay (“Where I Find Hope”) he takes stock of what’s been happening and lists – carefully and responsibly – what we are facing as a democracy created to help its people:
And though the pandemic fills our field of vision at the moment, it is only the most urgent of the multiple crises facing the country and planet, including 40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis.
It is a scary list, and it’s enough to make us wonder if we’ll ever get out from under all that seems destined to hold us back, to destroy us as a civilization. It makes us wonder if we can ever be a democracy again.
But Al Gore doesn’t stop there. Like all of us, he understands how tough it’s going to be (“Mr. Biden’s challenges will be monumental,” Gore writes). And he has his own way of phrasing where we can go and what we can do. It’s a path based on hope, just as he says in the title of his essay. At the same time, he builds on – as Americans have been doing for more than two hundred years – opportunity. And what we Americans can do. He shows us just what we can accomplish when taking advantage of the right spirit, which will lead us to where we want to go and need to be:
What lies before us is the opportunity to build a more just and equitable way of life for all humankind. This potential new beginning comes at a rare moment when it may be possible to break the stranglehold of the past over the future, when the trajectory of history might be altered by what we choose to do with a new vision.
For one thing, I must admit right off the start that I don’t know all the answers. I’m not a sociologist or expert on anything having to do with policy or how to move a society forward. But I am an American, and if I were asked how we accomplish what we need to do, I would look back at what we’ve done in the past to solve what seemed to be insurmountable problems, or just issues that sought ways to help those who – for various reasons – were unable to help themselves. It’s best to look not at the failures but at the successes.
Of course I can’t list everything (this is not about history but about examples) but we could do a lot worse than to begin with City College founded here in New York in 1857 to offer a high quality, tuition-free education to the poor, the working class, and the immigrants of New York City. Then there was the work of Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives, which in 1890 made it clear how bad life was for the poor and led to many reforms for helping them, not only in New York City but ultimately in other parts of America as well. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps was designed to provide jobs for young men who had difficulty finding employment. Another example of “thinking out of the box” was the Tennessee Valley Authority, created to support manufacturing and economic development for the Tennessee Valley, a part of the country particularly affected by the Great Depression. Through the TVA, an entire section of the country was brought into the 20th century with the provision of electricity and accompanying benefits. And finally, coming along in my own lifetime, the amazing Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly known as the Interstate Highway System, which started in 1956.
And connected with what we’re dealing with now, in 1947 six million people in New York were immunized against smallpox within a few weeks in April, followed by success with polio vaccines leading up to the United States being polio-free since 1979. And, for me, the greatest success of all – because it gave us the opportunity to support others – the Marshall Plan, the American initiative passed in 1948 for foreign aid to Western Europe, ravaged by World War II.
An Attitude Counts
Do you get the picture? It is possible to solve problems, however insurmountable they may be. It all happens – despite the political posturing and for us today, the apparently on-going polarization of American politics. But the picture can be changed, as it was to accomplish any of the things I’ve listed above. Each of these involved (if I’m remembering my history lessons correctly) much discussion, must conversation, much understanding from any leaders involved that they were working not to strengthen one side or another, but to make life better for all Americans (with the exception of the Marshall Plan which was for other countries, to help them survive what they had suffered). None of these successes were put forward, developed, and realized for just one group. It was – again – for all Americans.
True, some of these projects seem to have benefitted specific groups (i.e., students in New York in the case of City College, residents of the Tennessee Valley in the case of the TVA) but when these types of programs succeed in specific places it becomes clear that they can succeed on a broader basis as well.
Can we get to that level of altruism and selflessness again? I think so, which is why I refer to what I’m writing here as optimistic. But others have said it better.
Peter Wehner, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wrote recently about the current U.S. President and his few days left in office. It was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read about the hell-ish situation our country is in, but Wehner didn’t leave it at that. Like Al Gore, he takes us to a higher place, and like Al Gore, he got me to thinking about hope, and what we can achieve if we hope and if we go above where – as a society – we are now. Wehner describes some of the fearful situations we are likely to find ourselves in between now and January, and then he takes that high road Michelle Obama brought into our political conversations:
Beyond that, and more fundamental than that, we have to remind ourselves that we are not powerless to shape the future; that much of what has been broken can be repaired; that though we are many, we can be one; and that fatalism and cynicism are unwarranted and corrosive.
There’s a lovely line in William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude”: “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
There are still things worthy of our love. Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity. We need to teach others—in our individual relationships, in our classrooms and communities, in our book clubs and Bible studies, and in innumerable other settings—why those things are worthy of their attention, their loyalty, their love. One person doing it won’t make much of a difference; a lot of people doing it will create a culture.
Maybe we understand better than we did five years ago why these things are essential to our lives, and why when we neglect them or elect leaders who ridicule and subvert them, life becomes nasty, brutish, and generally unpleasant.
Just after noon on January 20, a new and necessary chapter will begin in the American story. Joe Biden will certainly play a role in shaping how that story turns out – but so will you and I. Ours is a good and estimable republic, if we can keep it.
So I want us to create (or, in my opinion re-create) a culture that takes America as high as we can go. Does that make me an optimist? I think so. Are you an optimist, too?