Each year for more than a decade I’ve written a New Year’s letter, sharing some of the highlights of the previous year and projecting the future for my family and myself. We don’t, however, need to be reminded of the “highlights” of 2020, nor do we need platitudinous projections about 2021. Instead a wider view might serve as we sit on the verge of another year.
Having just finished reading “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe, I am struck by Wolfe’s optimism about the human race. In breaking with the editor who helped him launch his career, Wolfe identified the editor’s fatalism as the factor that necessitated their severance. Is that what it comes down to––are there two kinds of people: those who are optimistic and those who are pessimistic?
Wolfe’s novel covers the late 1920s and 1930s. He spent some time in Germany––a country whose culture he loved from afar only to discover in person the dark underbelly of hatred and evil that infected so many. That did not, however, discourage him in viewing America as a place of hope and inspiration.
Let’s examine the past century. Each of you can decide where you stand: optimist or pessimist.
The First World War is not a happy place to begin our journey. Millions of lives were lost unnecessarily as a result of rulers’ (misplaced) priorities and generals’ limited visions. The war was followed, we have recently been reminded, by a plague that added a toll of millions to the war’s devastation.
Then came a brief respite in the 1920s. Things were looking up. People put the war and pandemic behind them rejoicing in peace, with song and dance. Germany was unable to participate in the economic revival, however, as its economy had been saddled with enormous debt, although few saw the inevitable negative consequences of the terms of the peace settlement.
The end of the 1920s brought a new tragedy––a stock market crash followed by a long depression. Dire economic conditions worldwide did not come to an end until after another world war taxed humanity’s capacity for sacrifice.
It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the West discovered the depths of Hitler’s war on the Jewish people, in part because warnings and reports out of Europe had been ignored.
At the end of that war we again sought a lifestyle of hope. The economy grew allowing people to buy homes and cars. Colleges expanded admissions and optimism reigned as health care discoveries promised an end of long-feared diseases. The Korean conflict was a slight blemish on this period of hopefulness.
The 1960s reminded us of how far we had to go to live up to our ideals. The decade began with Blacks in the South seeking a redress of grievances and resulted in legislative civil rights victories although at the cost of sacrificed lives––Dr. King’s and both Kennedy’s.
Did we foresee how divided our society would become coming into the 1970s? We protested America’s role in Vietnam––some people not wanting to get involved in overseas struggles; others siding with Vietnam as one of the world’s poorest nations, ignoring the Soviet Union’s plan to convert poor nations to its ideology.
That was the beginning of a division that besets our country today.
Instead of progress, half of our country views the past half-century as a set-back, as a time when demands for equality were ignored or given lip-service. They believe their opponents (“White people!”) cheat at the game of life and that the disadvantaged need more breaks than the ones they’re already given. They also view the United States’ as a negative force on the world’s economic, environmental and cultural stages.
Those who identify as optimists see two hundred twenty-five years of progress towards the ideals of the American Revolution. They deny human perfectibility is achievable and reject government-imposed controls over thought and private life. They are opposed by those who are impatient for our society to achieve ideals that echo those of the Socialists and Communists––human perfection; an end to differences between men and women, rewarding of past victims of discrimination, and a government more involved in the outcomes of each individual’s fortune, rewarding those who don’t succeed on their own with services and wealth they feel they deserve simply by existing. They believe the rich can be taxed out of existence with no consequences. They believe that resources are limitless and therefore can be given away to anyone who arrives on our shores with open arms.
The electoral platform of the Democrat Party echoes the agendas of the Soviet Union of the 20th century and today’s Communist China. Communists in those countries applaud for it helps them advance their agenda. The Left blames the West for the disparities between peoples and promises that socialist policies can fix those disparities. Americans who endorse that scenario ignore the Socialist/Communist track record––the necessity of government top-down control, punishing individuals who fail to go along with the program by confiscating their property and imprisoning those who speak out too vociferously.
Conservatives rely on the inherent goodness of most people who they believe if left to their own devices will act fairly and honestly. They know laws and rules are necessary but seek to minimize restrictions in the belief that the outcomes are better when not imposed.
The liberal media tells the stories of people who have been harmed by capitalism and racial discrimination while the conservative media tells the stories of those who overcame disadvantages to make something of their lives and enrich the country. Both narratives have merit. Telling only one side does a disservice to the nation.
Americans will have to decide during the next several years which political philosophy they want to adopt. Some will blame the inevitable failure of the Biden/Harris Democrats’ agenda on Republicans and will seek stricter measures to prevent them from interfering, including packing the Supreme Court and revising the Constitution. Others will recognize that Democrat Party’s version of Socialism/Communism––enforced government equality––is worse than a dead end. It’s the precursor of running the economy into the ground and turning opponents into political prisoners. I hope I’ll be around to see which side will win out.