New Year, No Fear

Another year blows by like so many snow pellets riding a ferocious east wind. In crossing the artificial dateline on Pope Gregory’s calendar, how do you tally progress versus the countervailing forces of fear and greed?

Snow-streaking

Sideways snow falling in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, Dec. 30, 2014. Photo © William P. Diven.

On balance the human species survived 2014 without actually destroying the planet. That counts as a positive although one friend isn’t so sure. Would be fine with her if Homo sapiens somehow erased itself leaving earth and the animal kingdom to proceed without our interference.

Still, unless an asteroid strikes first, it’s an open question whether our population can survive on its current trajectory of fouling our own nest and battling among ourselves. Will technology or enlightenment save us? Will plague or war doom us? Or will we simply cook slowly until the last loin-clothed survivor expires at the North Pole?

More at hand is the idea that the United States is somehow so exceptional as to be immune to the forces of nature and history. We are, after all, an ongoing experiment in self-governance run by humans subject to their graces and failings. The jury remains out on how long we can sustain such a radical process.

Our better nature offers much of which to be proud and makes us a beacon of hope inside and outside our borders. We’ve cleaned polluted rivers, quit blasting radioactive dust all over ourselves from desert bomb tests, made food, vehicles, job sites and homes safer, banished from law racial segregation, put men on the moon, inched closer to predicting earthquakes and tornados and preventing dread diseases, and grew into an increasingly vibrant and diverse society. We’ve even, to the surprise and joy of much of the world, elected a black man as our president.

Our self-inflicted troubles, however, hold us back. The scars of Vietnam barely scab over before we initiate another unnecessary and humiliating war again built on misleading the public. Media giants shrink the news sources that once informed us while expanding the sideshows that distract us. Manmade chemistry in our air, food and water circulates within our bodies. The criminal numbers racket morphs into state-sponsored lotteries. Vast wealth shifts to the already well-off as the middle class stagnates. Prisons bulge. Education policy devolves into angry politics and corporate profit. New laws limit voting. Torture becomes public policy in a country founded on the rights of man.

And then there’s fear. Fear of social and environmental collapse. Fear of disease and dementia. Fear of black teens at the mall. Fear of white cops on patrol. Fear sold to us by profiteers peddling their pills, politics and prejudices. So many fears real and imagined.

I fear we are becoming the sum of our fears. All the good works in place and yet to come could be undone if those fears win out. People are not stupid and most are not ignorant. We do, however, see the world through our individual lenses and find it difficult to look around them to see what else is going on.

Chalk some of this up to our better nature that over the last several decades removed the shackles restraining diverse and multicolored groups from full participation in society and governance. People secure in the old ways fear adapting to the new, which doesn’t make them evil, just conservative in the traditional sense. Those pushing the changes aren’t evil either, just liberal in the traditional sense. Layer over all this that black president who by his mere presence unleashes fears running deeper than we thought or hoped.

This divergence is nothing new. My grandfather the capitalist took as socialism President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to save the country from the Great Depression. Even earlier a prominent ancestor tried to convince George Washington only a monarchy or military government could save the new country. The undercurrent of paranoia over conspiracies, subversive elements, tyrannical government, short skirts, assaults on religion, and Irish, Jewish, Latin and Asian immigration, to name just a few of our historic fears, flows deeply in our societal DNA.

Not many generations ago the possibility of a Catholic president fueled the membership of hate groups. Now few would blink at the prospect. The Red Scare of the early 20th century led to the roundup of “dangerous” aliens, many of them citizens guilty only of holding unpopular opinions. The roundup of U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage during World War II speaks for itself. The Red Scare of the 1950s spooked people into looking under their beds for communists and questioning their neighbors’ loyalties while the toxic politics of the era steered us into Vietnam and fertilized the military-industrial complex. Now national paranoia lets the government spy apparatus track us at the expense of Ben Franklin’s warning from 1755 that those who give up essential liberty to purchase temporary safety deserve neither.

And so, my friends, best wishes for the New Year. My forecast for 2015 is no better than anyone else’s, so I won’t waste your bandwidth. I will note it appears our economy is picking up some speed, and we’ve officially extricated ourselves from two wars although the bloodshed continues. Vietnam is now our friend of some years, and even though we haven’t exactly kissed and made up with los hermanos Castro, our long-pointless feud with Cuba may be ending. Otherwise the world continues as always to be a place of great virtue and inhumanity. Fear if you must, but don’t let it define or consume you. I only know we’ll have good days and bad days and will find it hard to get ahead if we the people live in fear of each other.

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