A President who constantly lies; who surrounds himself with a royal court of amateurs and sycophants and will celebrate his reign with fireworks, a speech and a parade on the 4th of July. An Environmental Protection Agency that denies the science of climate change; children separated from their parents and kept in disgusting, unhealthy conditions; hate crimes, automatic weapons in the hands of mentally damaged people. The list could go on. But I do not believe that evil triumphs over good and that our nation and our planet will deteriorate and die. I hang on to hope because I see far more good than evil in the world. I plan to celebrate this Independence Day in a spirit of hope.
I try not to be stupid about it since there is plenty of evil in this world and far too many damaged and insecure people with power and with the resources to do harm. And they do harm. There is also a level of greed among the world’s super-rich that has generated a stunning degree of income inequality in the world. There have always been haves and have nots, rulers and the ruled. And there is good reason for rewarding success with wealth; but there is no good reason for punishing failure, lack of luck, and even lack of talent with pain and suffering. We have an obligation to each other to ensure that no one goes without food, clothing, shelter and health care and that every child has an opportunity to achieve their potential. I believe, that when pressed, most Americans agree that we need an adequate social safety net, that we are rich enough to provide for those who are poor. We may disagree about how we get from here to there, but in the final analysis, love and generosity triumphs over hate and mean-spiritedness. Barack Obama once urged us to keep hope alive and I do.
Hope is important because we must maintain a vision that we can do better tomorrow than we do today. In my lifetime I’ve seen it. It is true that the America of the 1950s and 1960s had less income inequality than we have today. I don’t know why that was the case. Perhaps back then there were only a limited number of visible high-status toys available for the super-rich. Multiple homes on multiple continents reached by multiple private jets and fabulous endless parties had not yet been seen on reality TV. Perhaps without a mass media providing endless images of visible elite consumption, there was less demand for limitless wealth. There was also less wealth to begin with and a recent world war and a great depression that may have reminded us that wealth and security could be fleeting.
But those good old days of the 1950s and 1960s in America also had more racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmental pollution than we have today. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball in 1947. In 1963, Dr. King shared his dream. In 1964, the Beatles forced southern concert venues to integrate or they would not perform. Congressman John Lewis was beaten as a young man marching to insist on his rights. This past weekend focused attention on the 50th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn. The courage of those fighting for their rights is always a source of hope for me.
Global communication and travel have made us more aware of the rest of the world and though many Americans fear foreigners, most do not and more and more of us have seen the world first-hand. In the 1950s and 1960s, global tourism was limited to the very wealthiest and most educated people in the world. Today, travel is still far more common and far less expensive than it once was. Global travel has become a lower-cost mass phenomenon, and global communication has become inexpensive and widely used. People all over the world interact on social media, smartphones, the internet, Skype and a wide variety of free applications that tie all of us together. Often, they visit with each other- online and in person. That means we learn more about each other and learn more about our common humanity. And that is a source of great hope. Even at the height of the Cold War John Kennedy was able to call on this spirit in his still stirring “peace speech” delivered in the Spring of 1963 at American University in Washington D.C. when he said:
“Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
We all cherish our children’s future. We all breathe the same air on this fragile blue oasis in the vacuum of space. Our family life and its wellness are more important than our political ideology. We can maintain our principles and advance our values, but we must set some limits to the destruction we are willing to see to bring that about. JFK and his fellow members of the “greatest generation” found the will and the courage to take on evil but approached conflict with an appreciation of the unanticipated impact of violent action. A deep knowledge of history, cultural distinctions and the fact of diversity, built JFK’s sophistication about world affairs.
To have seen the worst of humanity during the 1930s and 1940s built an appreciation of the need to do better and be better. We are challenged again today, but the challenges cannot be compared to the advance of pure evil that we saw with the rise of totalitarianism during the 1930s and 1940s. Autocrats are on the rise, but it is too soon to say that they will dominate. Meanwhile, we face other more complex challenges. The technologies at our disposal and the vast increase in the human population have resulted in an unprecedented existential threat. We have the power to destroy ourselves. The issue today is not only the possibility that pure evil will triumph, as it might have under Hitler, but that we will stumble into catastrophe out of misguided self-interest and a failure to anticipate the impact of our actions. That is certainly the issue with climate change, toxins, and ecological destruction. It is also the issue with mindless, xenophobic, race and religious hatred.
But my hope is that we will learn. Young people already understand far more about climate science than their willfully ignorant elders. They are motivated to learn since projections about 2050 are not the distant future to a 15-year-old, but the foreseeable future. They also travel more than their elders and share their classrooms with a globally diverse student body. I worry that President Trump is teaching young people that the president is some kind of mob kingpin who rules by whim, rather than the head of state of a nation that was once a shining city on a hill, a beacon to those in need. My hope is that the next president will restore the traditional dignity and symbolism of an elected official who is both the head of government and the head of state.
This July 4th, in addition to all of the usual celebrations- some patriotic and others simply a party, the president is throwing himself a tribute. According to Hallie Jackson of NBC News:
“President Donald Trump’s plan to add more bells and whistles to Washington’s usual celebration: music, military demonstrations and — notably — a speech he’ll make, likely from the Lincoln Memorial, according to a White House official. The Washington Post reports there may even be an Air Force One flyover…Trump was inspired by what he called one of the greatest parades he’s ever seen: the march marking Bastille Day in France in 2017. That’s when, as a guest of President Emmanuel Macron, Trump marveled at the display of military might. ‘I think we’re going to have to start looking at that ourselves,’ Trump said, side-by-side with Macron months later. ‘We’re actually thinking about 4th of July, Pennsylvania Avenue, having a really great parade to show our military strength.’”
For many Americans, when we think about July 4th beyond barbeques and beer, we think about the act of courage that led these young, disorganized colonies to take on one of the world’s great military powers. It was a triumph of spirit and principle over a powerful state. How unthinking and inappropriate to use that day to parade military hardware. If our revolution took place today, Trump’s parade would include all the stuff that would be used against us. Sadly, we have a president who is more interested in being noticed by historians than in learning or understanding the lessons of history.
I know that over 40% of the country disagrees with me and values President Trump’s style and rhetoric. The point of July 4th is that we can disagree and live to argue about it long into the night. Let’s keep it that way.