Still Hope …

I came across an OpEd by Pulitzer Prize-winning Bret Stephens in the New York Times this morning that I thought made some excellent points, gave encouragement to not lose hope, even as our nation seems to be falling apart at the seams some days.


Can We Still Be Optimistic About America?

May 10, 2022

By Bret Stephens, Opinion Columnist

This is a season — an age, really — of American pessimism.

The pessimism comes in many flavors. There is progressive pessimism: The country is tilting toward MAGA-hatted fascism or a new version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There is conservative pessimism: The institutions, from primary schools to the Pentagon, are all being captured by wokeness. There is Afropessimism: Black people have always been excluded by systemic, ineradicable racism. There is the pessimism of the white middle and working classes: The country and the values they’ve known for generations are being hijacked by smug, self-dealing elites who view them with contempt.

There is also the pessimism of the middle: We are losing the institutional capacity, cultural norms and moral courage needed to strike pragmatic compromises at almost every level of society. Zero-sum is now our default setting.

These various kinds of pessimism may reach contradictory conclusions, but they are based on undeniable realities. In 2012, there were roughly 41,000 overdose deaths in the United States. Last year, the number topped 100,000. In 2012, there were 4.7 murders for every 100,000 people. Last year, the rate hit an estimated 6.9, a 47 percent increase. A decade ago, you rarely heard of carjackings. Now, they are through the roof. Shoplifting? Ditto. The nation’s mental health was in steep decline before the pandemic, with a 60 percent increase of major depressive episodes among adolescents between 2007 and 2019. Everything we know about the effects of lockdowns and school closures suggests it’s gotten much worse.

Economics tell a similar story. “Twenty-first-century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealthholders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers,” observed Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute in a landmark 2017 Commentary essay. It’s in part from the loss of meaningful work — and the consequent evaporation of pride, purpose and dignity in labor — that we get the startling increase in death rates among white middle-aged Americans, often to suicide or substance abuse.

The list goes on, but you get the point. Even without the daily reminders of Carter-era inflation, this feels like another era of Carter-style malaise, complete with an unpopular president who tends to inspire more sympathy than he does confidence.

So why am I still an optimist when it comes to America? Because while we are bent, our adversaries are brittle. As we find ways to bend, they can only remain static or shatter.

This week brought two powerful reminders of the point. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin gave his customary May 9 Victory Day speech, in which he enlisted nostalgia for a partly mythical past to promote lies about a wholly mythical present, all for the sake of a war that is going badly for him.

Putin is belatedly discovering that the powers to humiliate, subvert and destroy are weaker forces than the powers to attract, inspire and build — powers free nations possess almost as a birthright. The Kremlin might yet be able to bludgeon its way to something it can call victory. But its reward will mainly be the very rubble it has created. The rest of Ukraine will find ways to flourish, ideally as a member of NATO and the European Union.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, more than 25 million people remain under strict lockdown, a real-world dystopia in which hovering drones warn residents through loudspeakers to “control your soul’s desire for freedom.” Does anyone still think that China’s handling of the pandemic — its deceits, its mediocre vaccines, a zero-Covid policy that manifestly failed and now this cruel lockdown that has brought hunger and medicine shortages to its richest city — is a model to the rest of the world?

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, more than 25 million people remain under strict lockdown, a real-world dystopia in which hovering drones warn residents through loudspeakers to “control your soul’s desire for freedom.” Does anyone still think that China’s handling of the pandemic — its deceits, its mediocre vaccines, a zero-Covid policy that manifestly failed and now this cruel lockdown that has brought hunger and medicine shortages to its richest city — is a model to the rest of the world?

For all its undeniable progress over 45 years, China remains a Potemkin regime obsessed with fostering aggrandizing illusions: about domestic harmony (aided by a vast system of surveillance and prison camps); about technological innovation (aided by unprecedented theft of intellectual property); about unstoppable economic growth (aided by manufactured statistics). The illusions may win status for Beijing. But they come with a heavy price: the systematic denial of truth, even to the regime itself.

Rulers who come to believe their own propaganda will inevitably miscalculate, often catastrophically. Look again at Putin, who really believed he had a competent military.

Which brings me back to the United States. Just as dictatorships advertise their strengths but hide their weaknesses — both to others and to themselves — democracies do the opposite: We obsess over our weaknesses even as we forget our formidable strengths. It is the source of our pessimism. But it is also, paradoxically, our deepest strength: In refusing to look away from our flaws, we not only acknowledge them but also begin fixing them.

We rethink. We adapt. In bending, we find new ways to grow.

We have a demonstrated record of defanging right-wing demagogues, debunking left-wing ideologues, promoting racial justice, reversing crime waves, revitalizing the political center and reinvigorating the American ideal. Our problems may be hard, but they are neither insoluble nor new.

Those without our freedoms will not be so fortunate.

32 thoughts on “Still Hope …

  1. Jill, we should always remember that negative news gets reported far more than positive news and has a higher bounce. Yes, things are bad and I have written many posts lamenting such suggesting ways to get better that falls on our shoulders, since elected leaders would prefer not to do anything except blame the other side for the bad and take credit for the good.

    I have shared this with a news editor I know when he told me they report good news. I said bluntly, “you report one good news story for every 19 bad news stories.” That is not an even distribution in news or in actuality. The fact a doctor does the right thing 19 times out of twenty is not news. The error is news.

    With that said, hope is not a strategy. It falls to us be better and demand such from our elected officials. We need to be civil to each other and have civil discourse. We need to point out truths and correct lies when we can and we only can do this by having a conversation. We need to tell our officials they owe us the truth. And, then we need to remind them again and again.

    I try my best not to curse or name call in print, as it is so easy to fall into that trap. But, gerrymandering has allowed more strident people to get elected that seem to care less about the truth. A friend of mine had a term for such folks – the idiot fringe. If you have little competition in elections, members of that unflattering titled group can and do get elected. And, we deserve better than that.

    Keith
    Keith

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    • As the saying in the news industry goes (there is speculation over who coined the phrase), “If it bleeds, it leads”. It would seem that bad news, especially gory bad news, sells far better than good news. And that is the fault of we, the reading/listening/viewing public. We seem to have a natural thirst for sensationalism, for corruption and dirty pool. Here, there is at least one, usually more, shootings reported in the news EVERY day, yet rarely are everyday heroes named. Politicians who quietly go about doing their jobs, for seeing to the interests of the people (yes, there are some out there) are rarely noted, but we can name at least 30 of the bad ones who are involved with the attempted coup, sex trafficking, orgies and lies. Why? Because they are getting every bit of the attention because … it’s what people thrive on. Sigh.

      You are quite right that there doesn’t seem to be much civil discourse these days, not much putting heads together to come up with workable solutions to tough problems. There is far more name-calling, lying, and ‘them vs us’ happeing in our government. And I’m not encouraged watching the primaries this year where sex abusers and liars are being overwhelmingly elected in the Republican primaries.

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      • Jill, so true on the “bleeds it leads” statement. This tribalism has to stop. And, the only way to stop it is to speak with each other. My wife said she was in the most enjoyable lunch yesterday where two friends disagreed on a couple of points, but listened to each other and had civil discussion. She said it was so refreshing. This needs to be the norm.

        One of my favorite segments of “What would you do?” on ABC occurred when an actor playing a store cashier would not serve people who did not look like him. In line behind another actor was a real military vet who stepped in when the actor (unbeknownst to him) was maltreated. He said he fought for this country to protect all people’s freedoms, not just some of them. He noted the cashier was showing disrespect to him as well as the person he was not serving. Keith

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        • We definitely need more who act like your wife’s friends! The divide between us these days seems so wide that there simply is no common ground, no room for compromise. But without it, I fear we are doomed to remain as we are, two nations posing as one.

          I haven’t heard of that program before … I shall have to see if I can find it. We no longer have cable or satellite, but I think we have Netflix and Britbox, so perhaps I can find it somewhere, for it sounds like an interesting show. I’ve thought about this … thought, “what if I were, say, a cashier at Starbucks, and a customer came in wearing a Trump shirt and a maga hat?” I think I would have a very difficult time being civil to him and would be tempted to forget to put the sugar in his Cafe Mocha! And I know that is wrong of me, but … it’s honest. Sigh.

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  2. Fuck hope. Hope is an opiate. Get rid of all that stupid hopefulness & wake up to the fact that America is DONE. Then maybe something can be done about fixing the many problems that this country faces. But as long as you cling to hope that this country is “really OK” & all those other toxic positisms, this country is never going to cure itself of this cancer eating away its spirit & soul.

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    • If we don’t have hope, then what is the incentive to keep fighting to make the world a better place? We do so only because we believe, we hope, that what we do makes a small difference. Can you imagine a world where the good people stop bothering to fight against injustice?

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  4. Mr Stephens makes a good and classic case for Hope against all of the current evidence, which is what Hope should be all about.
    I admire his faith in what the USA should be about and his own belief all will work out eventually. (Though I’m not too sure which Left-Wing ideologues he is referring to, presumably ones outside of the USA…unless he’s making some classic right of centre over-exaggeration).
    He might be turn out to be correct in the long run; there will be a hard road ahead before you get to any ‘sunlit uplands’

    Downer PS: If I was Mr Stephens I would be very careful about about how he voices the notion of Afropessimism; at least not as one to be dismissed; he’s minefield strolling there.

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  5. Brett Stephens ends with these words, short one sentence:
    We have a demonstrated record of defanging right-wing demagogues, debunking left-wing ideologues, promoting racial justice, reversing crime waves, revitalizing the political center and reinvigorating the American ideal.
    1) In the past right wing demagogues may hay been defanged, but with Trump still free though known to have committed treason, I see no missing teeth. He probably has false teeth, but he still has them. No de-fanging going on here.
    2) and 4) Debunking left wing ideologues? Maybe I am blind, but I see no left-wing ideologues. In fact I will jump ahead to revitalizing the political center! Who the hell is he trying to kid? The political centre has moved to the right, where the Dems are hiding their faces in shame because even with majorities everywhere they are unable to pass bills that actually help WE THE PEOPLE, while the wealthy make the biggest profits in at least 70 years, and thus creating more poor than ever before. Centrist politics should help evetyone, EQUALLY! All I can see are more and more inequities.
    3) Are we promoting racial justice by taking away the right to vote from people of colour? By gerrymandeting districts so people of colour lose whatever power they had, which was not much to begin with, are we promoting racial jystice? How many people of colour sit in either House of Congress? How many people of colour are jailed or killed by ALL SECTIONS of the so-called Justice System? America may be “promoting racial justice,” but WORDS ARE MEANINGLESS WITHOUT ACTION! The only action I see are increasing racism, not eliminating it!
    5) Reversing crime waves? How many mass shootings have happened so far this year? How many mass shooting were there in the whole of 2012? Mass shootings are CRIMES! They are on the increase. So are crimes of hatred. Maybe fewer banks are being robbed, but WE THE PEOPLE are being robbed every day by wealthy Robber Barons. If that isn’t increased crime, what is?
    6) REINVIGORATING THE AMERICAN IDEAL! America is fooling itself if it thinks it ever reached that ideal. Oh, there are some people who reached it. We call them the wealthy. The top 1% of the top 1%. Even today’s mere millionaires are losing their buying power. But that is just the top 0.99%. Everyone else have lost a big chunk of their buying power, when they hardly had any to begin with. Is it the AMERICAN IDEAL to create poverty, to strip citizens of their rights, and to harm the environment just to creste wealth for the very few. If that is the American Ideal, the only ones who still think that are Ameticans!

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    • In the interest of time & energy, I will pick a couple of your points to respond to:
      1) The ‘de-fanging’ was in a time before the era of Trump. You’re right that Trump’s fangs are being sharpened by the right while the left wrings its collective hands and says, “Oh woe, oh woe, oh thrice times woe” (expression courtesy of Sir Roger, aka writingdespitewordpress).
      3) It is ONLY the Republicans who are attempting to disenfranchise people of colour, while it has long been the Democrats who were instrumental in passing prior voting rights acts, and destroying Jim Crow.
      5) Agreed … gun crimes are up of late and I’ll soon be writing about that yet again, though I sometimes wonder why I waste my breath. But … Stephens did talk about the increase in crime rate, so … ???

      LuL

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      • 1) Not sure of what your point is here? Simple agreement? From your writing tone (hard to decipher) I expected resistance, but I did not see any.
        3) My point was the DEMS are not fighting Republican moves as strongly as they need to, therefore they appear to be complicit. I hear their words, but I do not see their actions.
        5) Actually all Stephens said about crime was “reversing crime waves.” It says nothing about fighting crime, or dimimishing it overall. I heard another 10 people died in gun violence in Buffalo today. Crime is not a wave, it us a constant!

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        • 1) Surely you’re not that shocked to find that I actually agree with you!!!
          3) And I hope it isn’t too shocking, but once again I agree with you. The Democrats’ approach is mild-mannered, no name-calling, no fights on the floor of Congress, but mostly just asking “Please???” and hoping to sway the bigoted Republicans, which obviously isn’t working.
          5) Yep, two mass shootings this weekend so far, the one in Buffalo killed 10, the ones in Milwaukee only resulted in 21 injuries. Right to life? How can that exist where there are no gun laws? Where was the right to life for the people in that grocery store in Buffalo? Sigh.

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  6. Mr. Stephens makes the same mistake, falls into the same trap as most his compadres. He belittles the efforts of others when he should write about America. That’s a needless paradigm shift. And he gives out false facts: Putin’s military is very professional, doing exactly as planned and juggling the numerous goals adorably. Without laying the whole Ukraine in rubbles, the war is already won. The West just doesn’t believe it yet.
    And the Chinese, although strong with propaganda, are proving all their advances every day. Heck, they own you already! It’s time to wake up.

    And the freedom? Your precious American freedom? Most countries and nations have more persona freedom than the USA. Alone through the work/life balance do we have much more personal freedom. And even in China, the bad dictatorship China, each and every citizen gets a questionaire/ballot on a weekly/monthly/quarterly/annualy schedule where they get to vote on various local/national questions. New train station in Ping Pong city? Death penalty for traitors? Kindergarten in Kung-Fu township? Autobahn from Beijing to Shenzhen? More money for pensioners? Yay/Nay? Do we have that creative power as citizens in our precious Western democracies?

    And then the Fixing of Flaws thing: How’s that coming along, Bret my boy? Isn’t it in reality getting worse by the day?

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    • Disregarding the remarks about Putin, for we will never agree on him, his goals or his methods, it seemed to me that he WAS, in fact, writing about the U.S. He comments on Russia and China for comparative purposes. And yes, it worked, for while I no longer recognize the U.S., do not see it as a “great” or even good nation these days, I am still glad that I don’t live in either Russia or China … or Afghanistan where women are once again being forced to cover every square inch of skin, or Brazil, where dictator Bolsonaro is a Trump-a-like who is trying to destroy life on the planet by destroying the Amazon Rainforest. There are no perfect nations, but some are better than others … it’s all relative.

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        • All countries are some mix of good and evil. Russia, Afghanistan, China and Brazil are a fair sampling of those that are more evil than good, who are dominated by cruel leaders who care not at all about the people of their nation except for what those people can contribute. So, am I comparing them? Yes, and no. There are differences in the structure and economic base of each, differences in such obvious things as language and culture, but underneath, the dictators share similarities.

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          • I judge a country not by its people but by the actions of its leaders. Primarily in regards of their international politics. In so far I must put the USA into the evil, Russia into the good, and China into the neutral category. Afghanistan and Brazil

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            • … are mostly insignificant. At least on the international stage. How a country treats its own citizens shall be that country’s business. Let’s not forget not all people want democracy, it’s a foreign concept for most, and not even adorable. And when hear British politicians openly mock pesky democracy for stopping them from raging war on Russia; and when I see how deeply undemocratic Brussel’s concept of the EU is, I dare say we people in the west don’t deserve democracy either. Squandering it away like it’s not worth a fuck.

              And don’t forget the people of Russia and Brasil voted for their leaders, elected them into office. Did the ppl of America vote for Biden? From a long list of 2 highly corrupt candidates from 2 identical undemocratic parties with almost identical programs. And only to see their candidates and presidents being caught up in endless election campaigns and hardly doing any real politics. That is left to the various lobbies and industry bosses. And the EU is adapting fast and becoming an equally inliveable place.

              Who are we to judge other countries in the first place? Let’s face it: Our western bubble and its sphere of influence is becoming smaller and smaller as we enter the Asian century. Germany had a good chance to be accepted as junior partner by the Russia/China alliance. Coz we had a good reputation there for being industrious and having good work ethics and super duper products. Of course our politicians didn’t dare go that route but let themselves being held back by America. And now we’re looking into the abyss of a crunching economical armageddon. Which will inevitably bring with it all its side effects like a Mad Max movie.

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    • I dunno, my friend. These days I struggle to find the four-leaf clover, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or even a shred of sanity in our nation. Women’s rights, Civil Rights, LGBTQ rights — all are being shredded and no matter how much we protest, our voices are not heard. They are whitewashing and cutting parts out of our children’s education … books are being banned and I won’t be surprised if book burnings are next. Maybe before long, the woman who cheats on her husband will be forced to wear a Scarlet ‘A’ on her clothing. I’m giving some serious thought to trying to leave this country while I still can.

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  8. I’m not sure I agree with this statement: In refusing to look away from our flaws, we not only acknowledge them but also begin fixing them.

    There doesn’t seem to be much “fixing” of flaws lately. If there is, it’s certainly not being broadcast. And THAT is the big difference between us and “them.” They make sure EVERYONE knows how THEY have the answers … how THEY know best … how THEY will run the country. “Our” side seems to always be playing catch-up.

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    • ‘Tis true that there isn’t much fixing of flaws these days, but then how many even admit to HAVING flaws, let alone look deeply at them? I am so incensed tonight over the Senate and specifically Joe Manchin refusing to protect women’s rights today, but also by the ridiculous statement he published today about President Biden. The damn Republicans have lost any shred of decency they ever had! I’ve had enough … I’m going to start looking into options to leave this country. I hope to be gone before the 2024 elections, for I cannot abide seeing Trump restored to the Oval Office!

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      • A move to Canada –or even Mexico– would probably be the easiest and least expensive. But sad to say, no matter where you go, you’ll never get away from political **crap**. But I hear ya’!! Were I in different circumstances (and younger!), I would definitely be doing some research on other possible locations.

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