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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times


This piece has run in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).


I feel exceptionally fortunate in the time and place I have lived my life. Born soon after World War II, my whole age cohort grew up in a mostly prosperous and peaceful American society.

As we Americans were often told back then – even if our abundance was lean by later standards — we were the richest society in the history of the world. Throughout human history, many people have lived on the edge—subsisting without much beyond necessities, and often just one bad crop away from starvation. But neither I nor any of my friends needed to worry where our next meal was coming from, nor whether we would have a roof over our heads.

I felt safe in my world. From the age of six, I felt free to explore my world – on foot and on bicycle — with a radius of perhaps two or three miles. There was much that was interesting and even beautiful to explore. No one told us kids we were in danger of being kidnapped -– nor were we.  The world was our oyster.

War was not completely absent from that world, but in the case of the Korean War it seemed a distant thing, though less distant in the case of Viet Nam, in the middle of the following decade, as my cohort was entering adulthood. But, compared to what so many humans have experienced over the millennia, the extent to which both peace and a solid social order provided the context of our lives was a great blessing.

(There was one way we had it worse than previous generations: we were the first to grow up in the shadow of a possible globally catastrophic nuclear war. We did our duck and cover drills, we looked out over the horizon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, hoping not to see a mushroom-shaped fireball. But the danger never became an actuality, and even if it appeared in our dreams, it also remained an abstraction.)

The society around me invested heavily in public schools to help its young people develop themselves. The public schools I attended educated us, and provided the opportunity to try out a whole range of human enterprises—athletic, dramatic, musical, etc.

And we experienced ourselves as being members of a free society. We had access to pretty trustworthy information, our leaders were chosen in mostly free and fair elections, our government wielding power generally with “the consent of the governed.”

(It’s true there was oppression of minority groups and, in different ways, of women. But even so, taken as a whole, American society granted liberties to its citizens – to live and believe and speak according to our own conscience– to an extent that has been unknown in most civilized societies over the millennia.)

All in all, being born into this society in those times was about as lucky as any people have ever been.

But to that exceptional good fortune, there has lately been added an exceptional kind of pain.

Perhaps that’s more true for me than for most. My whole adult life has been about looking at the big picture, which means I try to look at where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. And that perspective makes me painfully aware that a great deal of what made me and my generation of Americans so fortunate is now under threat, and already visibly deteriorating.

Two areas in particular are under profound threat: the condition of our planet, and the state of the American system of government.

“There is no ‘Planet B’,” said French President Macron to Congress the other day. And indeed, we are all dependent for the necessities of our lives – food, water, air, safety, even the stability of the international order – on the health of the interlocking systems that earth and its life-systems have created together.

But here we are, watching how in just a matter of decades: the composition of the atmosphere is being altered by the emissions of civilization; as a result, the temperatures are rising; and, as earth’s ice melts, the oceans are rising with the temperature, beginning the process by which the lands on which many millions live will be submerged.

Meanwhile, species are going extinct at an accelerating rate, the world’s reefs are dying, the weather is bringing more droughts and floods and other destructive forms of weather, etc.

Witnessing this degradation of the planet which has supported our so-fortunate lives brings great sadness. A painful feeling of loss accompanies the growing understanding that the blessing of a thriving natural world that we have enjoyed will not be there for our grandchildren and their children.

And then there’s our democracy.

For more than a decade, my own work has been a response to the increasingly visible undermining of the foundations of America’s democratic order. Much that we take for granted – the rule of law, the freedom of the press, the whole web of political norms that help make our government work constructively – has come under assault in recent times.

Unlike with climate change, it is possible that the damage to our political system could be reversed: perhaps a generation would suffice to repair the harm inflicted during the past quarter century. But there’s no assurance that the deterioration of the American political order will not continue.

I hate the prospect of a future in which our descendants will live in a land where it can no longer be said – with considerable truth – that there is “liberty and justice for all.”

(Meanwhile, elsewhere also — even as the American beacon to the world dims — many other major nations on the planet are descending from democracy toward dictatorship.)

So I feel gratitude for the extraordinarily favorable circumstances in which I, and my friends and family, have been able to live our lives. But I also feel pain as I watch so much of our birthright taken from generations to come.


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