Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 15, 2020
Some of my friends are expecting 2020 to be a difficult year. One of them told me she believes it will be “apocalyptic.” Gosh, I hope not. We have enough problems without the apocalypse to worry about.
But I get her meaning. The November elections, climate change, continuing polarization of politics, the ceaseless and seemingly intractable problems of racism, homelessness, drug addiction and all the rest – it could be rough sailing.
I have a different view. We are now two decades into the 21st century, and perhaps we will finally begin to sort it out. History provides a guide.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America was another country. There were few cars or phones and little electrification. Commercial aviation was years in the future. There was no penicillin or other antibiotics. The average U.S. lifespan was 47.
The year 1900 was just rounding the corner into the new century and had a lot to learn.
A generation later all that had changed. Life expectancy rose to 54 years by 1920 and 60 by 1930 – huge increases, thanks to better sanitation, housing and education. Cars were plying the roads and replacing horses as the primary means of transportation. Commercial aviation was well underway. Society and culture had changed drastically (think flappers! jazz! movies!), and Americans were learning to adapt.
The 21st century has experienced similar change. In 2000 Amazon, Yahoo, eBay and Google were all less than 10 years old. Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and the first smart phone had yet to be launched. Since then these companies and technologies – and all of the internet and social media – have drastically altered how we communicate, learn about the world and purchase goods and services. Almost every aspect of our lives has been affected, for better and worse. Change is hard and the transition will continue to be bumpy.
But I am thinking of 2020 as “the year of insight.” More than just wordplay (20/20 vision), it suggests a fresh way of looking at and thinking about our values and principles. At the core of any free and democratic society is one thing: civility. We need to listen well, speak softly and show respect, whether blue or red, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.
Because, in the end, labels do not matter. Regardless of how elections turn out, it is wrong and unhelpful to demonize people with whom we disagree as “the enemy” or even “the other.” Most everyone wants the same things: a decent economy, good jobs, and better prospects for our children, reasonable access to health care and education and an end to polarization. No party has a lock on solutions. Everyone struggles to do better.
So here is my wish for the new year: Let us set our sights on listening, reasoning and conciliating. That would be great progress for our still-young century.