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Thinking About the Future Inclusion, Optimism Needed to Spark New Positive Vision

Eric J. Plosky

Do we live in optimistic times?

35 years ago, Lyndon Johnson spoke enthusiastically of a Great Society free of illness and poverty. Nearly 40 years ago, John Kennedy challenged America not only to reach for the stars but to touch the moon. Franklin Roosevelt -- and, earlier, Woodrow Wilson -- proclaimed from the shadows of war that the United States would courageously lead the world to freedom, democracy, and peace.

What do we have now? That same determination? That same pluck, that sense of adventure? No. We have lost interest in illness and poverty because we have failed to conquer them, lost interest in the moon because we have succeeded. Bitterness and cynicism characterize the Baby Boomers and Generation X -- no one has a heady sense of excitement, of the possibilities; optimism is gone.

When did it end? The usual possibilities invariably pop up. 1963, with Kennedy’s assassination? Vietnam, which scotched the Great Society and tore the national consciousness? Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, which destroyed trust and confidence in government? The inflation and unemployment of the 1970s, the rise of terrorism, the economic eclipse of the United States by Japan in the 1980s? Reaganomics, Clintonomics, Monica Lewinsky’s li’l blue dress?

Or did it end? For intertwined with disaster is always achievement, and the last forty years have been no exception. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ signed Medicare, Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act. As American soldiers were needlessly sent to their deaths in Vietnam, the Saturn V and the Boeing 747 -- the two most impressive machines humankind has ever built -- thundered into the skies. Even ten years ago, in an era of war and recession and broken “read my lips” promises, America was excited by the promise of communism’s demise -- Germany reunified, the Soviet Union crumbled, and it looked like the world would be able to square its shoulders and march coherently into a better future.

Do we still get excited about the future? Do we still think it might be better than what we now have?

We are no longer as accepting of accomplishments as we once were. All the cool stuff has been built, all the easily explicable discovered; the public cannot get excited about the intangible or the incomprehensible. Our attempted solutions to society’s structural problems have all failed; homelessness, poverty, and loneliness still haunt us, and no one is willing to believe that the Internet or the go-go stock market will provide the answers FDR and LBJ couldn’t. There is a reason for our cynicism -- we are ashamed of ourselves, and our combination of anger, stoicism and pride makes us bitter. Our heroic achievements only make us further question our inability to fix the small things -- we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t x, y, z. Disparity in achievement breeds distrust among the wary, those who suspect the nation’s accomplishments reflect a list of national priorities designed to ensure their subjugation.

Our politicians soldier on nonetheless, gamely offering bandages for society’s wounds. Not name-brand bandages, though; those are either too expensive, or we think they won’t work, or they fall right off. In any case, we are tired of our scrapes and bruises, and sometimes we just try to cover them up so they can’t be seen. They’ll heal eventually, won’t they?

American society is breaking up -- the rich lounge in techno-fortresses, the poor quietly suffer. The middle class offers up statistics to assuage the guilt of the rich, to pacify the despair of the poor: unemployment, crime, disease are down; the stock market, wages, spending are up. We are the pigs from Animal Farm, topping off sand-filled bins with grain and showing them to the rest of the world -- we are not hungry.

Is the future filled with promise? We do not now have an overarching sense that it is. No leader has lately seized upon the opportunity to deliver a coherent message of inspiration. Perhaps that’s the problem. Or perhaps the problem is that we no longer have leaders --either in business or government -- we would believe if they suddenly encouraged us to be optimistic.

The future is what we will make of it. We can easily fashion of the future a fragmented, hostile environment that crushes the weak and heaps splendrous rewards upon an elite. That’s the model that works, after all. Or we can forge a different future -- inclusive, progressive, energetic, and, yes, optimistic. This is the hard option, the one that necessitates getting the intelligent and the capable to work together. First, someone has to come up with a vision, has to rekindle the optimism we’ve all but forgotten. Think about that optimistic vision as you stroll around campus or consider a portfolio, as you contemplate your satisfied withdrawal from society.

Think about the future.