Although it goes against my usual instincts, I want to try and write something positive and uplifting for 2020 as we round the corner and barrel into a new decade.
Year-end columns tend to look back, not forward, flagging both the highlights and low points of the previous year—and this time, the past 10 years. Two recently caught my attention from the New York Times. Columnist Nicholas Kristof looks on the sunny side of life in arguing (seriously!) that, “This Has Been the Best Year Ever,” because he says literacy is up, while poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality are all down around the world. But in the same pages, author and former book-critic Michiko Kakutani sees mostly darkness; in “The 2010s Were the End of Normal,” she notes that democracies are under siege around the world, authoritarian regimes are on the march, there is a global decline in political rights and civil liberties, and here at home, a surge in hate crimes (particularly an alarming spike in anti-Semitism), an increasing erosion of trust in our public institutions, and constant assaults on our constitutional rights and the rule of law.
Oh, and this: in 2019, as of Christmas Day, there were 406 mass shooting incidents (in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, are hit at one time)—29 of them mass murders, where at least four people died. And since then, there was a shooting at a Texas church and a horrific machete attack just outside of Manhattan at a home where a rabbi and his family and congregants were celebrating Hanukkah.
Kristof and Kakutani are looking, of course, at the same half-full, half-empty glass—and things indeed are both getting better and getting worse. They’re just different things. On a recent grocery run, a fellow shopper greeted me with, “Well, that’s another year shot to hell.” In my most conciliatory tone, I replied, “Next year’s got to be better.” Oh, he did well financially, he reassured me, but the city is going to hell. “Are you from here?” he demanded to know. “Have you been downtown lately?” There was no mistaking his meaning. “And they’re getting more aggressive.”
It would have been singularly pointless to tell him I’ve lived for nearly 60 years in Southern California, nearly 40 of them in LA proper, worked downtown for 28 years, and have both worked on, and written about, homelessness. Because he’s not entirely wrong—it is getting worse, a lot worse, but his wealth and privilege are no longer enough to shield him from confronting it. And if, as a Los Angeles city resident, he voted for both the 2016 city parcel tax and the 2017 County sales tax, which together will generate some $4.7 billion over 10 years to address the problem, he may rightly be upset at the lack of visible progress in addressing the issue.
And yet: it’s easy to incline toward pessimism, and I do (in the short term.) But I still agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Amid all the selfishness, rudeness, endless hustle, terrible traffic, and all the incremental cruelties that typify metropolitan living, there must still be time to practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
Instead of insults, sarcasm, greed, and rapacious consumption, what if respect, courtesy, generosity, and living lighter on the planet could become the new normal? It can be. It already is, where I traveled over the past year in Nova Scotia and New Zealand, two places that prize their culture of civility and conservation.
You will object that we can’t really compare these relatively small, homogeneous populations to a multi-culti global behemoth like the United States, and maybe we can’t. But Americans once prided themselves (too much, no doubt) on such traits in our national character—and isn’t the real point less what we are, with all our flaws and imperfections, than what we aspire to be?
Let us make 2020, certainly the most consequential presidential election in my lifetime, the year we raise the bar on our expectations for our national leadership, and for ourselves. I draw inspiration here from a cherished graduate-school mentor of mine, the Golden Age radio dramatist Norman Corwin, whose work was always infused with a deep sense of humanity. In “On a Note of Triumph,” the WWII program he produced to commemorate V-E Day in 1945, when the Allies finally vanquished the Nazis, he sounded not a note of vulgar triumphalism, but tempered hopefulness: “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream” he wrote, “as those who profit by postponing it pretend.”
Let it be not so wild a dream that this be the year we begin to set America right again.