A new year and a moment for hope
Renewing optimism in America as farmers welcome the return of the light that enables growth.
Welcome to the Year of the Rabbit. Might it be one for renewed hope? (Block print by Steve Rein & Niki Haynes)
The hard-working farmers up the road from us, who grow the organic produce that has fed our family for years, reported with some excitement this week that Imbolc is nearly upon us. I had to look up the word. Imbolc, I learned, is the threshold between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the point when there’s finally enough daylight for plants to grow. In the Gaelic tradition, it’s a time for celebration; in fact, this year it will be observed in Ireland for the first time as a national holiday. “It’s a long way to go until spring, weather- and greenery-wise,” farmer Annie noted, “but the balance is tipping toward growth.”
That hopeful notion comes as we start what the lunar calendar marks as the Year of the Rabbit. Good news there, too: The rabbit’s reputation for fertility makes the outlook for this new year especially promising in Asian folklore, according to Jonathan H.X. Lee, an Asian studies professor at San Francisco State University. “There is a lot of possibility for prosperity and flourishing, and for peace, really,” Lee told NBC News.
Such optimistic notes are mighty welcome, because Americans these days are a more grouchy lot than usual. Gallup reported earlier this month that a majority of Americans expect negative conditions in 12 of 13 economic, political, international and societal arenas. We expect to face economic difficulty (according to 79 percent of those polled), political conflict (says 90 percent) and declining American power abroad (64 percent).That echoes the trend of polling in recent years, which has found more gloom than confidence across most demographic groups.
If Americans are really less hopeful than we’ve historically been — as opposed to simply being more inclined these days to whine about things — then it is an historic shift. Optimism has been cited as a defining characteristic of Americans since the first Europeans landed on the Eastern seaboard in the 17th century. You can understand why that reputation developed: It’s a confident people, after all, who take on forging a community in a foreign wilderness, launching a war for independence against the world’s greatest military power and building out a nation across a vast continent.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman whose trenchant observations of Americans early in the 19th century have long been cited as enduring across eras, noted that citizens on this side of the Atlantic “have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man ... They all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.”At the beginning of the 21st century, the Irish philosopher Charles Handy retraced de Tocqueville’s steps, and reported finding the same spirit. “Anyone visiting America from Europe cannot fail to be struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their country’s future that he or she will meet among ordinary Americans – a pleasing contrast to the world-weary cynicism of much of Europe,” Handy wrote in 2001. “Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.”
But consider what happened next in 2001, and what has followed. We experienced the national trauma of 9/11, followed by ugly and unresolved wars in the Mideast, then the Great Recession, years of relentless gun violence, life-threatening climate change, a pandemic with its economic outfall, and political decay fomented by the right-wing takeover of one of our major political parties. It has been a tough couple of decades.
Now we are told over and over again by ambitious politicians that things are bleak in America, and even if we recognize the self-serving origin of that rhetoric, it can’t help but diminish our trust in government as a source of strength. Nor are we comfortable in turning to spirituality for support: Since the start of the 21st century, the percentage of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation has doubled, so that by the start of this decade, a majority of Americans were recorded by pollsters as saying they weren’t members of any place of worship.
No wonder we’re less likely to display that old-fashioned confidence in the future. Today is the future we had assumed would be bright, and we’re fairly convinced by what we hear and see that it’s much darker than we had expected. We don’t know where to go with this impression.
And yet. In some important ways, this could be the best time in human history to be alive – a fact that you might think would inspire more confidence. That’s the view often advanced by Bill Gates, the philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder, and while it’s easy for a billionaire to feel good, Gates has a point when he notes that the rapid advance of scientific knowledge is creating a more comfortable and equitable world, with more life-saving breakthroughs on the near horizon. If the perils that we face seem more threatening, the capacity we have to confront them is also greater.
To be clear, the so-called American spirit — that presumed indomitable aspect of our people that de Tocqueville noted — isn’t the key to this nation’s successful two and a half centuries, though you may hear some of that from nationalists and jingoists. America’s security throughout history has been assured in large part by a location insulated from foreign unrest by two oceans, and its wealth was derived from the astonishing abundance of natural resources on the North American continent — not to mention, of course, the labor of enslaved people that boosted the economy during the nation’s formative years. Immigration policies that at crucial periods of our history fostered growth and diversity gave the United States an able and expanding workforce. A well-constructed democratic government, with a promise of free basic education for all, provided the kind of political stability and upward mobility in society that no other nation could match.
But if the characteristic optimism of Americans isn’t what undergirded America’s strength, its absence is surely hurting us now. A society is the sum of its individuals, and there’s plenty of research suggesting that an optimistic outlook makes people healthier and more productive.
Researchers say optimism matters because it motivates us. People who are optimistic have reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced likelihood of cognitive impairment, lower levels of pain and even better romantic lives. Optimistic people tend to work harder, which makes them more productive and more financially secure.
It’s not hard to infer, then, that a society filled with people who are optimistic is likely to be healthier, richer and happier. If we aspire to that still, as surely we do, then we need to grow our hope again. We need to be, in fact, those indomitable citizens observed by de Tocqueville and mythologized by generations of historians and politicians.
That doesn’t happen easily, nor necessarily naturally. Experience tells us that hope can rise when we have personal and collective victories — like, say, a candidate we support winning an election or a project we’ve done at work reaching a favorable conclusion.
Most often, though, hope derives not from such discrete events, but rather in the way that an addict reaches sobriety: one day at a time. A day of hope is created by putting together several hours of it, and days lead to weeks and months.
Some research suggests that perhaps one-fourth of the optimism people feel is actually inherited, meaning that some folks are innately more hopeful than others. But for the most part, we develop hope by consciously embracing and practicing it, until it become a habitual response. We’re almost always more resilient than we imagine.
Hope is, in the end, a tool. We need to have it to use it, and we can then use it to power ourselves forward, as individuals and a society. That is, if we are to have any chance of overcoming the forces that would drag us down — like cynical politicians, selfish fraudsters and sharpies and the inescapable tough events of life that confront us from time to time, ranging from health challenges to the loss of loved ones.
For now, we might take some measure of hope from this moment of Imbolc: the world is turning brighter, and the cycle of life is renewing even in our more frigid neighborhoods. It is, after all, a step toward the inevitable coming of spring. One day at a time, hope returns.
Happy Year of the Rabbit: may it bring you inspiration and strength.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Palm Beach, Fla. (The Palm Beach Post, palmbeachpost.com)
Rockford, Ill. (Rockford Register Star, rrstar.com)
Fall River, Mass. (The Herald News, heraldnews.com)
Reno, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
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What gets a textbook banned in Florida?
For months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has built his national profile by focusing on hot-button issues for a right-wing constituency — including pushback against public school instruction that might make white Americans uncomfortable about some aspects of the nation’s history. Now, as Florida moves to bring new textbooks to schools that reflect recently-passed “parental rights” legislation, Holly Baltz reports in The Palm Beach Post on what the textbook reviewers are being told must be omitted from textbooks in Florida. Example: Students must be taught “the root cause of American exceptionalism.” Don’t send your kids to Florida schools, folks.
Not much snow means not much income for some folks
Climate change is affecting people in unexpected ways. Take this, as reported by Chris Green in the Rockford Register Star: It has snowed so little in the Midwest this winter that snowplow operators are seeing seriously depleted incomes. The community usually gets 26 inches of snow in the three-month period starting Dec. 1; so far, it has gotten less than 6 inches. But there’s a bit of good news in that, Green reports: Because there hasn’t been much snow, municipalities haven’t had to spread as much salt, which has gotten a lot more expensive this year.
Zoning dispute holds up drug treatment facility
Treatment for substance use disorders is too scarce, and when it is proposed, there’s often pushback in local communities because of the stigma of drug use. Still, amid a nationwide crisis in substance abuse, a new $16-million, 30-bed treatment facility would seem to be welcomed as a lifesaver in New Bedford, a working-class community on the South Coast of Massachusetts. But while the building was expected to accept patients for both detox and inpatient care a year ago, it can’t open yet because the city claims it violates local zoning regulations, reports Audrey Cooney in The Herald News. Now the issue is in court. The treatment center asserts that a provision in state law known as the Dover Amendment applies; that amendment says that local zoning laws can’t be used to stop a nonprofit from operating any educational mission. City officials say that doesn’t apply to a drug treatment facility.
Snow and rain in the West — so what about the drought?
This year so far has seen record precipitation in Reno and the Sierra Nevada range — but that doesn’t mean the historic drought that has for the past two decades plagued the West is over, reports Amy Alonzo in the Reno Gazette Journal. A quarter of Nevada remains in severe drought, the report notes, and a single month of snow and rain can’t undo the effects of the drought. Most of the West relies on reservoirs for water, but letting them get too high in this season presents the risk of flooding in the spring, when water may need to be impounded to avoid flooding. And it’s unclear if more snow will fall or if, like last year, drought will follow a huge snowfall. All eyes are on efforts to determine how the West will handle the long-term drought that could affect millions of people.
MORE FROM REX — ON THE RADIO
Do you have an appetite for more of Rex Smith’s commentary? Check www.wamc.org for Rex’s weekly on-air commentary — here’s a link to the latest — or download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute discussion that Rex hosts each week on current issues in journalism.
Step up to save local news
As the digital revolution has destroyed the business model of print journalism, millions of Americans have found themselves living in places where there is literally no local news coverage. Almost everybody has realized that the newsrooms that cover their communities have been sharply reduced — or in some cases, decimated. Newspaper employment has fallen by 70 percent since 2006, which was a time when cuts already had been made in most newsrooms.
Here’s why you should be concerned: When newspapers close, there’s no one to cover local school boards and town boards, and city councils routinely meet in what’s really secrecy. The watchdog role of the local press is essential to preserving good government and keeping taxes down; studies have shown taxes rise in communities without adequate news coverage.
It’s not just accountability journalism that suffers, though, when newsrooms close. Local newspapers stitch together communities and help neighbors understand what’s going on around them. At a time when we are increasingly isolated, a local newspaper — which now is probably going to deliver its product online — is a way for us to stay in touch with each other.
Now dozens of journalism groups representing 3,000 local newsrooms have come together in a new nonprofit aimed at encouraging bipartisan public policy initiatives. The goal is not only philanthropy, which has been moving to support nonprofit newsrooms for some years, but also tax policies that can encourage and sustain local newsrooms: tax credits, for example, for hiring local journalists, and banking regulations to make it easier for small media companies serving low-income communities to get financing.
The Rebuild Local News coalition hopes to create thousands of local news jobs across the country. As a guy who got his start in local newsrooms — the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal and the Rensselaer (Ind.) Republican — I know how valuable this sort of initiative can be.
And there’s ample precedent for it: The Postal Act of 1792 subsidized the delivery of newspapers by setting low mail rates (when that was how the news was delivered), and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 set up subsidies that still exist for local broadcast stations.
So watch for more on this initiative, and please do what you can to support it. We need help to keep local journalism alive across the country.
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