2008: Year of Hope, Year of Fear. Essay 12

Yes, we can. Will we?
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Yes, we can. Will we?

At the New Year, everybody hopes. Everybody dreams. We believe in change, or wish to: that we will prove bold and clever enough to bootstrap our way off this petard on which we are so highly levered.

We hope, audaciously, that our new president will provide a great moral bailout for the nation. No more torture, no more carbon emissions, no more lead in your toy or formaldehyde in your trailer or GM crops in your supermarket, and the next great flood faced down by a legion of well-scrubbed volunteers — Birkenstocks on the ground. A massive outflux of federal largesse to build tunnels and seawalls, the city transformed into a safe and tranquil place. Troops of young Americans fanning out across the world, smiting the wicked and befriending their children. Just maybe, cowed by our moral reascendancy, Vladimir Putin will abandon his throne to start a nightclub in Belgrade.

We dream, at the New Year, of a car-free city, quiet, companionable, clean, with leafy avenues peopled by waving cyclists and welcoming shuttle bus drivers. We dream of CLOSE food — compassionate, local, organic, sustainable, and economically viable. We dream of a god-free church where the scientist and humanist wrestle companionably over bioethics, and all contribute home-cooked vittles for the grieving widower over the way. In our dreams we share, in darkened rooms, the dreams of artists on the stage, a thousand of them joined in a hundred dynamic collectives, funded each with an inviolable kernel of municipal support to enrich its neighborhood forever.

But then there's the reality. Despite new hope and old dreams, 2008 was a banner year for one-upsmanship in gossip and indignation. Blagojevich trumped Eliot Spitzer. Madoff trumped Marc Dreier. Lehman trumped Bear Stearns. AIG trumped itself. Carmakers flew on private jets, jetmakers hedged and blundered, and blundering executives everywhere rationalized bonuses and rejected blame. The buses didn'ꀙt run and the streets went unplowed.

But did you shovel the sidewalk in front of your place? Did you pick up that trash in the street? Did you greet the stranger, thank the waiter, hold the door, remember the neediest? Did you speak firmly against the crude and the cruel to their very faces? Did you plant a tree or tend a garden? Did you walk more, drive less — even after the price of gas fell faster and farther than your portfolio? Hope is not enough: The inspiriting if unspecific vigor of Obama'ꀙs campaign has stretched a canvas for us, and now we must create the painting, by hand.

In 2009, I suppose we will still hear more about self-importance than self-sacrifice. The absurd and pathetic will still be mistaken for knowledge and inspiration. Admen and demagogues will go on sowing and reaping their miserable memes, propagating discreditable behavior. But we have been offered, by the events of 2008, a fresh brew to drink: an unusual mixture of political optimism and fiscal restraint, less consumption and more compassion, less complacency and more humility.

The story of this new year will be, how deeply do we drink this fresh brew; what does it make us do? Will we fall back into talk about carjackings, windstorms, and the failings of the mighty? Or will enough citizens act on their hopes and dreams for the commonwealth, transmute indignation into inspiration and flap their butterfly'ꀙs wings today to change the weather in times to come? Some to put paid to the riddle of carbon sequestration, others to shovel snow.

My resolution for 2009: rant less, plant more.


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