Monday, December 30, 2019

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

Technically, of course, 2020 will be the last year of the second decade of the 21st century. Even so, a common convention makes it the beginning of the new decade of the "20s," while the year that is now ending likewise marks the end of the decade of the "teens." Even Queen Elizabeth II, in her Christmas Broadcast the other day, followed that current convention. So I might as well too!

For me personally, this sort of works anyway, since 2010 was a decisive turning point for me, when I transitioned from seemingly somewhat permanent vicariousness to a pastorship. All three of my postings as a priest have been amazingly wonderful experiences, and each place and its people will always have a special place in my heart. But I have especially cherished these almost 10 years as a parish pastor - the people I have served and worked with, the experiences we have shared together, and the extra opportunities I have had to be more deeply involved in the larger life of the Church in this region. In effect, I have been challenged to live what priesthood is for and what ministry is about. And so I am grateful to those who have made this unique and blessed opportunity possible for me. On the other hand, with what the British call becoming "redundant" staring me in the face in the new decade, I may experience much more satisfaction in looking backward rather than forward!

The reverse may be true for the wider world, however. If this has been on balance a good decade for me personally, it has been dramatically less so for the wider world, which may have no alternative but to look ahead to the future with some guarded hope.  

Decades are an artificial kind of chronology, of course. For the world, I suppose this troubled "decade" actually began in 2008 with the financial crisis, which, on the one hand, exposed (as if there should ever have been any doubt) the moral defects of capitalism, and, on the other hand, began a prolonged period of heightened economic and social distress which has adversely impacted many Americans, many of whom have felt "left behind" as a result - a widespread experience that has had catastrophic political consequences. (The ongoing Democratic primary process will reveal whether the Democrats have come to understand the Trump is a consequence, not a cause, of our present predicament, and that returning to the status quo ante 2016 is not what most Americans appear to want - especially those already "left behind" well before 2016.)

That same year that gave us the financial crisis also saw the election of "Hope and Change" President Barack Obama, whose administration ended up producing much less change than it promised and inspiring a lot less hope than hype. Obama's single greatest accomplishment was, of course, the Affordable Care Act, which barely passed after a year of Democratic dithering that frittered away the opportunity to pass it before Senator Kennedy's death led to the Democrats' loss of his seat. Universal Health Care had been a Democratic aspiration for decades. The Affordable Care Act did not fulfill that aspiration, but it did bring the country a lot closer, for which the Obama Administration rightly deserves credit, even praise. The most successful part of the law, however, in terms of significant expansions of coverage, was probably the Medicaid expansion. So the moral of the story is that what the rest of Obamacare resisted - a single payer ("Medicare for all") model is ultimately the best way to go. Yet, given so many Americans' fetishistic devotion to private (employer-provided) health insurance, that option didn't have any serious chance of being enacted in 2010, even if Obama had had the courage to propose it. 

Obama's biggest problem, of course, came from the opposition party's fanatical opposition to him personally. At the time, I (like so many others) interpreted his election as  a gigantic leap away from our nation's lingering legacy of racism. Rather than that, however, the election of a non-white president proved to be an event of such traumatic dimensions for enough voters as to trigger an intense reaction, which in retrospect probably should have been predicted instead of appearing as something of a surprise. 

So, instead of heralding a gigantic leap away from our racist past, the Obama years exposed our lingering racist present. All that was needed to stir the toxic brew to  destructive intensity was a political charlatan to exploit it for his own advancement, which, of course, happened soon enough.

In addition to traditional American racism's revived visibility and virulence, other similar evils  - American nativism, religious bigotry, and anti-semitism have been on the rise. The latter has a history and constituencies all its own and is very visibly on the rise throughout the world on both the political right and the political left.

All this has occurred alongside another terribly destructive phenomenon - the virtual universalization of the internet, the ubiquity of smartphones, and the general calamity commonly called "social media," all of which has isolated individuals from traditional social connections, has fragmented our society into niches with separate realities with little or nothing shared or common, has vastly increased the long-standing American gullibility for conspiracy theories of all sorts, and has fostered foreign interference in American politics on an unprecedented scale. It has also enabled bigots to find like-minded haters and widely propagate their malicious messages without ever even having to stir from their homes

Meanwhile, the role played by traditional social institutions that used to occupy the cultural space between the isolated individual and the leviathan state (thus making the individual less isolated and the state less leviathan) has radically diminished. Churches, in particular, once so central in American society, have lost much of their significance - in part due to world-historical secularizing tendencies, but in large part due to Churches' own internal difficulties and to their problematic efforts at regaining political power.

The decade has also highlighted the differences between the two opposing sides in our political and cultural divide. The Right produced the Tea Party. It also engaged in political action to acquire and keep control of the levers of political power. The Left produced the Occupy movement and some impressive political marches and demonstrations - in other words lots of expressive, symbolic politics, but fewer votes that could actually change anything. For all that Russia and Comey may have contributed to Trump's election in 2016, it was the failure to get out the vote in certain places (and votes cast for frivolous third-party candidates) that helped decide the actual outcome. 

Generational differences and conflicts are hardly new, but they too may have been exacerbated in this decade by the unprecedented phenomenon of my "Baby Boomer" generation's longevity and consequent reluctance to move aside. The fact that the incumbent president and his three most prominent potential rivals are all septuagenarians is really rather remarkable (and should be remarked upon more). I am not an "ageist," and I do not advocate for compulsory retirement or any other age-related discrimination. Still, there is only so much one can accomplish in one's life, and learning to quit ought itself to be an important component of wholesome aging. And while I don't completely agree with the columnist who recently suggested that my Baby Boomer generation is leaving the world so much worse off than we found it, there is some sadly serious substance to that claim. Certainly there are many things that are much better today than 50, 60, or 70 years ago. But there are also many more things that are worse. In particular, regarding what may turn out to be the most decisive issue of our era, what we have done to damage the environment and our failure to arrest climate change, my "baby Boomer" generation is most definitely leaving a world which is much worse than world we inherited.

That is true in other areas as well. What we Baby Boomers can do to correct the world we have helped create is obviously limited. At least we can bear witness to the fact that there was once a time when we shared a common culture, when the institutions that mediated the space between the individual and the state (families, churches, schools, labor unions, civic organizations, etc.) were all a lot stronger, when income inequality was less, and when we (unlike the next generation) could realistically expect to live better off then our parents' generation. It may be difficult for those who are inheriting the world we are leaving behind even to imagine the world we had inherited; and, given contemporary ideological deformations in the understanding of fundamental human realities, what we have lost may be too hard for too many to appreciate adequately. But, if bearing such witness is all Baby Boomers can still do, we ought at least to be doing it.

As the last year of the second decade of the 21st century and the first year of the "20s," the year 2020 will inevitably be perceived as a liminal year, but it will be especially so because it will be an American Presidential Election year. As a consequence of the decade that is ending, one can confidently predict that the election will have at least one, rather sad, result. It will leave about half the country pleased but still very angry, and the other half just very angry! What a commentary on the decade that is ending - and on us who have lived it!

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