Jay Evensen: History shows New Year's optimism pays off
"Our country is at peace. It should be the happiest land on earth and will be when some needed adjustments are made." — Editorial in the Salt Lake Evening Telegram, Jan. 1, 1912.
Americans never tire of hoping for those last needed adjustments. The dawn of a new year is famous for prompting us to get out the tool set and at least planning to make them.
Were it not for this yearly feeling of optimism, so many would not stay up late to welcome 2012 with silly hats and even sillier behavior. We would curl asleep in a dark corner, fearful of the future and certain we can't drop those 20 excess pounds we carry like burdens of guilt.
It is why, while most of what happened in 2011 will fade from memory as fast as a chorus of Rebecca Black's "Friday," we write resolutions for the things of lasting greatness we expect in 2012. This Sunday is still only one day removed from Saturday, and yet many of us echo T. S. Eliot's optimism when he said, "last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice."
Here's to our never-ending faith in that new voice. History bears witness to the value of this optimism.
Human nature doesn't change much. You can easily hear echoes of it in any newspaper vault or online archive.
One hundred years ago today the nation knew it was on the verge of a politically momentous year. The Chicago Tribune summed it up nicely. The year, it said, would feature more than just a presidential election. It would see "a complete settlement of factional strife in the two great political parties … The solution may be a third party, but if it is not, it will be a reorganization which in effect will be, so far as the Republican Party is concerned, a revolution."
Former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was challenging President William Howard Taft, also a Republican, with his own grassroots progressive version of politics. It was the polar opposite of what the tea party now wants to do with that same party, and perhaps not nearly as radical as what the Occupy movement would like to do with the Democrats, but it sounds eerily familiar to folks on the threshold of 2012.
But history doesn't quite repeat itself that neatly. What we really hold in common with those folks is our nearsightedness.
Almost as unbending as our yearly optimism on this day is our muted assessment of the year that has passed. If we aren't in a hurry to discard it completely on the junk heap, we will grudgingly admit that it had its good points as well as its bad.
A little perspective is in order. In the century since the now-defunct Evening Telegram hoped for a few adjustments to make the land perfect, we have seen two murderous world wars, a catastrophic flu epidemic and a Depression that made many suffer. There were recessions, natural disasters, wars in Korea and Vietnam, assassinations, attacks by terrorists that launched yet more wars and another economic downturn that caused more suffering.
Yet we look around on the first day of 2012 and, despite all that, see a world quite different from a century ago. We carry cell phones in our pockets that connect us instantly with loved ones anywhere and that show us news as it happens. Medical miracles routinely cure diseases that once killed thousands each year, prolonging life to an expectancy of about 80 years.
We breathe air that is cleaner and walk streets free of manure. We take digital photos and drive cars that, while not as ornate as the roadsters of yore, are much safer and faster.
It's safe to say at least a few "needed adjustments" have been made.
The past speaks to those who listen. It says to prepare for hardships and tragedy. But it also says that optimism and hard work, in the long run, tend to be rewarded. That's reason enough to be optimistic on New Year's Day.
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