People are incurably optimistic. That’s more than just an endearing trait; it becomes, over time, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s good news as we sit on the precipice of another new year.
A century ago, the Salt Lake Telegram greeted 1919 with an optimistic editorial about the things that had changed because of a grim and deadly world war. Because of the united efforts of foreign born and ethnic citizens to help win the war, the editors said, the nation would enter a new era of equality.
“Americans are going to do many things differently from now on,” the editorial said. “We are going to come to a full realization of the fact that an American is an American regardless of race or religion.”
That optimism can seem silly in retrospect — at least in the perspective of those times. Certainly, we have not yet achieved such a full realization 100 years later. In some quarters today, people from 1918 might still feel quite at home. But it would be equally silly to deny the progress and the upward trend, or to discount the vision of those editors.
Just as it would be foolish to stop believing the future will be even better.
That kind optimism seems innate in a nation that values freedoms. If you don’t believe people will naturally try to do better, why give them any freedom at all?
Americans wouldn’t put on silly hats and act nutty Monday night without some degree of faith in the future. Even those of us who are older and go to bed early still expect good things.
The political world isn’t nearly as optimistic, for obvious reasons. You won’t get many votes by arguing that life is good while your opponent is in power.
Unfortunately, we often buy into these false arguments. We take a long view of the future and a short view of the present. That doesn’t serve us well.
2018 was the year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that life expectancy actually dropped by 0.1 years. Violent crime ticked up, and the #metoo movement blossomed, exposing all sorts of sexual assault and abuse we didn’t know was happening. Last spring, some people noted that more people died in school shootings so far in the year than while actively deployed in military hot spots.
Grim statistics, all. Each one exposes a real problem that will require the focus of great minds and the collective will of the entire culture to solve. But we also cannot afford to ignore a broader perspective.
The small drop in life expectancy doesn’t look so dire when you consider it stood at 47 years in 1900. Today it’s 78.6 years, and modern science is making strides that promise to reverse the small backward step.
As for crime, the 2016 murder rate stood at 5.3 per 100,000, according to federal statistics, which seems much higher than the 4.4 rate in 2014. But in 1980 the rate was 10.2. Robberies stood at 251.1 per 100,000 in 1980; in 2016 the rate was 102.8. Rapes dropped from 42.8 per 100,000 in 1994 to 29.6 in the latest statistics.
Likewise, the #metoo movement is a positive step in the right direction, so long as due process and fair representation remain in place. And the shooting statistics, disturbing as they are, were skewed by two large incidents early in the year. Experts say it’s still more dangerous to be on active duty in the military than at school.
That doesn’t minimize the importance of stopping people from killing kids. Nor should we discount the need to solve today’s other ills. But we shouldn’t over-glamorize the distant past, either.8 comments on this story
In their book, “It’s getting better all the time,” authors Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon describe life a century ago as an era of “tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, child death, horses, horse manure, candles, 12-hour workdays, Jim Crow laws, tenements, slaughterhouses and outhouses.”
Well, when you put it that way. …
The truth is, we wouldn’t face Tuesday morning with optimism without an innate understanding of this overall upward trend — one that has its roots in basic freedoms and rights.
On the doorstep of 2019, we should pause and remind ourselves of progress made. Also, we should give thanks to folks, including those editors a century ago, who at least knew enough to keep pointing us in the right direction.