Wednesday, January 1, 2014

It Is the Best of Times: A New Year's Present to You and the World

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."  So said Charles Dickens at the beginning of  "A Tale of Two Cities" in one of the greatest openings ever.

With a new year beginning, what kind of times are we in now?  As I say in the title, these are not just good times, they are the best!

They are certainly the best they have been during the nearly 78 years of my life.  The year I was born the world was suffering its sixth year in a terrible Depression with no end in sight, the Spanish Civil War was becoming a rehearsal for WWII, alert Jews of Europe were already trying to flee Germany and Poland, polio was a cruel scourge, measles worldwide killed hundreds of thousand of children yearly, blacks were being systematically lynched in this country, women were universally oppressed, in America gays and Catholics and all minorities were despised and excluded, there were no birth control pills and very limited grounds for divorce, trade unions were getting nowhere, and cars were unsafe at any speed. And if you got a simple bacterial infection from a scratched knee you could die.  There were no antibiotics.

To round things out nicely, let's push our starting date back to 1914, making our comparison for a full century. That gets us the twin disasters of World War I and the 1918 flu epidemic.  Certainly those years weren't anybody's idea of "the good old days".

Folks, there never were any good old days.  THE GOOD OLD DAYS ARE NOW!

Clearly now is the best time there's been for a hundred years, maybe in all recorded history.  War is no longer viewed as the normal and natural activity of nations.  We are even getting less tolerant of governments making war on their own people.  War is a crime, and we bring heads of government to trial for starting wars or committing other "war crimes".  This was inconceivable when I was a child during World War II.

To a large extent it was also inconceivable that the world would rush to the aid of a nation struck by a natural disaster, as now routinely happens.  In the old days dismal black and white newsreel pictures of Chinese or Indians starving by the millions didn't stir the nations to relief action.  Nor did the terrible flooding of the Ohio River valley when I was a kid.

A century ago London choked under "killer fogs", as you can find if you read your Sherlock Holmes.  It was from the filth of coal burning.  In Chicago, the buildings that were supposed to be white were almost black from coal burning.  By the early 1950s in sparkling clean Los Angeles, auto emissions and factory smoke brought forth a new pollution:  the blinding haze of something called "smog".

In those same 1950s something else would be added to our air:  Strontium 90 in the radioactive fallout from atom weapon explosions in the desert.  Public radio (just beginning to exist) encouraged us mothers to submit our toddlers' baby teeth for testing for radioactive poisoning.  Everybody forgets John Kennedy ended the above-ground testing.  I don't forget.  And I love him for ending it.  It was a parent's nightmare.

The really big nightmare was, of course, the fact that we would have had at best only a half hour warning to flee the true apocalypse of a nuclear exchange with Russia.  In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis was utterly terrifying, but we lived in only slightly less terror of nuclear war for over 40 years.  That's a long time to be scared for yourself and your children and then their children.

I could go on and on.  And you could respond that we still have problems today, such as global warming and other environmental degradation, a shrinking middle class in this country and an embattled labor movement, civil war in Syria, sporadic terrorist attacks everywhere from Boston to Mumbai, and horrific working conditions in southeast Asia that can cause a thousand deaths in the collapse of a factory. The stand-off in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews has passed the half-century point and continues. There are also about 27 million people worldwide who are reputedly in slavery; many millions more who live in desperate poverty.  And bacteria are becoming increasingly impervious to antibiotics. These are all dreadful things.        

But we know about them, and we are trying to do something about them.  Surprisingly perhaps, we're making gains on solving most of them.

That piece of good news is, however, for next time.  I'm not predicting, however, that 2014 will be nothing but good news. No right-thinking Jew dares such optimism, nor does a Democrat in a midterm election year with a Democrat in the White House.  But I do suggest we look for the good and work at making more of it happen. And if I'm still up for that at age almost-78, why not you?

Happy New Year to us all!  Now let's do it!    

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