Last week I attended an online presentation from Network 20/20, a group that hosts programs addressing various current issues. My wife and I have attended several of the sessions and found them informative and thought-provoking.
This last one was called Is American in Decline: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century. The two panelists were Paul Kennedy, age 76, professor at Yale University, and Jessica Mathews, age 75, of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace.
What struck me was not so much their take on the issues of the day -- Trump, Covid, Climate, China, the Middle East -- but their overwhelming negative view of the world. Democracy is in decline. Authoritarianism is on the march. War is looming on the horizon. Global warming is choking us to death.
They also seemed nostalgic for the better times of yore -- of Roosevelt and Johnson and Clinton -- when America led the liberal world order and spread the ideals of democracy around the globe.
Then it occurred to me. Maybe Dr. Kennedy is Gloomy Gus, and Dr. Mathews is Debbie Downer, because of their age. It seems like a lot of us in our 70s pine for the old days when life was simpler and America seemed a better place.
If you're conservative, you look through rose-colored glasses at the age of Eisenhower and Reagan. If you're liberal you dream of Roosevelt and Johnson, or maybe Kennedy and Carter.
I admit, sometimes I fall into the same way of thinking. Sometimes, it seems, life was better back when we were kids. We walked to school and played in the neighborhood without fear of crime or kidnapping. Mom was home to fix lunch and dinner. Dad went to work and coached Little League on weekends. We didn't worry about money -- either we had enough or didn't care if we had enough -- and everyone wasn't so competitive.
But then I'd remember. The reason we could run around in the neighborhood was only because we didn't live in the inner city. I'd recall the family that was killed in a car accident, in the days before seat belts and airbags. My mother had a dear friend who died of breast cancer, when medical treatments were much more primitive. I knew a kid with polio who walked with braces. There was the boy with learning disabilities who was shipped off to some institution, never to be heard from again. Our neighbors got divorced -- and at the time it was a huge scandal.
We didn't have China as an adversary. We had the Soviet Union, which was worse. Remember hiding under our desks for the air-raid drills? Then there was Vietnam, the assassinations, the race riots and more.
Maybe life seemed better because . . . we were kids. But I can only imagine was life was like for people of color back in the '60s. Women were pressured into domestic roles that for many became stifling. Men were trapped in jobs they had come to hate. My older sister told me that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her hero, because she really didn't want kids and she credits RBG as the one who finally came along and gave her the options of birth control, and abortion if she ever needed it.
I'm not here to argue one way or the other about racism or abortion or any other "hot topic" issue. I'm only saying that people who think America is in decline have got it wrong.
Crime is down. Traffic fatalities are down. Life expectancies are longer. Social Security and Medicare help keep us comfortable in retirement. Yes, China and Iran and Korea and Russia present their challenges. But we are not on the brink of annihilation as we were in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sure, there's still racism in America, as there is in many other countries of the world -- but it's nowhere near what it was 50 years ago. I live in a suburb of Philadelphia. The kids in my neighborhood walk to school, just like we did a half a century ago. But there are Asian kids who walk to school, and African American kids and other kids who ... well, I don't know what they are -- presumably some mixture -- but I don't really care.
Meanwhile, the girls are on a college track, not shuffled off to home economics. And, yes, everyone has been dealing with Covid for the last two years, and it hasn't been easy. But at least we have a new world of technology to help us navigate the challenges.
I dunno. Maybe I'm too much of an optimist. Or, maybe I'm just not acting my age.