My New Years Day column for the AJC:
A mere five years ago, the man who is now president was just an obscure freshman senator from Illinois; our governor was some congressman from Gainesville whose name nine out of 10 Georgians would not recognize. The national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent and your house was probably worth 40 percent more than it’s worth today.
Things change — they always have — but these days the pace of change has seemed to quicken. Maybe it’s the consequence of technology that compresses a generation’s worth of evolution into a few years of revolution. Or maybe it just feels that way, just as all of those who came before us felt buffeted by change in their own time. As participants rather than disinterested observers, we lack the perspective to really know.
Certainly, the world that many of us thought we knew and understood has been transformed in the last few years. In recent polls, only a third of Americans still say that our country’s best days are yet to come, and a majority have lost faith that our children will live better lives than we do. The economic affluence enjoyed by this country after World War II —- and the military dominance that flowed from it — feels strangely fragile and threatened.
To those who lived through the Great Depression and the horrors of a world war, that post-war affluence came as a pleasant surprise, and many knew better than to take it for granted. They had seen how it comes and goes and they didn’t trust it. As a result, they had a more accurate perspective than those of us who were raised on the idea that success was our natural birthright as Americans.
We are now faced with the realization that what we understood to be a permanent state of affairs may instead have been an aberration, a temporary product of temporary conditions. Faced with such circumstances, it is natural to seek out villains and to entertain doubts. If our affluence was testament to our nation’s strength, wisdom and goodness, as we were taught, what does its diminishment tell us? Does it mean that we have become less wise and less good? And if so, can we regain what was lost by trying to return to what we were, or what we thought we were?
Personally, it’s foolish to think in terms of “taking back America.” The path ahead is not behind us. If we are not the country that we used to be, good. We can be the country that we are going to be.
Although some may wish otherwise, the demographic, cultural, technological and economic changes of the past generation cannot be undone, and the worst thing we can do is waste time and energy trying to undo them anyway. The answers of the past apply to the problems of the past.
It is hard in a time of rapid, disorienting change to continue looking forward, to focus on what we plan to become rather than on what we used to be. As we jump from ice floe to ice floe, testing our agility, we may yearn for the days when we felt firm ground under our feet.
But that firm ground wasn’t all that firm after all.
– Jay Bookman