American Spirit Is Alive and Well in Dissent and Protest Movements(A)
For Americans, uncertainty is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world to cope with. Sunny optimism – the hope, the wish, the belief that life is going to be better in the future – is virtually a United States trademark. Living in California, as I do, I am intensely aware of this positive attitude. When I moved across the country 33 years ago, I was amazed at the ready smiles and warm greetings on the street and in stores from people I didn’t even know. “Have a nice day” was invented in California. It was quite a contrast to my experience growing up in the South Bronx during the Depression, when optimism was in short supply. Still, even in the face of adversity, we managed to look forward to what we thought would be a better life. It was that dream that brought my parents here from Eastern Europe. It was why we went to school and studied hard to get good grades.
Yet here we are, in a new year and a new century, suffering under as sharp a decline in confidence as we have ever experienced. The gloom that has descended on the nation is palpable. We are adrift in a malaise that has sapped our energy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the business world. Reporting Hewlett-Packard quarterly results in February, CEO Carly Fiorina said: “Today’s world is full of uncertainty, and predictions are difficult.” In the stock market investors are sitting on their hands. David Bowers, Merrill Lynch’s chief global investment strategist, recently told the Wall Street Journal: “People have very few reference points. They aren’t confident of anything.” This paralysis, coupled with scandal after scandal in corporate malfeasance, has shredded the credibility of business as an institution inspiring public trust.
So, is there any antidote to this despair? Personally, I believe we can find it in the wave of dissenting opinion that has arisen over a possible war with Iraq and the curbing of civil liberties under the guise of homeland security. The great strengths of America have always been open discussion of issues and the recognition that people have a right to disagree with their leaders. We’re fortunate to have people like Pete Seeger, Ralph Nader, Michael Moore and Wendell Berry: they represent the true spirit of American democracy. Sometimes you find confirmation of this thesis in unexpected places. On a newsstand I bought a special collector’s edition of U.S. News & World Report devoted to “American Ingenuity.” It turns out to be not a patriotic bromide but a very thoughtful survey of “the culture of creativity that made a nation great,” focusing on such people as Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington, Rachel Carson, Charles Kettering, Levi Strauss, scientist Leo Sternbach (inventor of Valium), adman Leo Burnett and Willis Carrier (inventor of air conditioning). Editor Jody Schneider put it well: “For many, America is not just a place but a dream, an idea, an aspiration.” She put flesh on this concept in this 88-page survey that gives us hope that we can dig our way out of the morass we now find ourselves in.
One reason for optimism is to review the changes in American life during the past 100 years. Schneider presents some tables and charts that make you gasp at what they reveal, to wit:
From 1900 to 2000, the U.S. population went from 76 million to 281 million.Hispanics, hardly counted in 1900, are now the biggest minority group at 35 million; the black population has gone from 8.8 million in 1900 to 34 million in 2000.Average household size in 1900 was 4.8 persons; today it is 2.6 persons.Life expectancy for women in 1900 was 48 years; today it is 74 years.Average income has gone from $418 in 1900 ($8,360 adjusted for inflation) to $40,816 in 1999. Share of income spent on food has decreased from 43% to 15%.In 1910, 3% of the population had a high school degree; today 83% hold this degree.3% held a college degree in 1900, 25% did in 1999.In 1900, 8% of married women were in the labor force, today 61% are.Change is the elixir of American life.