The One About Expectations

When I was growing up, it was quite routine for pollsters to report that most people expected that their children’s lives would be more comfortable than their own. On the back of an expanding economy, greater access to educational opportunities and health care, more families enjoying home ownership, increased mobility, and, of course, the rate of technological innovation, positive trajectories were assumed to be the norm. Developments during the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War (leaving the USA as the sole super power), the prospect of a “peace dividend,” and growing participation of women in the workforce (boosting the country’s greatest resource, its human capital) further heightened the sense of optimism.
The road hasn’t always been easy or straightforward. We were attacked by a cabal of criminal terrorists, which led to wasteful and unnecessary wars. Financial regulations were cut back, and greed and corruption on Wall Street resulted in financial bubbles and a housing collapse. Silicon Valley unleashed technologies whose social and economic consequences are still not fully understood.
Nevertheless, American exceptionalism, the notion that a government by the people and for the people, citizens standing together arms both held open to welcome immigrants and linked in solidarity to the American dream, overcame hate and fear, and relegated its purveyors (Joe McCarthy, John Birch, Father Coughlin, George Wallace–actually this is not a short list) to history’s trash heap.
As a nation, do we still feel that sense of solidarity and optimism? What happens when national policies born of fear, manipulation, greed, or hype are promoted that not just legalize but incentivize toxic pollution; the support of one religion over another; the tearing apart of families; prisons that profit from recidivism; the withdrawal of support for the public schools; the shredding of social safety nets that provide dignity to the aging and unwell; increased voting restrictions; a woman’s right to control her body and her life; an adult’s right to have marriage commitments be recognized; the rights of brown and black people’s lives to matter, free of the uncertainty and hopelessness associated with civil (normal, everyday) rights being arbitrarily removed.
What to make of where we are today?
Recently I received an email from a Sandy Spring parent that inspired this blog. I quote from it:
“Speaking as a Muslim and as an immigrant, the issues are of course deeply personal for me and for my broader identity group as we contemplate what others may think of us and how we may be treated by society going forward. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, fears in the Islamic community here were elevated, too, but concerns were rooted in how national sentiment (not policy) may have changed towards us. So this time the potential implications appear very different. And feelings of trepidation, feelings of being under threat, are palpable in our community as we brace for what may come next.
Without a sufficient confidence in the ability to speak out for fear of reprisal or further condemnation, many Muslims and other targeted groups will need to rely on the advocacy of others to help them, and maybe even to protect them. Sandy Spring is more than my children’s school, it is our safe harbor.”
There is much work to be done if we are to make certain that all of our children will inherit the world that we wish them to have. I hope that we can maintain the optimism to make it so.

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