I had the great honor of providing the Keynote speech last summer at the Kids’ Chance of New Jersey Annual Gala. In that presentation I attempted to draw a positive picture of the work done by the organization as well as for the future of the scholarship recipients present at the event. I believe that we have an obligation to set a positive framework for kids striking out to college for the first time. They need to know that life will be largely what they make of it, anything is possible, and even though bad things can happen (Kids’ Chance kids understand that more than anyone), their fate is largely up to them. It will really come down to how they address challenges in the lives that lay before them. I will be speaking at two more Kids’ Chance events next year, in Wisconsin and Illinois, and I intend to deliver a similarly positive message.
Nowadays, that doesn’t seem an easy thing to do. After all, the country is massively split on both cultural and political levels. Impeachment, investigations and scandal, real or imagined (depending on your point of view), seem unending in Washington. Climate change is going to kill us all in just 12 years. The political class of the nation is in turmoil, while political relations and discussions have never been nastier. Many people will tell you that things have never, ever been as bad as they are today in this country.
Or have they?
It seems that our collective memories are very short, from an historical perspective. People will always give additional weight to things they have physically experienced over that they read about in history books. Let’s look at a few examples of days gone by, shall we?
How about this one for starters? In 1804, a sitting Vice-President of the United States shot and killed the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. To put that in modern day terms, it would be as if Vice-President Mike Pence shot Bush era Treas Sec Hank Paulson. I don’t think that has happened yet, but the day is young.
One never knows about these things.
Prior to that ill-fated duel, things weren’t always peachy keen in the newly formed United States. 1786-1787 saw a fully armed revolt, called Shay’s Rebellion, that ended up in a “full-blown” military conflict. And we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the 1787 Constitutional Convention was actually a coup, in that it developed documents and systems that completely threw out an existing but failing government structure.
And the early 1800’s were pretty tumultuous in their own right as well. There was of course a war; one that destroyed most of Washington, DC. Presidential campaigns, particularly two between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, were nasty. The election of Jackson in 1828, one that was “characterized to an unusual degree by negative personal attacks,” represented a tumultuous time. He was a frontier president, and an outsider to the established political classes in Washington. He was resented by many for his presence in the White House, which, by the way, was generally trashed by a drunken throng on the day he was inaugurated. I somehow suspect, that if Andrew Jackson had access to Twitter, history really would be repeating itself.
And all through that period, one that was referred to as the “Era of Good Feelings,” pressures built. Indians of the west, who were formerly Indians of the east, were being pushed into more and more remote lands by western expansion. And for millions of African slaves, who in the day were not considered human and were in fact the personal property of others, the era felt anything other than good.
Of course, we can’t mention that indelible stain on our history without mentioning the war that ended it; a war that pitted brother against brother, family against family, and cost over 500,000 Americans their lives.
Do we still think this time is the worst our country has seen? I haven’t even mentioned measles, smallpox, polio, two world wars, a massive depression, Vietnam, the cultural revolution, LSD, JFK’s assassination, MLK’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, Paris Hilton or Conan O’Brien hosting the Tonight Show. And lest we forget, before climate change came along to threaten our demise in 2030, it was global warming that would leave New York underwater by 2010. Before that it was a hole in the Ozone Layer that was going to kill us all, and before that it was a looming ice age that would slowly starve us for lack of food.
Get where I am going with this?
I am an unabashed believer in the concept of American exceptionalism. This country remains great not despite of its issues, but because it historically has confronted, debated, corrected or overcome them. We have surmounted far greater challenges than those we see today, and we will somehow miraculously survive the current days. We better, because I suspect what is coming in our future will be the worst we’ve ever seen.
Or at least it will be when it gets here.