Right now it cuts against the grain to suggest that developments in American life offer reasons for hope. But positive signs are around us. We just need to notice.
Virtually every opinion poll suggests that Americans are in a funk. And most have good reasons. Natural disasters have wreaked havoc in the southeast. Young “Dreamers” may be forced to leave the only country most have known. And the President is still in the thrall of a segment of voters motivated by the seemingly permanent stains of dreary nativism and victimhood. Even so, here is a short list of thriving features of American life we can still celebrate.
The rot in the high canopy of national politics conceals an understorey of vibrant American mayors.
Politico has identified a large crop of effective city leaders good at finding the kinds of workarounds that a hapless member of the U.S. House might never grasp. They include big city mayors like Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, Marty Walsh in Boston, and Jackie Biskupski in Salt Lake City. “Blue city” majors are good at looking for progressive solutions for urban challenges. But even in “red”Utah a moderate Republican who happens to be a lesbian can win office and tackle difficult issues like homelessness. More journalists should follow Politico’s lead in identifying the posible sources of our salvation in municipal leaders. If we are smart we will make use of their talents for a future and essential nation-rebuilding.
Our music is better than our politics.
The beacon of American democracy has surely been dimmed by it’s inward turn. There can be no surprise that international polls suggest that far fewer members of other societies want to emulate our politics. Not so our music, which remains as popular as ever in many corners of the globe. It’s wonderfully routine to hear jazz in Paris, big bands in Copenhagen, or country music in Spain; the singers and songs as are as safely as suggestive and universal as ever. American Ariana Grande was performing to thousands of fans in the English Midlands when a suicide bomber attacked the young crowd. Her international tour was following a well worn trail of transformative performers who have been accessible bridges to others. On recordings performers like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Paul Simon retain devotees everywhere. American pop, jazz, R and B, and rap continue as models to young performers everywhere. Though it strikes me that we underestimate Latin American influences in American music, the powerhouse industry centered in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York remains an ambassador to other cultures in ways our politics cannot match.
The ideal of cultural inclusion that was envisioned but never seen by thought-leaders like Dr. King or Harvey Milk is now the norm for most younger Americans.
One of the pleasures of working with younger Americans is to see their easy acceptance of peers with different histories and backgrounds. It’s surely an indicator that the racial and other resentments being fed by this administration will eventially yield to their better instincts. Women will hold more political offices. The monoculture of wealthy white males who now dominate two of the three branches of the federal government is going to change, eventually reflecting our shifting demographics and a youth culture giving us hints of a post-racial world.
We have seen a resurgence of national political journalism.
Whatever the fate of the Trump administration, its unpopularity with better educated voters has fed a vibrant revival of the American news business. Online subscriptions at The Washington Post and the New York Times have increased dramatically. Opinion journals that were withering away a few years ago have suddenly become go-to sites. Politico, The Atlantic, Slate, Vox, The Guardian, ProPublica and even the Wall Street Journal have taken on investigative assignments that make up in clout what they may lack in more conventional measures of audience size. Even CNN seems to have finally found its footing after shameless over-coverage of Trump appearances in 2016. Except for a core captured by fantasies of fake news, American investigative journalism is cool again.
The military has again emerged as a leader in human rights.
The services were the first large segment of American society to fully integrate racially. That was in 1948, at least 15 years ahead of universities and other institutions. More recently it has become clear that full acceptance of women as well as gay and trans members has evolved into full tolerance and acceptance of all in uniform. It has been heartening to hear military leaders at the very top push back against Presidential statements that cast suspicion on individuals who may be Muslim or gay. For example, last month 56 retired generals and admirals signed a letter noting that a proposed ban by the Trump administration on transgender members of the services would “be disruptive and degrade military readiness.” The current defense Secretary seems to agree, putting the question under review rather than simply implementing it.
These are all hopeful signs. It cuts against the grain right now to believe that developments in American life offer reasons for optimism. But the reasons are there. We just need to look.