This is a column about optimism and why there’s reason to feel it. Over the weekend one of the news shows referred to “morning in America.” That was Ronald Reagan’s call to optimism thirty years ago. The country was demoralized and just beginning to come out of a long recession. The point of bringing up Reagan’s slogan is that in many ways he promised a false dawn while Barack Obama is promising a real one.
Reagan’s morning didn’t shine on AIDS patients; he thought they deserved what they got. It didn’t shine on anyone outside the right-wing agenda, so civil rights, unions, and feminists were out. So was environmentalism (what else to expect from a man who said that if you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all?) There was no light for progressivism in general. Half the reason that Obama’s election felt so liberating is that the Reagan legacy of reactionary politics and exclusion was over.

That’s a huge reason for optimism, but if you look globally, there are others. The right-wing agenda abroad called for free markets, unfettered capitalism, anti-Communism, and a strong military. That part of the Reagan vision is still with us, and some of it must be counted a success. There are no monolithic totalitarian governments in Russia and China anymore, whatever you think of the present regimes. The Cold War is definitively over. The mood of the world is against bullying superpowers and for nuclear disarmament. These trends may be new and fragile, but the tide seems to have turned. It has also turned against deniers of climate change and opponents of environmentalism.
An even greater cause for optimism is the rise of the dispossessed. When historians look back, this may be the dominant feature of our time. Billions of poor people with little hope for advancement now are getting a place at the table where only the wealthy once sat. I’m thinking of the so-called BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — whose economies have surged and will continue to after the great recession is over.
Just a decade ago, some of these positive trends weren’t visible. Even now they are obscured by bad news. The bad news about AIDS in Africa, for example, obscures major economic surges in East Africa. Terrorism and the Iraq war obscure the fact that deaths in war have declined dramatically since 1980.
On too many fronts there is no morning, though. Sri Lanka, North Korea, Sudan, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of trouble spots always seems to replenish itself. Yet taken all together, these places of strife and oppression don’t equal the enmity and danger of the Cold War. Our worst problem as a planet, sudden climate change, may serve to pull the nations together. Old systems are being shaken, and even though nationalism and militarism hold on tight, decade after decade, at least the idea of global cooperation is alive and well.
All told, I think the image of morning in the world is realistic. The good and the bad will always be tangled with one another. But compared to the false dawns that never fulfilled their promise, this dawn could transform the world far more positively than we realize. Our eyes are glued on the economic crisis, but our souls have a higher vision.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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