My children think me foolishly optimistic-- almost shallow-mindedly so. They feel that they are doomed to a new dark ages as the powers of darkness sweep over their landscape, social, political, and economic. They cannot trust in their intense liberal idealisms, nor their intellectual acuities, and are in near despair.
My trust, my optimism, they feel is but the shredded, shoddy remnant of disgraced Enlightenment dreaming.
What can I say? How can I reply? I try however feebly to say something about my own long experience in this country. I note historical movement that I call ‘progress’ and improvement. I list my proofs. I tell them that the human lot has eased, and enlightenment, for its every miscarriage, has deepened and spread.
I tell them that I have seen, in my day, systems of social security, public health, protection of children and the elderly, the liberation of women and the races, all and more, clearly advanced. Even the democracy of travel, yes, even the liberties of the Internet, advance the cause of human liberty and welfare.
I tell them that I am more than ready to admit to the terrible failures of liberal adventurism, the misbegotten efforts to force them on the rest of the world-- and failings at home. But, I look around me and see what I must declare to be the over-all enhancement of human life. There is a finer justice in most public matters. I hate it when these kids of mine force me to sound mindless in the defense of things as they are when they are obviously, just now, so bad.
I try to call them to the knowledge, that the arc of history has ever been toward a more inclusive justice for all-- with the care and welfare of all, the chief concern of governments.
I urge them to think of the man they have helped put in highest office, a man of destiny, a black man, an intellectual, a surpassing politician, a bred-up liberal, who, with his family, is enjoying himself immensely.
But they think I’m raving, I suggest to them that they were born into this privileged slot of our time and cannot sense what it was like in tougher times. They cannot feel any momentum for their future. They just plain were not there before… before the arc of history bent so greatly.
Yes, these are dark times, but they are not the first, nor the last, nor the only times. We feel ourselves to be ripe for loss. The ignorant, the bigoted, the sadistically greedy agents among us are making so terrible a clamor that we are tempted to think that they are winning, that they are truly in the ascendancy.
But I do not believe it. My experience leads me to think otherwise. The test of the functional liberal must be to avoid falling into the slough of despond where hatred and reaction will always be there to worry us-- sometimes, to death.
The tea party is not a worthy adversary for my children, or for any right thinking person. They are an aberration, As they party and rally around idol of the moment, we ought to show them a high Disdain-- and head off into the future, chasing the liberal, progressive dream ever farther, maybe even unto the celestial city.
Liberalism is not just a program for human betterment, not just a public policy, but a faith-in-the-world. It is the faith, or in more secular terms, the confidence that the human situation can and will be better.
Let me not be lectured on the destructive excesses of this Enlightenment faith, how it has despoiled cultures and nations with the battle cry of “Western Civilization Over All”. I know all that and am sorry for it. I know what our thirst for colonial oil and labor has done.
But, am I not to keep the faith? Am I not to think that with a finer application, an historically informed, enlightened, and finely motivated sense of policy we can make it safe and rewarding for anyone to be just anyone in the full variety of this post-modern life ?
I realize that this argument lacks the finesse and sophistication of current forms of despair that should inform it. My argument is unprofessional. But it is mine, An ill-favor’d thing, sir, but mine own.
But, it is what a good many like me have lived through and where we have seen what we have seen. It is what I have been able to do and become in a combination of fortuitous circumstance and our abidingly humane, liberal image of what a human life ought to be. It is my card-carrying membership in the great human family that finally entitles me.
“Simply the thing I am shall make me live”
Paroles says with Shakespeare’s help.
I believe that we are in an ugly but historically anomalous moment. I believe that we shall soon see the reformation of full fifteen percent of our good people who will come to realize that they need not gnaw off a leg in order to escape from the trap of bitterest reaction, its fear and hatred of being excluded from the company of those who have been, like me, included.
Why, when I think of my children and their temptation to public and intellectually professional despair, why do I think of their grandfather, who, when given his choice for President so long ago, said, to hell with it! He was going to vote for Henry Wallace, socialist or no. He didn’t worry as long as Wallace believed that we could enjoy a finer national equity and justice. My father came to this act of what was then radical courage out of his lived life experience. Wallace lost, but my father won.
In that continuing faith and confidence, because of what I, in my turn, have experienced, I must stand for the new Enlightenment, and the historical certainty that it must prevail. I believe it is the way of our species.
( I submit that theirs is a hell of a way to treat their poor, dear, sweet, old dad, especially when their mother agrees with them.)