Monday, December 12, 2005

All Is Not Lost; In Fact, Life is Pretty Good

I was cleaning out my Evernote files the other day and came across this column I had saved. Since most of us focus on what’s going wrong, I thought this might make for a nice change of pace and put life in a proper perspective.

Edward Achorn: The good old days are now
Providence Journal

AMONG THE GREAT unsung heroes of our culture are surely our history teachers: those who make the past compelling and meaningful. Only history makes sense of the present, giving us the perspective we need to live happy and fulfulling lives -- and avoid falling prey to demagogic politicians.

Too many Americans stumble around in the dark with a weak flashlight, capable of illuminating only a narrow circle of their immediate surroundings. History throws open the curtains, and lets the light flood in, so that we may grasp the true dimensions of the room.

These thoughts come to mind whenever I see the politicians or some of the media tearing down America. I know of people who, having watched too much cable TV news in recent weeks, think our country is worse off than it has ever been -- economically, culturally, politically, environmentally, militarily. Some say they are terrified of the future.

That's very human behavior. We tend to believe our experiences are unprecedented -- that no one loved, or suffered, or dreamed, as we do.

Thus, many people uncritically accept the oft-repeated phrase that Hurricane Katrina is the "worst natural disaster in American history," although there have been far more powerful storms, which claimed thousands more lives. Estimates of deaths from the 1900 Galveston hurricane, for example, range as high as 12,000. (And then there was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which caused massive devastation and took hundreds if not thousands of lives.)

We see this "worst-ever" tendency constantly. Parents are led to believe that children may no longer play in their neighborhoods because child kidnapping is at an all-time peak. In truth, the crime rate is lower than it has been in 15 years, and there has been no increase in kidnapping, points out John Stossel, of ABC News. It's because TV focuses on child abductions that moms and dads are more fearful.

We hear of the approach of such scary diseases as SARS (and Bird Flu), which killed almost 1,000 people. We forget the flu of 1918 -- which killed 20 million.

We are told that poverty is increasing, supposedly because of rapacious capitalism. But many of those who qualify statistically as poor enjoy luxuries beyond the wildest dreams (or resources) of royalty not all that long ago: central heating, cable TV, refrigerators, microwave ovens, cell phones, etc. We are told the middle class is shrinking, but we are not told that many are joining the statistical ranks of the rich.

We are told Iraq is a military disaster and a quagmire, though other American wars required much greater sacrifices (including on the home front) -- and some of those wars were not fought for nearly as vital a national interest as trying to sap the strength of Islamic terror. We are rarely told that America's soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are, by historical standards, extraordinarily well trained and highly committed to the mission -- and certainly among the bravest and most decent we have ever sent to war.

In griping about today's economy, with its alarmingly soaring costs for energy, housing and government, we forget about the Great Depression, when between 1929 and 1933 unemployment rose from 3 percent to over 25 percent, and hunger stalked millions of homes. Farm prices fell precipitously, General Motors sales declined 50 percent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted from 381.17 to 41.22. (And we forget about the terrible depressions in the 1890s, 1870s, 1850s and 1830s.)
In complaining that we are under more pressure at work than any generation, we forget about child labor, 12-hour workdays and six-day workweeks, and the risk of debilitating injuries on the job without compensation -- injustices that labor unions bravely fought to end.

In crying that terrorism makes us more vulnerable than ever before, we forget about the late Soviet Union, a corrupt and brutal empire that in my lifetime almost instigated a thermonuclear war by trying to install missiles on Cuba pointed at the U.S.

I'd urge anyone who imagines American life is harder and more pressure-packed today than ever to pick up a copy of The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!, by Otto L. Bettman. The author points out that Americans in the late 19th Century contended with a life expectancy in the 40s; malaria, cholera and polio; the drudgery and acute loneliness of farm life; filthy surgery and bad health care; brutal oppression of minorities and many women; foul and toxic air; maddening traffic; fire-trap tenements; government corruption on a scale that puts today's Louisiana or Rhode Island to shame; rancid food and adulterated milk; garbage- and feces-strewn streets; deadly train and steamboat travel; and deeply corrupt professional baseball (okay, maybe everything hasn't changed).

This does not mean today's America cannot do better, or that other ways of fighting terrorism shouldn't be considered, or that we should ever stop working to help lift up those who are less fortunate than we. (For one thing, what else would columnists write about?)

But, amidst the tragedies and troubles swirling around us in this imperfect world, we should reflect on the fact that -- from the standpoint of living long, rewarding and healthy lives in freedom -- today's Americans are astoundingly fortunate in their choice of when to be born.


Survey finds optimism in new Iraq

An opinion poll suggests Iraqis are generally optimistic about their lives, in spite of the violence that has plagued Iraq since the US-led invasion.

But the survey, carried out for the BBC and other media, found security fears still dominate most Iraqis' thoughts.

Their priority for the coming year would be the restoration of security and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

A majority of the 1,700 people questioned wanted a united Iraq with a strong central government.

Hopes for future
The poll by Oxford Research International was commissioned by the BBC, ABC News and other international media organisations, and released ahead of this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Although most Iraqis were optimistic about the future, the poll found significant regional variations in responses.

In central Iraq respondents were far less optimistic about the situation in one year's time than those in Baghdad, the south and north.

The BBC News website's World Affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, says the survey shows a degree of optimism at variance with the usual depiction of the country as
One in total chaos.

The findings are more in line with the kind of arguments currently being deployed by US President George W Bush, he says.

However, our correspondent adds that critics will claim that the survey proves little beyond showing how resilient Iraqis are at a local level - and that it reveals enough important exceptions to the rosy assessment, especially in the centre of the country, to indicate serious dissatisfaction.

Interviewers found that 71% of those questioned said things were currently very or quite good in their personal lives, while 29% found their lives very or quite bad.

When asked whether their lives would improve in the coming year, 64% said things would be better and 12% said they expected things to be worse.

However, Iraqis appear to have a more negative view of the overall situation in their country, with 53% answering that the situation is bad, and 44% saying it is good.

But they were more hopeful for the future - 69% expect Iraq to improve, while 11% say it will worsen.

In all, 1,711 Iraqis were interviewed throughout the country in October and November 2005.

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At 9:44 AM, Anonymous steve said...

I saw a nice piece on NBC last nite on Iraq. It showed their blossoming new businesses and many optimistic interviews. It showed their busy stock market...It showed some polling data that indicated while a majority of Iraqis want the US the followup question on the timing, about 55% said not now...Iraq not ready to be on their own. They showed many "western" activities indicating growing optimism and renewed strength in a growing economy...


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