Sometimes reading can be therapeutic. We are all currently suffering through very negative public rhetoric these days about the state of our country. It can be depressing and demotivating. For those who want to rise above that negativity I recommend Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. When I read that book I also was reminded of another wonderful motivating book I read a bit ago by Steven Johnson, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.
First of all I learned, again, that the repeated claims that our country is in steep decline are not supported by the facts. As Easterbrook documents among a long list of positives:
· Unemployment is below where it was in the “good ol’ days” 1990s and job growth is strong;
· America’s economy (no. 1 in the world) is larger than China’s and Japan’s (nos. 2 & 3) combined; and
· Pollution, crime, and most diseases have been declining for a long time while living standards, life expectancy, and education levels have been on the rise.
In short, in most areas that matter the United States and most of its states are “trending upward.” That is important for people to know because much psychological research tells us there are few more powerful human motivators than evidence of progress: a belief that what we are doing is working. If we hope to keep improving we must stay the course on the good work that has been done, sometimes over decades. Easterbrook catalogues that work in many areas including aviation safety.
That reference to aviation safety was what took me back to Johnson’s Future Perfect. The book reminds us that U.S. history is replete with effective change movements made up of problem-focused optimists. Optimists who are unafraid to confront the brutal facts of the present but always believing there was a path to progress and a better life. As an old American Studies college major reading this, I remembered that about the only respectable school of philosophy this country has produced is-you guessed it-pragmatism. Thank you to George Herbert Mead, Robert Park, W.I. Thomas and others at the Chicago School.
Early in Future Perfect Johnson bemoans the misconceptions that undercut our progressive spirit. Not so much the negativity and hopelessness pandered by those hoping to benefit from people’s discontent, but the belief in heroes and miracles. We fail to understand that civil rights progress was the result of thousands of people finding common cause over decades and did not spring full form when Martin Luther King had a dream. That income security for the elderly did not spring miraculously from the passage of Medicare by a heroic president.
Most recently Johnson notes our (and the media’s) framing of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” A heroic captain and crew apparently made a miracle happen when birds hit an airliner’s engine over the Hudson River in New York as they landed safely in the river with no casualties. The facts, according to Johnson (and several aviation experts I consulted) are different. Long before this event thousands of experts in the aeronautics industry came together over many years to make air travel safer. The brutal facts they confronted were very brutal indeed as they reviewed the causes of crash after crash on land and water. But they would not be deterred. They believed they could make things better. Out of their work came redesigns of engines, guidance systems and more. As a result we are in an unprecedented era of air safety.
So when those birds hit the plane engine over the Hudson the engine neither caught fire nor shattered. Even more important the guidance system did not go out, making it possible for the pilot to land the plane evenly on the water and avoid flipping end over end as the plane would have done if a wing had hit the water first.
This is to take nothing away from the captain and crew, or Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson for that matter. It is to worry that when we see things in terms of heroes and miracles we are more likely to, as a people, sit around and wait for a hero (or demagogue) and a miracle to make things better. That susceptibility is heightened when we feel hopeless, that nothing is working, and that the end is upon us.
So, it is time for a rediscovery of our pragmatic, can-do American spirit. As a country, as states, as communities, as individuals we must find motivation in the many areas where we are trending upward. We must imbue ourselves with hope. We must seek out those people and initiatives that have produced the progress Easterbrook documents and that have pointed to the path to progress. We must band together, knowing the work will be long and hard, requiring collaboration across our differences and sacrifice to produce the collective impact that it will take to address the problems we currently face (and yes we have many challenges before us).
I know this is possible. I have seen, over the last few years, regions and communities In Illinois and across the country come together in just this way to make their places better. They put political party, ideology, deficit-thinking, and pessimism on the shelf. They identify goals (short and long term), honestly measure their progress, and share the responsibility of implementing strategies that work. That is the pragmatic American spirit reclaimed: trending upward, building on real successes, motivated, and confident that, rather than in a quagmire, we can find the path to solutions and a better, fairer, and more humane society.