Monday, February 02, 2009

Will happy days be here again?

The Great Depression was something my grandparents talked about, something I read about in history books in school, something depicted in scratchy black and white photographs and the jumpy frames of celluloid film reels.

Its psychological impacts could last a lifetime -- exemplified by a family friend, a "Depression-era baby" who grew up poor in 1930s Tennessee and to this day saves, reuses and hoards everything -- though she would live out her life in upper-middle-class comfort on Long Island -- because, in her perspective, you just never know when you'll have to make do and go without again. The day she's long dreaded may have finally arrived. (And she's lived to see it. Yesterday, coincidentally, was her 90th birthday. Happy birthday, Ruth.)

Monday night we went to sleep trying to digest staggering reports of massive job cuts totalling about 64,000. That's on top of the 2.55 million jobs lost since the recession began (in December 2007) and not counting the jobs lost in December 2008. The national unemployment rate is now pushing 8 percent.

The unemployment rate is even higher when you count previous full-time workers forced to take part-time jobs and people who have given up looking for work and are no longer counted in the official tally. Adding those folks into the mix, unemployment rates are already in the double-digit range, according to economists.

It's all very depressing. And scary.

For the first time in my life I truly understand the meaning of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's admonition to the nation upon his taking office in March, 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Until recently, that famous quotation was little more than rhetorical flourish to this child born into the prosperity of post-World War II America. In my world view as a child growing up during the 1960s anything was possible. There was nothing America couldn't do, invent or build. It was an age of wonder.

I remember as a kid watching the Verazzano Bridge take shape not far from where I lived in Brooklyn -- the longest single-expansion bridge in the world. Across the river, work began on what would be the tallest skyscrapers in the world, and we watched in awe as their towering, square steel frames -- the Twin Towers, they'd be called -- rose on the tip of Manhattan Island.

We eagerly watched every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rocket launch and every capsule splash-down in our nation's quest to fulfill President John Kennedy's challenge -- to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to earth. Each one was an event -- a kind of modern-day, man-made miracle worthy of observance. And so, briefly, America would pause from its work and watch.

It was an age of optimism, a time when Americans believed we could accomplish anything. And so President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" was born. No one would be left behind in our new era of progress, not even the poorest of Americans -- especially not the poorest of Americans -- nor Americans who had not had a seat at the table because of the color of their skin. America could overcome and heal the injuries inflicted by a history of slavery and racial segregation.

America could, after all, do anything.

Even through the troubled times that followed those halcyon years -- the country's bitter division over the Vietnam war and the crisis of confidence and trust in government wrought by Watergate -- we still held tight to the belief that America could overcome any obstacle, meet any goal, accomplish anything it set its mind to.

This age of optimism and confidence shaped the world view of our 44th president. It is in Barack Obama's blood. He exudes it. And that's good. It's just what we need right now. It's exactly what we need to overcome the only thing we really have to fear, as FDR said: fear itself. We have to shed that fear, and, to borrow from Mr. Obama's inaugural address, pull ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and set to work remaking America. We have to set things straight, fix the broken systems that allowed the current crisis to take shape, and reinvest in America.

I believe the president when he says yes, we, as a nation, can do this.

I have to. The alternative is too bleak for me to imagine -- and it's one I refuse to accept, not only for myself, but for my children, coming of age as they are at this pivotal moment in history. I want them to optimistically and confidently embrace life in an America in which anything is possible with hard work and perseverance. That's the essence of the true meaning of freedom at the heart of the American Dream. And the dream still lives.

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