For many people, the beginning of a new year is a time of reflection and prognostication. We look back on the year that has passed and note the highs and lows, & the good, the bad and the disappointing. Then we look ahead to the new year. Some of us even make personal resolutions. The new year is also a time for us to project our hopes for the world at large for the coming year.
Yet this year in the midst of an economic crisis, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pirates seizing ships on the high seas, continued foot-dragging on global warming and so many other things, I find myself asking questions of the new year rather than expressing hope. And so I share with you my questions for 2009.
First, how will Barack Obama meet the challenges of the presidency such as the global economic crisis, the inequities in health care, a foreign policy in a polarized world, global warming, and the plight of the truly poor both in the US and across the world? Not since John F. Kennedy has someone entered the Oval Office amidst such high hopes and expectations. Since Nov. 5, Obama has been acting presidential even though he does not actually take office until January 20. Yet he enters the presidency facing multiple challenges that require not simply some quick fixes, but rather a complete paradigm shift as to how we think of ourselves as U.S. citizens and citizens of the world. I wonder, is he committed to the dramatic change he called us to in the campaign? Obama campaigned on a platform of change, and yet his appointees to the cabinet thus far seem remarkably similar to what has gone before; in fact many of his appointees served in the Clinton administration, and at least one (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) in the Bush administration. Now I realize that no matter who is sitting around the table Obama will be directing the conversation, and overseeing major decisions, and that in itself is a major change. in his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama makes clear is that he is not an ideologue of the left or the right, as much as he is a pragmatist. His mantras are “whatever works” and “whatever it takes.” In a time when there is a great deal of fixing to be done, will he be able to convince Congress and the American people, that the lifestyles we have been living need to be simplified, that the wars we have been fighting need a different approach, and the way we relate to the world needs to be significantly altered. Can he pull it off? That’s my first question.
My second question is this: How far down will the U.S. and global economy go? All the “experts” say 2009 will continue to deteriorate until it begins to turn around. However, these are the same guys who a few months ago were predicting we had hit bottom and the various government bailouts would turn us around. In other words, nobody knows. To add insult to injury to the increasing economic troubles, Bernard Madoff was caught running a billion dollar pyramid scheme, just highlighting how fragile and illusory our economic well being was and is even if you are filthy rich. As Thomas Friedman recently pointed out ,the Wall Street, mortgage and bank collapses came about based on loans where no money actually passed hands and where no one was willing to reveal the financial slights of hand that characterized many of the loan, stock and mortgage deals. Friedman concludes his analysis of the financial crisis by saying “we’re all going to be working harder for less money and fewer government services — if we’re lucky.” That’s not very encouraging. My worries are pretty mild compared to most (how will I pay my daughter’s college tuition, will students be able to afford to come to Eastern University, what will the value of my house be), but others are facing economic collapse and some painful and difficult choices, and I wonder how will we as a people manage?
Third, how deep and severe is the damage that has been done by the Bush administration? The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a series of articles about the undoing of EPA regulations by the Bush administration. There have also been articles on the legacy of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency in which his disregard from public opinion was made clear. What concerns me is that we have yet to really see the extent to which the decisions of the Bush administration have handicapped the US image around the world, hampered the care of the environment, promoted the deregulation of the oil and financial industries and who knows what else. In my adult life I do not recall an administration that operated with such impunity as this outgoing administration. Even those who worked in that administration speak of the lack of commitment to honesty and truth. I fear the next few months will reveal just how much we have been duped.
Finally, what will become of the major places of conflict in the world: Zimbabwe, Congo, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea (just to name a few)? The prevalence of poverty and civil war around the world is a matter of grave concern. Any one of these places could be the staging ground for a broadening global conflict. There are certain interests that would like nothing better than more war, be they weapons manufacturers, mercenaries or governments, because war is good business. War also allows us to divide the world into “them” and “us” rather than look to our common needs and interests. As I look out on the horizon, I hope for peace and justice in these places, but I am continually troubled by our inability and unwillingness as a human race to pursue that peace. I am sure that all of these conflicts have a history and a set of circumstances that justify the conflicts from the combatants’ perspectives. Yet the ongoing decision to choose war over reconciliation only perpetuates needless suffering and death.
These are heavy questions I bring as a world citizen into 2009. By asking them, I am not throwing up my hands in despair. Rather, I see these questions as informing my prayers and to a certain extent shaping my actions. I am not without hope, but that hope is not built on a Pollyanna notion that “everything will be all right.” That hope is informed by the difficult choices all of us must make, if we are to act constructively in and on the world in which we live. And so in the words of the German poet Rainer Rilke I will “live the questions” as I enter the new year