Thanks for a future

Some years, it’s tough to figure out exactly what there is to be thankful for.

As we write this, an invasion of Iraq still seems imminent despite many people’s attempts to avoid such a thing. Fear of Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism is palpable again, thanks to the discovery of a tape that indicates Osama bin Laden is probably alive. The economy remains volatile. Social Security seems more threatened than ever for the generation getting ready to need it most, and health-care costs this fall have spiraled out of control. The gap between rich and poor is ever widening. And, as if an omen of eco-disasters to come, an oil tanker—carrying twice as much oil as was lost by the Exxon Valdez—split in two last week and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening an environmental disaster of massive proportions in Europe.

Say hello to Thanksgiving 2002, a holiday on which skepticism soars high, confidence runs low, and hopes for the future seem harder to come by than ever. It’s in this context that some of us were surprised last week to find a sunnier outlook where we might least expect it—in the remarks of former President Bill Clinton.

As reported in local news media, Clinton spoke at length about our global situation and the need for increased foreign aid to Third World countries, not as charity but as a national-security measure. He advocated the implementation of a Marshall Plan-type effort to assist poor countries that are now breeding grounds for anti-American terrorism. “That’s fighting terrorism,” he said. “That’s building a world with more partners and fewer terrorists.” And that’s doing it for far less money, we might add, than it would take to strengthen domestic security, especially at the cost of our civil liberties.

Ultimately, though, Clinton’s consummate message was to urge optimism toward the future despite the temptation to react with fear and cynicism to the times in which we are now living. We live in a hugely interdependent world, he said, one we should be thankful for—not afraid of—because it basically has been good for us. But this interdependent world does not yet have shared values, shared benefits or shared institutions, he warned. Therefore, America’s No. 1 job should be to develop a positive global strategy to continue transforming the world into an integrated community.

“We can’t go back,” he told a crowd clearly eager to have an excuse for optimism. “We can’t put all the walls up again.”

So, Thanksgiving 2002 is here. Can we actually be thankful for the present and, on balance, hopeful about the future? It depends on what we do now.

To quote what this flawed but brilliant man told his local audience at UC Davis last week: “It’s like any future from the beginning of time. You’re going to have to make it yourself.”