By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The municipal motto of Northfield, Minnesota, is "Cows, Colleges, and Contentment."
Last year, they had a contest to think up a new motto and, after some civic thought, decided to keep "Cows, Colleges, and Contentment."
So as we veer rhetorically toward the apocalypse, as various social prophets mutter direly about the growth of the underclass, the unraveling of the social fabric, the brutalization of consciousness and other pesky problems, you'll be happy to know that somewhere the sun is shining, somewhere the skies are bright, somewhere the children laughing, etc.
In Northfield, Minnesota, for one.
Having just survived a heavy dose of apocalyptic rhetoric the other night in New York City, I was especially glad to land where all the children are above average.
Not that Minnesota is problem-free: on the front page of Friday's Minneapolis Star Tribune, we find enumerated three certifiable cases in which the Monied Special Interests have triumphed over the Will of the People in Minnesota in recent years.
Three, count 'em--on the fingers of one hand.
The proximate cause of the current bout of apocalyptic analysis is that this year is the 50th anniversary of practically everything. As such, it's a handy vantage point for surveying as depressing a half-century of history as recorded time can offer.
The last half of the 20th century is never going to rank as a humanist high point; the fact that it was supposed to be The American Century is only further cause for depression.
It started with a Holocaust. Have you heard the interviews with the soldiers who first liberated Dachau? And it is ending with two more, Rwanda and Bosnia, about which no one is doing much of anything.
In between, we've spent 50 years in denial about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, managed to get involved in a 10-year war we now acknowledge was "terribly wrong," and built enough nuclear weapons to blow up the Earth and everyone on it several times over.
We can't even sit around and gloat about the Soviets because they've disbanded themselves.
If it weren't for the automatic teller machine and the self-cleaning garlic press, we'd have no evidence of progress at all--and I know people who think ATMs are part of a plot to prevent people from getting to know one another.
As an inoperable optimist, I hate arguing optimism vs. pessimism, especially with people who are well-informed. Let's face it: the evidence is always on the side of the pessimists.
In fact, one of the few pro-optimism arguments that works is to point out that things can always get worse, which means we should be cheerful right now, because now will eventually turn out to be the Good Old Days.
Think how embarrassing it would be to have your children ask, "Dad, what did you do in the Good Old Days?"
"Well, child, I spent all my time sitting around gritching about how terrible everything was--didn't have any fun at all."
Going onto a college campus these days--or even facing a junior high audience, for that matter--involves some tricky juggling. Telling kids to go forth and change the world may not be fair. On the other hand, telling them they're bound to have a hard time and shouldn't get their hopes up is not a peppy message.
Katha Pollitt, the feminist sage, observes that it's rather a shame that Americans have had to shed so many illusions during the last 50 years, mostly illusions about our own innocence and power.
But she believes that it's a shame in the same sense that it's a shame that smoking causes cancer. It's too bad, but there it is. Are we not better off without illusions? Better off facing the very real limits on our national power and, God knows, certainly, the limits on our national innocence?
I suspect she's right; she often is. But I don't believe that recognizing the evil we have done in the course of our endless efforts to maintain our good opinion of ourselves means we must dislike ourselves.
Rather an alarming number of Americans already don't like their fellow Americans--with good cause, they would all maintain.
We seem to have gone from the old stereotype of Americans as fat, dumb, and happy to a new stereotype of fat, dumb, and unhappy.
After the bleak consideration of the last 50 years at the New York colloquium, one member of the audience was so depressed that she stood up and read Anne Frank's beautiful statement that ends, "I still believe that people are really good at heart."
"So look what happened to Anne Frank" is the obvious response.
God bless the child, but her death is enough to make anyone doubt that people are really good at heart. There is a kind of bitterness that one finds among Holocaust survivors that is unanswerable.
One of them, interviewed in the documentary Shoah and asked what was in his heart, said: "If you could open my breast and lick my heart, you would be poisoned and die from the bitterness of it."
They are entitled to their bitterness. The rest of us are not.