Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.â€¨
In the midst of earthquakes in Haiti, still climbing U.S. home foreclosure and unemployment rates, politicians who break their promises and our hearts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Qaida cells in Yemen and Pakistan, and terrorists again attempting to blow up our airlines, it’s understandable that Americans feel fear, dismay and skepticism at the start of another year.
However, I recently read a wonderful piece by James Fallows in the January/February 2010 issue of the Atlantic called “How America Can Rise Again,” that gives me lots of hope.
Fallows, returning to the United States after three years in China, talks about what he has observed and why he believes America will thrive again. In terms of public speaking, I’ve been thinking this is the kind of rhetoric leaders in business, government and education—and their speechwriters—may want to infuse into their talks.
Read what Fallows has to say:
“Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town—yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.”
He continues, “And the people! The typical American I see in an office building or shopping mall, stout or slim, gives off countless unconscious signals—hair, skin, teeth, height—of having grown up in a society of taken-for-granted sanitation, vaccination, ample protein, and overall public health. I have learned not to bore people with my expressions of amazement at the array of food in ordinary grocery stores, the size and newness of cars on the street, the splendor of the physical plant for universities, museums, sports stadiums. And honestly, by now I’ve almost stopped noticing. But if this is “decline,” it is from a level that most of the world still envies.”
Fallows sees hope in American’s historical cycles of crisis and renewal, in our university system, in our receptiveness to immigration and in our culture of innovation.
I think these thoughts should drive our executives’ speeches in the New Year—that we have come back in the past and we shall in the future. That the American workforce works harder—more hours, more days—than any other. That since the inception of the Nobel Prize in 1901, America has produced the most Nobel laureates in the world. That America registers more patents than any other country. That Americans are the first ones on the ground providing help in Haiti or when tsunamis strike in the South Pacific. That it’s the American Red Cross that goes into prison camps and hospitals around the globe to ensure the well-being of people—regardless of their affiliation—involved in war or terrorism.
I could go on, and so could you—citing reasons to be proud of and hopeful about America.
Fallows writes, “Yes, the problems are intellectually and politically complicated: energy use, medical costs, the right educational and occupational mix to rebuild a robust middle class. But they are no worse than others the nation has faced in more than 200 years, and today no other country comes close to the United States in having the surplus money, technology and attention to apply to the tasks.”
Fallows is no Pollyanna. He has one significant and overriding concern about America. And it is this: that the American people are superior to the government in place to serve them. “American culture is better than our government,” he writes.
“Every system strives toward durability,” he continues, “but as with human aging, longevity has a cost.” He cites Mancur Olson, author of the 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, who said, “year by year, special interest groups inevitably take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth. They do so through tax breaks, special appropriations, what we now call legislative ‘earmarks,’ and other favors that are all easier to initiate than to cut off. No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state.”
Like a hardening of the arteries, Fallows suggests, which builds up stealthily over many years.
The answer? Fallows mentions several—from “an enlightened military coup” to a “new constitutional convention.” But one of his ideas stands out as possibly the most challenging…and yet most hopeful.
That is “to make decisions as if we knew we would wake up the next day and it would be 75 years later.”
Challenging? You bet. Fallows writes, “Politicians will inevitably not look 75 years into the future but one election cycle ahead… Corporations live by the quarter; cable-news outlets by the minute. But we can at least introduce this concept into public discussion…” That’s the key—introducing the concept into the public square.
Fallows closes by citing those in America’s past who have made decisions with the long-term in mind, including Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park for generations to come; Theodore Roosevelt who set aside millions of acres for the National Park System; and Dwight Eisenhower who created the Pentagon Advanced Research Projects Agency, which eventually gave us the Internet.
Hope, dear readers, hope. That is the way we should live in 2010 and beyond. And that is what we should inject into the speeches we write and that our executives give.
Emily Dickinson’s poem on that little bird called “hope” continues,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
Amen, say I.
Cynthia Starks is a freelance speechwriter based in Central Indiana.