|Published in the regular INSIGHTS feature of
FORUM for Applied Research and Public
Pages 91 - 94, Summer 2002
in Chief: Dennis McCarthy
Imagining the 21st Century
Imagine a future in
which the people of the world are finally living life in peace.
BY BEN FISHER RABINOWITZ
My son Ben
passed away last year, the victim of a cruel, debilitating, and merciless
cancer. Despite his pain and his certainty of how it would end, Ben wrote this
poignant essay. Although he was spared the horror of September 11, his counsel
of optimism and hope has softened my shock and outrage over his death and the
deaths of so many innocent victims of that tragedy that stunned America and the
world. Ben had great faith in America in the 21st century; his optimism can be
a salutary antidote for us all.
survived the 20th century, somehow intact. As the Soviet Union collapsed under
its own weight toward the end of the century, splintering into 15 newly
independent states, America emerged as the single superpower of the world. And
as it did, it assumed an awesome responsibility.
and domestically, America faces monumental spiritual, social, and political
questions as we begin a new millennium. What should be the cornerstone
principles that guide our nation through the 21st century? What can we do to
fan the flames of hope and compassion that are just beginning to burn brightly?
How should we invest our nation's great wealth and direct its tremendous
strength to guard against the tragic errors of the 20th century while shaping
the 21st century and our dream for America's future?
may have been contemplating similar questions when he penned the poignantly
timeless lyrics to his gentle, powerful anthem, Imagine. When he wrote,
"Imagine all the people/Living life in peace," he was as much voicing
a prayer as a universal song of hope.
song, Lennon longs for a utopia -- a world where there is "no heaven . . . no hell
. . . no countries . . . no possessions . . . no need for greed or
hunger." Most of us, I suspect, if
asked to imagine a utopia, would not focus, as Lennon did, on the negatives.
We'd look instead at the positives -- unlimited possessions, satiated desires,
heaven on Earth. In our utopia, everyone would be as rich as Bill Gates or as
talented as Shakespeare or as brilliant as Einstein.
utopias, of course, are unrealistic, and whether we dream for the banishment of
desire or the fulfillment of it, we should leaven our imaginings with the
plausible. It is good to know what we are ultimately aiming for and to aim
high, but we shouldn't aim too high. We need to remain hopeful but realistic,
to better avoid delusion and disillusion.
The American Century
While it is
a commonplace that the 20th century was "the American Century," we
can only imagine what the next 100 years will reveal about us. If America hopes
to be a great leader throughout the 21st century, it must assume greater
responsibility for its past. We must appraise our successes and our failures --
through commission and omission -- and commit ourselves
to a future based on
peace and the "ideals of a brotherhood of man." We need no more Hitlers or Holocausts or
Pearl Harbors, no more trauma and terrorism.
successes in the past century have paved the road for the present one. Advances
in worker safety and medical science have given us powerful tools in the fight
against accidents and illness. The end of the nuclear arms race and the Cold
War has freed up financial and technological resources. Economic growth and
ecological rescue have ceased being competing ethics; increasingly, business
and political leaders understand the necessity of meeting the demands of both.
Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and religious leaders
from many other faiths have been espousing ecumenism as they seek a peaceful
foundation for mutual respect among the world's great spiritual traditions.
Emerging, strong, and enlightened grassroots citizen movements, like the civil
rights movement and the women's movement, have continued to expand the rights
of all Americans and help make the 20th century a source of inspiration.
A Mad, Mad World
During the 20th century, America assumed -- at times reluctantly
-- global leadership. Fortunately, following the dissolution of the Soviet
empire and communist domination of Eastern Europe, we no longer are caught up
in the life-or-death struggle of the Cold War. Thus we find ourselves in a
position to redefine the international arms race.
Mutually Assured Destruction, the American and Soviet
nuclear policy during the Cold War, required both sides to possess sufficient
retaliatory capability to dissuade the other from launching a first strike.
Frankly, we were lucky the policy worked as well as it did. On more than one
occasion, we came perilously close to a third world war that would almost
inevitably have broken out the nuclear arms.
MAD policy is dangerously outdated. While the MAD policy did provide some
stability in a bipolar nuclear standoff between America and the Soviet Union,
one of the greatest threats to global stability today is the proliferation of
nuclear weapons in rival developing nations, such as India, Pakistan, China,
and the Middle Eastern nations.
instead of weapons production, America encouraged the development and
proliferation of defense strategies that render offensive systems
ineffective? In other words, why not
replace the MAD policy with a saner policy of Mutually Assured Survival
Strategy? While technological and political difficulties must be overcome for
such a MASS policy to work, surely this is preferable to having America
maintain its influence over potential global hot spots by acting as chief supplier
of weapons technologies that might, sadly, be used.
we already have a MASS antiballistic missile defensive system of sorts,
although it hardly provides assurance of survival. The present treaty between
America and the former Soviet Union allows the mid-course interception of
intercontinental ballistic missiles. The concept, which was tested with only a
modicum of success during the Clinton administration, presents near-impossible
technical problems. Indeed, the
political difficulties are minor in comparison. For one, the system has to
discriminate between a decoy, or many decoys, and a live missile. And once you
identify the real target, how do you hit it? It's like trying to shoot down a
speeding bullet a mile away with another bullet.
much more tractable MASS system is one that focuses on the launch-phase. In
this approach, the intercontinental ballistic missiles would be intercepted as
close to launch as possible. It is easiest to detect and destroy missiles in
this phase, so the technical problems are not so tough. This approach is
fraught with political difficulties, however, since a nation launching rockets
for nonmilitary purposes would have to give advance notice so that their
missiles would not be damaged. While nations might balk at having to seek
permission to launch, this little loss of sovereignty seems a small price to
pay for peace. Undoubtedly, global support for such a MASS policy would
necessitate a new global mindset. The
bleak alternative might be a nuclear war in which the earth's atmosphere is
blasted into the solar system. The consequences of this make "nuclear
winter" seem mild in comparison.
cooperation and military defense could become the cornerstones of our military
and foreign policy. By moving away from weapons acquisition and military
alliances, and toward a new emphasis on MASS, America could help free other
nations from the old paradigm of military might and conquest. Control by might
only feeds into territorial disputes that all too frequently erupt in tragic
conflicts, engulfing entire regions and often sucking America into the military
stands ready to help shape the landscape of the new millennium, she is better
positioned than ever before to be a beacon of human rights. Culturally,
spiritually, and economically, she can help lead the world into a more humane,
globally civilized, interconnected future. In this new century, America must
continue to balance the sometimes conflicting social policy goals of optimizing
individual social, political, artistic, and economic freedom while minimizing
set our sights on an America that is better educated, healthier, and
environmentally cleaner; one that is racially and sexually nondiscriminatory;
one that is on continued sound economic footing while being stronger
militarily. Of course, to address the common enemies of humanity -- war, poverty, illness, and, ignorance -- would entail a mammoth agenda. To even
begin to meet many of our pressing needs at home would require a domestic
War II, President Truman invested $13 billion in rebuilding Europe -- at a
cost of about $87 per American -- because he believed that it was in our
national self-interest to have a strong, vibrant, healthy Europe rather than a
devastated continent. A comparable effort today would cost $93 billion, or
about $325 for each of us.
surplus for 1999 exceeded this amount by $31 billion. We could have paid for a
Marshall Plan in a single year. Suppose we came up with a domestic Marshall
Plan over the next few years. We wouldn't have to pay for it all at once. We
could sock a little away each year while our finest minds -- the best economists, planners,
visionaries, scientists, sociologists, and engineers -- marshaled a plan to
rebuild America's most economically deprived areas. By the time a bipartisan,
ambitious, economically sound plan was in place, the fund would be large enough
that the plan could be implemented without fear of running deficits or
overheating the economy.
Such a plan
would be no less a challenge than those legislative reforms launched by
Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. This plan, however, would have
a modern twist; it would incorporate a green motif. It would be grounded in a
new environmentally sound paradigm, not in the old, ecologically unfriendly
foundation of such an investment, of course, must be education. Clearly,
schools are under assault not just from deranged students, but from opponents
who would replace them with private and religious schools.
education is a major underpinning of our form of society and
however. Reform is badly needed. Our
public schools must be safe and they
should deliver the kind of education that our children deserve.
We need to
return ethics and morality to the curriculum, beginning with the earliest
grades. There is no need to violate our constitutionally mandated separation of
church and state. We just can't play favorites. By including teachings from all
quarters -- from great Western leaders such as Moses and Christ, to such Eastern
teachers as Confucius, Krishna, Mohammed, and Buddha -- and by focusing on the
ethical, not the religious, aspects of these teachings, we can heighten the
awareness of morality among our youth.
While feeding the mind, we must not
forget the body. The world is finally
recognizing that overpopulation is a prime cause of poverty. A decrease in hunger
clearly decreases poverty and increases health. Interestingly, decreasing
hunger also leads to a decline in population growth and to increased schooling.
program initiated by the Clinton administration provides free lunches in
schools to 3 million of the world's needy children for as little as 11 cents a
day. The U.S. Agency for International Development ships the food to needy
countries, and the UN World Food Program distributes and monitors it. The UN
notes that whenever and wherever they introduce a school feeding program,
enrollment increases dramatically, and the payout is huge. As George McGovern
pointed out, young girls in developing countries who get married instead of
going to school have, on average, half a dozen kids, whereas girls who go to
school and marry much later have less than half that many.
children are considered an important source of wealth in poor countries,
birthrates are declining in some. In Mexico, for instance, the number of
children per family is decreasing as the education level is rising. Similar
trends are seen in more affluent countries. The birthrate is down in France. In
Italy, it is down so far that some of its political leaders even fear a
important areas for investment include universal health, prenatal and early
childhood nutrition, and parenting support. America is one of the largest
countries in the world and certainly the richest, yet we are far down the list
when it comes to the well-being of our citizens. America is the only developed
nation that doesn't have universal health care. Roughly 40 million American
have no health care coverage at all. At best, these people receive far from
ultimately succeed with universal health care, we need to overcome inertia,
ignorance, and superstition. Our steps should be gradual ones. We can't afford
to fail, so the ultimate goal needs to be approached cautiously. The Children's Health Insurance Program is a good beginning.
Assisting with the high cost of
medications would be a good first step toward helping the elderly.
Our youth need goals and direction
beyond the mass consumerism and self-centered entertainment they pick up from
the malls and MTV. They could benefit enormously by participating in volunteer
programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, and Teach for
America. They should be rewarded both by recognition and by educational
benefits similar to those that were previously given only to veterans.
Increasing the standard of living
nationally and even globally may not be a panacea for solving the ills of
civilization, but it is certainly a step forward. Throwing money at problems
has historically proven to be an ineffective way of solving them. Usually, the
money has not funneled down to the people that most need it. We should consider
the model of Habitat for Humanity in our fight against poverty, where labor is
donated in building homes for the needy. Not only does it ensure that the needy
will be the beneficiaries, it also gives them a stake in society.
To end war, we must wage peace. What better way to wage
peace than to lessen the ability of those who would initiate war, by fighting
illness, poverty, and ignorance.
So, let us
follow the example and instruction of our great political, philosophical, and
spiritual teachers -- let us take the time and effort to reflect on what would be
a good future for ourselves, our nation, and our planet. The actions of a
nation and a culture are the outgrowth of the tone and condition of the
collective consciousness of a people. The consciousness of American culture in
the 1960s deserves much of the credit for many of the strides we made in that
decade: the antiwar movement; the civil rights movement; the great human-helping
scientific and technological advances. By creating such
a consciousness in the
transition to the new century, we increase the likelihood that the goals we
long for will be accepted and embraced.
it will take all this and much more to ensure peace and prosperity during the
coming century. Let us ground our hopes on the fundamental goodness of
humanity. Let us focus our minds spiritually,
philosophically, and politically.
Let us go forward from here, with the aid of our collective good will, to
gather a better society into the future.
Ben Fisher Rabinowitz, who succumbed to cancer in 2001, was
a Truman Fellow and a journalist who specialized in articles about leading
cultural figures. He divided his time between Seattle, Washington, and the