James Carroll

Cataloging our hope and missed chances

By James Carroll
December 28, 2009

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THE OLDEST extant example of written language, cuneiform Sumerian dating to more than 5,000 years ago, is a listing on clay tablets of the livestock and grain supply belonging to farmers - an inventory. With the inscribed record of the products of effort, farmers of Sumer began what we call history, for writing is the vessel in which knowledge is carried through time. History is the mechanism by which humans learn from the past, and turn dreams of the future into action.

So at the heart of our civilization is this defining impulse to take inventory, an impulse felt never more powerfully, perhaps, than now - when we mark a turning of the calendar. What is the sum total of the last year? And what do we expect of the year to come? January takes its name from the two-faced god who looks backward and forward at the same time. Reckon with the past. Imagine the future. Take stock. We do this privately. And we do it publicly.

One year ago, America was in the grip of a collective euphoria tied to political transformation. It seems fair to say that even many who had not voted for Barack Obama felt the pull of hope that was changing how the nation was both seen, and saw itself. If that hope has not been dashed, precisely, the euphoria is certainly gone. Over these months, the country’s problems have come, one after another, to an inconclusive head. No one is happy with what passes for resolution. Here’s an inventory:

■ Markets have recovered some, but seem poised again on the edge of a cliff. We have learned, above all, that the new global economy is not rational, and that even our most brilliant analysts have little grasp of its inner dynamic. Real job creation, as a function of productivity, may just be passé.

■ In recent weeks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have defeated us again, with President Obama concluding essentially that the United States is condemned to play out the Bush administration’s catastrophic string - a multinational noose in the making. Pakistan teeters.

■ Exactly one year after the start of the Gaza war, Hamas remains in firm control of the Palestinian enclave, the Gaza lock-down by Israel continues, suffering of innocents mounts. Washington resumed its role as feckless bystander. Israel feels less secure, not more.

■ At Copenhagen, the world’s leaders dared to stare an environmental Armageddon in the face - and blinked. On the global warming front, the year ends with nothing much more than toothless good intentions. Glaciers melt on.

■ Congress fought itself to a draw over health care. A bill will be passed. Reform will have begun. Yet the dispiriting process has revealed how deeply broken American politics is. Given that, the Democrats’ majority, and their readiness to use it, is a saving plus.

■ Popular culture continued to show us who we are, with the trend-setting “Survivor’’ TV series finishing its first decade. On display: a nation defined by tribal warfare, giddy division between winners and losers, cults of greed and celebrity, the reduction of “reality’’ to escape fantasies. The post-millennium public imagination is hostage to apocalyptic dread.

In the effervescence of the Obama arrival, we neglected to reckon with how completely the Bush years had sucked the air out of America’s lungs. Think of 2009 as the year spent catching our breath: The restoration of science as the basis of public policy; the return to law, especially the Geneva Accords and treaties, as the standard of American foreign policy; the resumption of multilateralism; the beginning of the end of exceptionalism.

Yet the president is now commonly derided for his eloquent speeches, as if all that matters is the evident gap between stated hopes and actual accomplishments. But the statement of an honest hope is an accomplishment. A stark confrontation with what prevents the hope from being realized is the necessary first step toward that realization.

An inventory of a disappointing year, therefore, may amount to the list of what can change in the year ahead. That was the point of taking stock in ancient times, and so today. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky on love - real hope, compared to fantasy, is a harsh and dreadful thing.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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