Our Past, Their Future

In twenty years, the world has achieved miracles–yet lost heart. This is the central problem we must solve for our children.

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Welcome to Mother Jones‘ 20th birthday party. a magazine’s life expectancy is not much longer than a fruit fly’s, so reaching 20 is certainly worth celebrating. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on where we are now, where we’ve been, and where we should be headed.

We decided to kick off 1996 with a self-exam: In the past 20 years, how has our world changed? We meditated on this question in private and we pondered it in public. We quizzed some of our favorite thinkers, artists, and activists. We interviewed some of our adversaries as well.

Several paradoxes emerged as we considered the last two decades, but the most crucial paradox may be the most elusive. In 1996, we have ever-increasing knowledge and more sophisticated tools to deal with many of the challenges we face. Thanks to high technology, we can communicate instantaneously and have previously unimagined amounts of information at our fingertips. But despite these advances, in the last 20 years we seem to have lost willpower. Or perhaps more accurately, we’ve lost heart.

In the ’70s, most of us looked toward the future and saw a world full of possibility. Today, many of us feel decay is inevitable. It’s commonplace now to discuss our lack of faith in government, even in our idea of “the public.” But I fear our anxiety runs deeper. We’re losing confidence in our humanity. Instances of altruism seem so anomalous they invite more suspicion than do selfish acts. Of course, some of the selfishness we see and feel is the natural human urge to protect oneself and better one’s own lot. This pursuit of self-interest is not only a given, it can be a good. But the extreme egoism we’re now witnessing feels unnatural. Ominous.

Because the American economy is changing so dramatically, many of us feel that there isn’t enough to go around–and there never will be. Growth and prosperity are no longer givens. Gains in economic productivity are hard to come by, and unevenly distributed when they are achieved. America’s broad middle class is becoming an endangered species.

The staff at Mother Jones, from its inception, has been alert to economic inequities. Many people who know the magazine believe it was born in the late ’60s, not at the beginning of 1976. And in a fundamental way, they are right. Mother Jones grew out of the ’60s counterculture. Children of the ’50s, we came of age in prosperity and wanted to share its advantages as widely as possible.

Most of us who helped create Mother Jones were quite young. (I came on board about nine months before the launch, when I was 27.) At that time, we were a confident little band of eight, including the magazine’s art director, business manager, fundraiser, and office manager. Our equal salaries (everybody got $800 a month) concealed inequities in power, which were exposed before the first issue reached print. Office cabals and power plays were common. But fundamentally our little group represented the sane side of the left. We’d come out of the anti-war movement rejecting the posturings of, say, the Weathermen. We believed we had helped stop the war in Vietnam not because the government feared that revolutionary activists were about to pick up the gun, but because we’d helped the American public understand that its leaders knew that the war in Vietnam was both wrong and unwinnable.

Mother Jones magazine has many facets to her personality, but perhaps the two most prominent are investigative reporter and political idealist. Nothing infuriates Mother Jones more than discovering that those in authority are acting in ways they know are immoral. In the first years of this magazine, we confidently probed into corporate headquarters, exposing executives who knew that, for example, the Pintos they were producing would incinerate a predictable number of customers; who knew the tobacco they were marketing was addictive; who knew the Dalkon Shields they were selling as contraceptives could destroy women’s reproductive capacities; who knew the pesticides they were dumping overseas were toxic.

The magazine’s antennae for inequities helped us detect other hidden dynamics. For instance, we disclosed the cynical calculus of Reaganomics from the get-go. We delved into domestic violence; we defined glass ceilings. Mother Jones helped continue the modern emancipatory project, but was also alert to the consequences of reckless growth. Like the satellites that first circled the planet in our youth, we tried to see the world whole.

This brings me to an overview Mother Jones must confront if it honestly looks at the results of its self-exam. We predicted many of the trends (particularly the destructive ones) that would become transformative in the past 20 years. And yet, the country has moved further and further rightward. Why?

When the economy contracts for most voters, their hearts do as well. Citizens want fewer obligations to others. Feeling disenfranchised themselves, they resent so-called entitlements. But it’s not just the traditional economy that’s being squeezed. All traditions seem under attack. Although individuals want to expand their own liberties, they’re rightly nervous about the widespread erosion of societal taboos.

The left that existed in 1976 misread the nation’s mood by assuming that social change would be widely welcomed. For its part, Mother Jones indulged identity politics, thinking that the sum of each group’s complaints would add up to a movement that was unified and just. Celebrating the assertiveness of newly liberated groups is hardly the same as, say, robbing the national treasury, which the Reagan administration did. But the willingness to lower expectations and the reluctance to draw sober moral lines cost progressives credibility. And still does. For example, we should be saying today that black self-help is admirable; black voter registration smart; black separatism self-destructive; black anti-Semitism inexcusable.

Reforging common, high, clear moral standards is central to reinvigorating a progressive movement. We can do this if we trace our core values back through the counterculture, back through the civil rights movement, all the way back to the American Revolution.

The American experiment is fundamentally decent, multicultural, and brave. Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution are exceptional social contracts, better than any group alive today would be likely to devise. Almost all of the challenges described in the following pages can be met by a reinvigoration of America’s first principles: the beliefs in natural freedom and in equal rights, particularly the right to pursue happiness as each individual sees fit.

To put it bluntly: The left went astray when it attempted to ensure equal outcomes instead of staying focused on equal rights, laws, and obligations. The attempt to guarantee equal outcomes was doomed to political failure not just because of its impracticality, but also because it violated the American belief that each individual should be responsible for his or her own fate.

Difficult as it is to admit, Newt Gingrich is campaigning under the correct banner: Opportunity. Beneath this banner, of course, he’s just passing bills that will consolidate his and his patrons’ power. Most Americans sense this.

The ground Newt has seized can be taken back with straight talk. To most Americans, opportunity means a level playing field. For example, equal access to quality education, which today includes equal access to technological skills. Opportunity also means fair taxation, which means wholesale campaign finance reform and the elimination of highly paid lobbyists who warp our political system on behalf of the already rich.

American voters are eager for a populist upheaval. The most moronic bumper sticker of the ’80s–“He who dies with the most toys wins”–hints at what could be our country’s saving grace: We’re a nation of competitors who want to win each other’s respect. We hate idleness and inherited privilege.

One can imagine an independent political reform movement based upon our appreciation of industriousness and fair play. Such a movement would, for example, offer temporary public service jobs to all those willing to work hard. The minimum guaranteed in these and all jobs would be a living wage.

But while reform should be focused on economic opportunity for every American, our core values can’t be econometric. In the last 20 years, by coming to measure everything and everyone in terms of dollars, we’ve lost a sense of other, deeper kinds of exchange. Hasn’t the gift of life obligated all of us to create a better future? Asking this question aloud, and listening to diverse answers, may help rejuvenate our hearts and wills.

We need to imagine a visionary movement calling for everyone–rich and poor, Democrat and Republican–to contribute some effort on behalf of the group that needs the most opportunity: the next generation. Simpler laws and moralities would flow from such a vision. Resource depletion would be heavily taxed, child neglect would be severely stigmatized.

What we’ve learned in the past 20 years can be dispiriting, no doubt. Humans continue to overburden the planet. Tribalism flares up. More and more children grow up in brutalizing poverty. Meanwhile, the wealthy are building bigger and better enclaves in an attempt to secede from the rest of the human race.

Mother Jones was born at one of the last moments of the Western Enlightenment when it was possible to believe that resources were endless, growth assured, reason natural, and progress inevitable. In such a world, material achievement became the exclusive way to measure worth. But when means become a god, they prove ultimately unsatisfiable and unsatisfying. Today we find ourselves at the beginning of a new era, confronting the limits of our previous understanding. Before us is a humbling, heroic, spiritual task.


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Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

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