A Letter from Uncle Sam to Our Young Century
October 14, 2020 5:00 AM
by Russell Frank
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Dear 21st Century,

What the heck? You’ve been nothing but trouble from the day you were born, and now that you’ve left your teens and might be expected to show a little maturity, you’re wreaking havoc on an even more terrible scale. 

Before you were out of diapers you gave me the 2000 presidential election. Even those who liked the outcome must acknowledge that as an exercise in democracy it was a total fiasco. That travesty was quickly followed by the 9/11 attacks, which I thought at the time had to be the worst thing you would ever do. 

But then, when you were a toddler, you ignored the lessons your predecessor learned from Vietnam and got me quagmired in Afghanistan and Iraq. As if that wasn’t enough, you then battered the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina. 

During your primary school years, you crashed the economy, spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico and clobbered the Northeast with Hurricane Sandy. Why you weren’t given detention at school and timeouts at home, I’ll never understand.

There were also troubling behavior patterns: one mass shooting after another, one police killing of an unarmed Black person after another, season after season of wildfire out West, more hurricanes in the South and the prospect of worse disasters to come as a result of climate change.

That’s an enormous amount of mayhem in 20 years. Such crises cry out for great leadership, but to pick up the pieces after 9/11 you gave me the guy people voted for the year you were born because he would make a better barstool buddy than Al Gore. To cope with the financial meltdown of 2007 you gave me an inexperienced though well-intentioned junior senator. 

And now, at a time when my people are simultaneously drowning and burning, worried about their health and their jobs, and feeling like nothing works the way it’s supposed to — not their economic system, not their justice system, not their health care system and not even their democratic system — you’ve given me a leader without empathy, without integrity, without knowledge of history, without respect for expertise and without a sense of fairness or justice or shame.

If you want to know what life with you has been like so far, think of the California couple who, in your 18th year, took refuge in their backyard pool while their house burned down. Above the water, wrote Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, “their heads were burning, faces blistering.” Below, “their bodies shivered, shaking uncontrollably.” 

No wonder my millennials, who were raised on a diet of bad news, have been hiding under their beds. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, their traumatized parents and their younger Gen Z siblings are crowding under with them. 

About the only thing that can be said in defense of your misspent youth is that your predecessor wasn’t much of a role model. The 20th century kicked off with the deadliest hurricane in American history in Galveston, Texas, which was quickly followed by the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 and an economic depression in 1907. Then came a bit of lull, which ended in 1917 when we joined the Great War, followed, in 1918, by the Spanish Flu, to which COVID-19 is frequently compared. 

What, you say I’m only focusing on what you’ve done wrong and ignoring what you’ve done right? Fair enough, let’s see what should go on the positive side of the ledger.

Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was a wonderful thing that America elected a Black person to the office at last. Ditto the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor, “a wise Latina woman,” to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

I’ll also give you the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana (in some places), and the Red Sox and the Cubs each finally winning a World Series. (But you also sullied the baseball world with the steroids scandal and the Astros’ cheating scandal.) 

I’ll give you the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements as positive developments, though neither should have been necessary.

Social media? A mixed blessing.

True, there have been pockets of individual happiness. To pick one totally random example, I hear there’s a guy in the middle of Pennsylvania who fell in love, watched his children become delightful adults and became the grandfather of two adorable baby girls.

On balance, though – you’ve been a menace. 
Well, what’s done is done. But you can still clean up your act. You wouldn’t be the first wayward youth to see the error of his ways and devote the rest of his days to good works. 

Please, though, can you hurry up about it? As Al Pacino’s character says in “Dog Day Afternoon,” “We’re dying here.” 

Hopefully,

Your worried and weary Uncle

 

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