Why think big? Small is so much easier.
As we take stock of 2021, the second year of a once-in-a-century pandemic was obviously a time of challenges: Relentless COVID-19, a delayed economic recovery, a whiff of inflation. Did we overcome with grace and grit?
Of course not! We aired grievances and called each other names and looked around for somebody to blame.
The America of 2021 is a nation of snowflakes and bickerers, easily offended and eager to take strong stands on things that barely matter. Scientists gave the world a remarkable gift this year: vaccines against a novel coronavirus that caused a pandemic, developed in record time. Some 38 million adult American have said: "No thanks, I’d rather take my chance with the virus."
For some vaccine refusers, science defiance is an existential mission, a thing that gives their lives purpose. They amass at protests and quit their jobs in solidarity with the virus, as if aligned with the great freedom fighters of history. At least eight states— including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah — enacted laws or executive orders prohibiting schools from requiring students or teachers to wear masks. This is what was important in 2021: the freedom to infect.
Floods, fires, and tornadoes wrought unprecedented destruction this year, at least some of it likely fueled by global warming. But reducing carbon emissions might entail higher gasoline prices, so Congress has done little-to-nothing to address climate change. Politics over logic.
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The nation is dotted with pockets of “patriots” who swallowed Donald Trump’s bait and stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to stop Joe Biden’s rightful election. Whoops. The government fought back and more than 700 of those marauders have now been arrested. Had these amateur anarchists tried to join the Continental Army after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, some would have washed out and others probably would have gotten the boot of the army’s commanding general, George Washington. Jan. 6 proved, once again, that rugged individualism is an American marketing conceit and little more.
I got a lot of correspondence from Americans of all stripes in 2021, and right-wing Trumpers stood out for their petty spite and meanness. A public case in point: At a NASCAR race in Alabama in October, a bunch of Trumpers began chanting “F***Joe Biden,” even though Biden wasn’t there. Some listeners mistook the chant for “Let’s Go Brandon,” as if Trumpers at a NASCAR race would actually cheer the winning driver, Brandon Brown, when they could demean Biden instead. “Let’s Go Brandon” became a G-rated stand-in mantra for Trumpers’ most important priority in 2021.
Left-wing Bernie Sanders supporters can be nasty too, sending me plenty of "F*** you"s as redistributionists who think the corporatization of America justifies any type of crudeness. Many of those left wingers cite Sanders' ongoing call for a revolution, even though Sanders couldn’t persuade Democrats to back his vision of upheaval n the 2020 primary elections.
Many analysts worry that America is becoming anti-democratic, plutocratic, and economically uncompetitive. It’s also becoming boring, a massive family of Bickersons. No issue is too trivial to argue about. If we’ve beaten the matter to death, we’ll gleefully beat it to death some more. As social media has taught us: Never let big ideas stand in the way of a good rant or an epic takedown of the other guy. Stick with what you know instead of trying something new. Criticize rather than create.
There are socioeconomic explanations for the vaccine wars, the culture wars, the general small-mindedness. Working-class whites feel familiar culture decaying as demographic trends make a minority-majority inevitable. The offshoring of good-paying blue-collar jobs has damaged living standards, with nobody held accountable. Big goals such as a green-energy transformation are likely to produce losers as well as winners. People naturally dig in to protect their turf. To many, tribalism seems safer than accepting change.
There will always be overachievers amid the rabble-rousers. Elon Musk gets away with chronic boorishness because he runs groundbreaking companies such as Tesla and SpaceX that literally expanded frontiers this year. Hip-hop crossover artist Lil’ Nas X has become a delightful, pop-culture anti-troll who capitalizes on the disapprobation of pedants. Woman athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles raised the bar for guts in 2021 by refusing to compete when they felt it might harm their mental health. And if you want real heroes, learn about the three soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor on Dec. 16.
America doesn’t lack role models. What it currently lacks is strivers who ought to be following those role models and plotting their own way to change the world. Nobody will make a difference by impeding progress, but blocking societal advancements might seem like the natural thing to do if you’re afraid of the future.
After all, you're better boring than sorry — unless you end up being both.
Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.
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