Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | We must regain our courage

Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | We must regain our courage


Seventy years ago, in response to the threat of a nuclear war, a group of scientists created the Doomsday Clock, a symbol to represent the likelihood of a man-made disaster. Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the hands of the clock have been moved backward or forward 24 times.

In January of this year, scientists reset the clock to two minutes till midnight, the closest it has ever come to a predicted apocalypse.

But it is not only scientists who fear a calamitous future. Regular Americans are also scared. The 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears reports that more than 40 percent of us were "afraid" or "very afraid" economic hardship, environmental decay, government corruption, health care costs, nuclear/world war and terrorism. These numbers are much higher than they were in 2016.

And there is every indication that the scary times will continue into this year.

In the first five weeks of 2018, the federal government shut down; Hawaii thought it was under nuclear attack; the Dow had its biggest ever one-day drop; and the political/cultural wars grow on a daily basis.

But America has faced daunting challenges in the past. Are the present circumstances so different? Should we be unduly worried?

Unfortunately, the answer is "yes" and here are three reasons why.

One, we have lost confidence in the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that distrust of institutions is an acute problem in the United States. Less than half the public trusts our government, media, business and non-governmental agencies.

And the decline has been precipitous: "In the last in institutions in the United States crashed, posting the steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured."

Two, we face a daunting number of serious and complex problems.

For the last several years our concerns have been heavily focused on the economy, at the expense of other issues. But with stronger markets and employment, we have turned our attention to other challenges and find ourselves confronted by an ever-increasing set of complex problems. Drug addiction, the environment, immigration, poverty, racism, sexual harassment/assault, social media impact and terrorism are just some of the areas clamoring for attention.

Three, effective responses are increasingly elusive because of "fake news, "alternate facts" and "post truths."

A recent report from the Rand Corporation, entitled Truth Decay, points to the "blurring of the line between opinion and fact." And without agreement on the facts, it is impossible to conduct civil public discourse, reach consensus, and develop coherent policies. While the disregard for data and analyses has arisen in the past, the open-access technological world makes it hard to rectify.

In the same year as the creation of the Doomsday Clock, in an address to Congress, Harry Truman said "America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand."

But to overcome the current fear, we must regain our courage, imagination and determination. And this means each of us taking responsibility for our failings; re-establishing the values of listening and respect; and appreciating the power of compromise.

All of us would do well to remember the words of Walt Kelly, the social commentator and cartoonist, who famously said that "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Gene A. Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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