I was invited to speak before a meeting of the MatSu Democrats at their monthly Egan Dinner in Palmer, Alaska. This is an approximate transcript of my comments.
…your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation! Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you. Won't. Take. The. Hint!
In every moment there exists the possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future does not ask anything of you today.
- Governor Nix, Tomorrowland, Walt Disney Pictures, 2015
One of my favorite movies last year was Disney’s Tomorrowland.
This is exactly the kind of movie I enjoy. I’ve watched it a dozen times. I love it. I love everything about it.
It’s on old fashioned Disney film, the kind I grew up with, the kind old Walt himself would have dearly loved.
On the surface, Tomorrowland seems to be a lighthearted romp across time and space where the bad guys aren’t really all that evil and the good guys are quirky smart kids who manage to save the day with equal parts pluck, ingenuity, and courage. Also there are robots. The brilliant young stars, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Pierce Gagnon, and Thomas Robinson, easily hold their own on screen against larger than life veterans George Clooney and Hugh Laurie – and that’s an impressive feat indeed.
Underneath Tomorrowland is a pointed examination of an America that that has become jaded and tired and bitter and lost the ability to dream of a better future.
Ultimately, Tomorrowland is about love and hope and above all, optimism.
Old fashioned Disney optimism in an age of dystopian teen flicks and bleak dark movies of war and conflict? That was the movie’s one unforgivable sin. They should have stuck with pirates. Everybody loves pirates.
Naturally the critics hated Tomorrowland.
Strip Tomorrowland down to its essentials, and you get an ending out of "I'd like to teach the world to sing" and a moral which boils down to: Just be positive, OK? So OK. I'm positive Tomorrowland was a disappointment.
- Stephen Whitty, Newark Star-Ledger 1.5 Stars out of 4
Predictably it bombed in theaters.
Yes, the two bad guys of the movie were bitter, angry white men. The rest of the film was mostly women and a wide range of races. The entire final montage, where they seemed to be collecting people to rescue the world of the future included no white males (I believe). In a painful exercise of political correctness they had Asian artists and African tribesman who were going to save the future.
- Comment Forum, Internet Movie Database
But the most telling comments were ones like this.
The annoying “smart” girl at the beginning of the movie says she's an optimist and it just went down hill [sic] from there. It's nothing but another liberal propaganda movie about saving the planet.
The word “propaganda” appears often in internet comments describing Tomorrowland, followed a close second by “liberal.”
When was it, exactly, that optimism became a bad thing?
When did belief in a better future and the willingness to do the things necessary to make that future a reality become something Americans sneer at and dismiss as propaganda?
When was it that optimism became a liberal ideal?
We used to believe in optimism, we Americans, most of us anyway.
America was literally founded on the idea of a better future. It’s right there in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, “…in order to form a more perfect union… ” and if that’s not optimism, I don’t know what is.
You don’t fight for freedom from tyranny if you’re not an optimist.
You don’t tell the nation that the only thing to fear is fear itself if you’re not an optimist, if you don’t believe in a better future.
You don’t take to the streets demanding freedom, the right to vote, civil rights, or to rail against the war (whichever war), or to rally America to battle (whichever battle), unless you optimistically believe you can change the world for the better.
For most of our history, optimism wasn’t some silly liberal idea, it was an American idea.
Sure it was.
The movie Tomorrowland begins with young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) at the 1964 World's Fair and this is no coincidence.
The 1964 World World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, was the very epitome of optimism. It’s where Disney’s Tomorrowland was born. Fifty-eight nations came together in Queens to build 650 acres of technology and innovation under the Unisphere. Fifty-one million people from all over the world came to see the future as envisioned by General Electric, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, Bell Telephone, US Steel, Pepsi Cola, Dupont, RCA, Westinghouse, and Walt Disney. The motto of the fair was “Peace through understanding” – less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly ended civilization.
That’s optimism indeed.
The Unisphere still stands in Flushing Meadows to this very day, a testament to innovation and technology, to a time when human beings of courage and vision came together to build a better future. Three years before the fair opened the first American flew in space, five years after the fair closed, men walked on the moon.
That fair was famous. It's still famous as a moment in history when we truly believed.
And that wasn’t the first time.
Thirty years earlier, on the eve of world war, forty-four million people from all over the world gathered in Flushing Meadows for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The theme of that fair was “Dawn of a New Day” and the world of tomorrow:
The eyes of the Fair are on the future — not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.
To its visitors the Fair will say: "Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.
Beginning in 1851 in France and continuing into the late 1970s, the world’s fairs were about optimism. The theme was always about innovation and vision. About building a better future. About the world of tomorrow.
But then, somewhere in the 1980's, in the post-Vietnam malaise, at the height of the Cold War when superpowers rattled their sabers and the world could end at any moment in nuclear fire – and nearly did more than once – optimism fell out of fashion. Somehow the world of tomorrow became a liberal hippy ideal to be sneered at and dismissed as naïve and old fashioned and unsuited to a bitter and jaded America.
And the world fairs became Expositions of nation branding instead of celebrations of a brighter future. And now? Nobody remembers them at all.
That's a reflection of our world, an America where over the last three decades we've become a nation of bitter pessimists and a people who embrace the terrible future. Who resign themselves to that future, the one of disaster and ruin, because it’s easy. We hope for it. We pray for it. We stock our basement arsenals and dream of a day when we’ll get to live on cold canned hash and use those weapons on our neighbors.
That's the entire message of people like Donald Trump. It is. "Make America Great again" only resonates with people who believe the future is a terrible place and that everything is going straight to hell. It’s a message that only appeals to those who sneered in contempt at “Hope and Change.”
That’s the pessimistic message of America’s largest religion, Ted Cruz’s God. The End Times, Armageddon, fire and brimstone. Salvation by force, under threat of eternal damnation. Everything ends the same way in this religion: Gay people get married? Their god will destroy us all. Trans people can use a bathroom? Death from the sky! Women control their own bodies? Damnation from upon high! Peace treaty with Iran? End of freedom! And so on and on and on. That’s the punchline to every joke with these people, death and ruin and God’s wrath.
Somehow, that bitter defeatist frightened message has become the entire Republican platform. Woe. Doom. Misery. War. Pessimism. You better watch out or God will kill us all!
Everything is a worst case scenario with these people.
From Ebola to the End Times, it’s an endless litany detailing a terrible future. They dwell on it. And they resign themselves to it for one reason, because it’s easy, because that terrible future doesn’t ask anything of them today.
When is the last time you heard one of these people speak of Tomorrowland? That bright shining optimistic future, that better world, the one we ourselves can create now if we only had the will and determination?
It's not just limited to conservatives.
Somehow, over the last few decades, we’ve allowed the pessimists to define the narrative.
Take this last Thursday’s Democratic debate. What stood out? What was the takeaway?
That's about the only thing I remember from the Democratic debate. Minimum wage.
Clinton and Sanders arguing over making the Minimum Wage into a Living Wage. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. And everything.
Bear with me for a minute.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage, Wall Street, conservative business owners, Republican politicians, say that minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage (it actually was, but there are damned few places in America you could live on it, even if you worked 60 hours a week). Rather, they say, it was intended for entry-level jobs, burger-flippers and toilet scrubbers and convenience store cashiers. The idea of the so-called American dream is you start out at the bottom, changing the sheets in one of Trump's hotels say, and work your way up until one day you own the casino and can hire a bunch of maids of your own.
This is the very cornerstone of American capitalism.
This is the green beating heart of trickle-down economics.
In fact, for conservatives it doesn’t go far enough. A number of prominent conservatives have advocated elimination of the minimum wage altogether. The logic being if business can pay employees less they'll hire more employees, Reaganomics in action, and a low wage will incentivize those dull proletarians at the bottom of the heap to better themselves, to move up to better paying jobs, ones that do pay a living wage, instead of being content at the bottom of the ladder. Those that don't? Well, that’s their problem, they had their opportunity same as everybody else.
Except over the last years all those good jobs what pay an actual living wage?
Yeah, the same sons of bitches who floated this Dickensian Utopia have been sending all of those jobs to Mexico and India and China and Bangladesh where they can get away with paying actual slave wages.
Then they moved their Headquarters to the Caribbean so they could avoid paying taxes on the resulting profits.
And so, here we are, arguing over the minimum wage, because those are the only jobs left.
That’s what Clinton and Sanders should have been talking about on that stage. The deliberate and systematic and ongoing loss of opportunity, the fact that we’ve actually accepted that as not only the status quo but the future, so much so that we’re reduced to quibbling over a miserable $3 at the bottom end of the scale.
Yes, I know this is a large part of the substance of Sanders’ campaign. But I’m not talking about his campaign, I’m talking about the national narrative as reflected in the substance and format of our political debates on both sides of the aisle.
We’ve resigned ourselves to a future of minimum wage, to a dull gray proletariat ruled over by fabulously wealthy oligarchs.
You see it all around you.
You live in a nation that incentivizes business and industry to pay slave wages overseas instead of building Tomorrowland right here.
You live in a nation where we’d rather put our kids into charter schools instead of fixing public education for all.
You live in a nation where we’d rather pay farmers not to grow food instead of feeding the hungry or employing people and paying them enough to feed themselves.
You live in a nation where a significant fraction of people would rather buy guns and build bunkers and pray for the end of the world instead of building a better future right now where those things are unnecessary.
Because that terrible future doesn’t ask one damned thing of us today.
In every moment there exists the possibility of a better future, but you have to believe in it. You have to believe in Tomorrowland. You have to believe optimism is an American trait.
And then you have to do the things necessary to make that better future a reality.
They’re out there, you know. The dreamers. The optimists. The ones working every single day to literally build Tomorrowland.
Last week something amazing happened: a robot spaceship successfully landed on a robot ship at sea.
An incredible technological feat – but for many it was just a stunt, they have no idea of the larger picture. Because they don’t believe.
You see, Elon Musk, the man behind SpaceX and that landing, he wants to go to Mars.
And not just go to Mars, he wants to build Tomorrowland there.
And if SpaceX can land a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean, they can land a ship anywhere. Including Mars. What Musk has here is the basis of a transportation system that can fly men and machines anywhere on the globe in a matter of minutes – any globe, especially one like Mars with a surface gravity one third that of earth. What Musk has is the first step in a system that can loft the parts needed to build the ships that will go to another world and land human beings and cargo there safely. More, Musk’s Tesla company is building high performance cars that can go hundreds of miles on a charge. And that same battery system can be rapidly recharged from a variety of sources. More, that same battery can be installed in a Tesla Power Wall and used to power a house, or stacked in series to run much bigger installations. And then there’s SolarCity, Elon Musk’s pioneering company dedicated to sustainable solar power systems – like the kind you’d need on Mars to charge those Tesla power packs, which in turn can be used to distill rocket fuel from native Martian resources to power those rockets. The rest is just details.
What Musk has is literally the basis of Tomorrowland, a new human civilization on another world.
Elon Musk is one man.
One man of vision and daring and courage and optimism for a better future. A single man who gathered around him those of similar vision and determination, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, and they are literally building that better future right now.
That’s what that rocket landing last week meant. Tomorrowland.
Imagine a nation of such people.
Imagine a nation of optimists.
Imagine a nation of people who believe in that better future instead of the terrible one.
Imagine a nation of people who are willing to make that future a reality.
There was a time when Americans believed in Tomorrowland. Some of us still do. And it is our duty as citizens to be optimists. To do the things necessary to make that future a reality.
Pessimists don't build starships.
If you want a better nation, be better citizens.
A young Cherokee boy came to his grandfather, angry at a friend who had done him an injustice, and asked for advice.
"Let me tell you a story,” offered the grandfather. “I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger! The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing. Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."
The boy asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"
"The one I feed."
- The Wolves Within, often attributed to oral history of the Cherokee people
(edit: the origin of the story is vague, it may or may not be native American)