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Personal Reflections on 2021

December 31, 2021


Robert B. Hubbell

Dec 31

[Audio version of newsletter here]

Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill was fond of saying that “All politics is local.” I would add that “All politics is personal.” My effort to interpret the news each day through “a lens of hope” begins and ends with my family. Above all else, I am trying to sustain and lift-up my family by staring into the noisome stream of information that passes for “news” to find the thread of decency and hope that binds us together as a nation. You get to ‘listen in’ as I write for my wife, my daughters, and (now) my granddaughters.

Every story that passes through the pages of the newsletter affects each of us in very personal ways—some immediately, others over the long term. As we come to the end of 2021, my wife and I are taking this opportunity reflect on how four developments affected our family. We hope that our personal reflections on daily life will resonate with you and encourage you to reflect on 2021 with your family and friends. As you do, let me issue a spoiler alert: 2021 was a rough year, but we endured by binding together as families, communities, and Americans (at least, enough of us did to carry all of us forward). We face many challenges ahead. But having made it through 2021 should give us confidence as we face the challenges of 2022 and beyond.

The coronavirus pandemic.

Twelve months ago, we lived in a constant state of apprehension and anxiety. A vaccine was approved for emergency use but was not generally available to the public until mid-year. My wife and I essentially sheltered in place. We left the house to take walks (with masks) and made a daily drive to a local burger joint to get a diet coke at the drive-through window. (The staff behind the window eventually took pity on us and started giving us a “military discount” on a tab of $2.65.)

In April, we sat in our car in mile-long lines in the Dodger Stadium parking lot to receive our first and second vaccinations. It was reminiscent of standing in line in 1964 with hundreds of children at the local National Guard armory to receive the polio vaccine. The sense of relief was palpable. Despite the long lines, we were filled with pride at the efficiency of the national vaccination effort and the scientific accomplishment of developing a vaccine in less than a year. Our daughters were filled with relief that their “elderly” parents had received protection from the coronavirus. And we heaved a sigh of relief as we were able to gather with family over the summer months and early fall.

And now, Omicron. With two unvaccinated infant granddaughters in the family, we have essentially returned to lockdown. Despite the frustration and new round of anxiety, we feel better prepared and protected (everyone in the family is triple vaccinated). But this wave is more complicated because partisan politics tinges every aspect of the effort to contain the coronavirus. It is difficult to feel charity towards people who turned their backs on science for partisan reasons and now clog the emergency rooms in many states, preventing care for others with conditions unrelated to coronavirus. They are, of course, victims of the disinformation peddled by the right-wing news media and cynical politicians who are seeking re-election by endangering the lives of their constituents.

For me, the biggest casualty of the pandemic is trust in science. The rapid development of the vaccine saved millions of lives. But 40% of Americans believe nonsense about the vaccine and the coronavirus, including its origin, treatment, and damage to the human body from Covid-19. We have a lot of work to do to overcome that blow to science. The health and safety of our children and grandchildren depend on scientific progress, and it is up to us defend science and scientists if we hope to prevent future catastrophes.

January 6th.

There is a “before” and “after” aspect to January 6th. Before the insurrection, the notion that some members of Trump’s base would resort to violence to intervene in the democratic process seemed unthinkable. January 6th changed everything. On that day, for the second time in five years, one of my daughters said, “I told you it would happen; you didn’t believe me.” She was right, and it is humbling to be proven wrong after giving assurances that something would not come to pass. (The first was the accidental election of Trump.)

Perhaps the worst part of January 6th was that, after a few days, Republicans overcame their shock over the assault on the Capitol and began to talk themselves into believing that “It wasn’t so bad; just some overenthusiastic patriots getting rowdy.” In that sense, January 6th is about the utter, complete, and final collapse of the Republican Party. It is not only irredeemable, it is unworthy of being redeemed. It has become an apologist and propagandist for an insurrection against the United States. It doesn’t get any worse than that.

And yet, the media treats Josh Hawley like he is a U.S. Senator rather than a traitor to the Constitution. The same with Kevin McCarthy and Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson and Marjorie Taylor Green and every other member of Congress who encouraged or excused the violence on January 6th. The insurrection continues to this day as Republicans in Congress refuse to cooperate with the Select Committee’s investigation of the assault on the Capitol.

But not every act of partisan politics amounts to rebellion and not every threat by an unhinged Trump supporter portends civil war. January 6thchanged everything, but we cannot let it change us. We must remain vigilant without surrendering to exaggerated fears; we must take threats seriously but retain our ability to assess the scale of threats and likelihood of materialization. We must not suffer from a lack of imagination in anticipating new threats, but we must remain firmly rooted in reality as we defend democracy. Those competing demands will challenge us as we move toward the next presidential election, but we are up to the task.

Climate change.

For nearly two months in 2021, we believed that our small cabin in the Sierras would be destroyed by wildfire. After a monumental effort by CalFire and other agencies, the southern edge of the fire stopped one mile from our cabin. Even then, it smoldered for several months more—until December snows finally extinguished it.

It is always a mistake to point to a single event and declare that it was caused by climate change. But the 2021 wildfires in the Sierras followed a historic drought that killed more than one hundred million trees in the southern Sierras. That is not a once-in-a-generation event. That is a once-in-recorded-history event. Although the snows have returned to the Sierras in December 2021, one wet winter cannot recharge aquifers depleted by a decade of drought. The vast San Joaquin Valley, which produces 25% of the nation’s table food, depends on snowmelt from the Sierras to recharge groundwater basins and aquifers. Friends who farm in the San Joaquin Valley tell us that 100-foot wells are being replaced by 800-foot wells as farmers chase ever receding groundwater. These dramatic changes happened in a generation. Are they permanent? We won’t know the answer to that question until it is too late to do anything about it. The sensible course is to assume that the historic droughts in California are caused by climate change and act accordingly—before it is too late.

The next generation.

At root, this newsletter is about redeeming democracy for the next generation. With the birth of two granddaughters in 2020 and 2021, that task took on greater urgency and a broader time horizon. Being a grandparent is wonderful, but it is also an awesome responsibility—especially so during a pandemic. It is impossible to look at their beautiful faces and not wonder what type of world we are leaving to them. Like climate change, we won’t know the answer to that question until it is too late to do anything to change the outcome. So, the only option is to do everything in our power now to ensure that they will live a country that is free, tolerant, safe, healthy, and peaceful. As one reader reminded me recently, we must “govern for our grandchildren—and their grandchildren.” Taking the long view in governing requires discipline, sacrifice, and wisdom. We should elect our leaders accordingly. In 2020, we made a good start. And yet, despite all we hope to do for them, what they have done for us is incalculable. They are our joy, our hope, and our reason. We feel blessed.

Concluding Thoughts.

This newsletter started in response to Trump’s accidental election in 2016. After Biden’s inauguration, I had no definite plans for the future of the newsletter—except to write the next edition each day. I entertained the vague hope that it would outlive its usefulness and slowly fade away. But the events of 2021 had other plans for the newsletter. Its growth in Biden’s first year has exceeded the newsletter’s growth during four years of Trump. It is clear that we are engaged in an extended fight for the soul of democracy. We will win, but it will require decades of vigilance and effort on our part. I will be by your side every step of the way, offering encouragement, consolation, information, and the collective wisdom of the community of like-minded people who comprise this newsletter. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. It is an honor.