Columns

Shulamit Reinharz

Let’s start a national conversation about the next generation

FILE - In this July 1, 2013, file photo, smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Mont. President Trump's latest move to support coal mining is unlikely to turn around the industry's prospects immediately. Experts say the biggest problem faced by the mining industry today isn't a coal shortage of coal or even the prospect of climate change regulations, but an abundance of cheap natural gas. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
AP
The Colstrip Steam Electric Station in Montana.

Candidate Trump promised to change America in profound ways, and President Trump is working hard to make good on that promise. In response, the American public needs nothing less than to start a national discussion about what his new policies mean — not just for now, but for future generations. This national discussion is urgent, and it must be broad. It must draw on many aspects of life so as to be inclusive, diverse, and nuanced. It should include Trump supporters and detractors. There are many ways to frame the conversation. Here are a few.

History

History can be instructive, particularly in matters of war and peace. When Congress declares war, it is important to remember that war is multigenerational. It affects everyone deployed in the military, obviously, but also irrevocably alters the futures of spouses, children, and even generations to come. We need to ask ourselves a searing question: What would a new war mean for our children?

Environmental Consciousness

Since we all live on the same planet, environmental consciousness can also guide our discussions about new policies. We have powerful examples of success from the recent past. The Endangered Species Act, for example, became law in 1973, preventing many animals and plants from becoming extinct, including our national symbol, the bald eagle, which soared from 400 breeding pairs in the late 1960s to 7,000 breeding pairs today. This means that the generations to follow can be inspired by these magnificent creatures. Our children are entitled to clean air, unpolluted streams, and an unspoiled walk in wild places. Let’s be bold and unafraid to talk about the impact of climate change on our children and the policies we need to save the planet for them.

Big Data

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The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), managing untold amounts of data, recently estimated the astronomic numbers of people who would have lacked health insurance should the new health plan have become law. The Trump administration’s plan would have eviscerated Medicaid by undercutting the federal law that requires that some categories of people be covered — families qualifying for assistance, children in foster care, the aged, blind and disabled, and other categories. Children in foster care have already had enough challenges. It would have been cruel to deprive them of basic medical care. What’s the point of being healthy if our children or other people’s children are sick? What additional big data do we need to help us make policy decisions to protect our children?

Religion

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CBO statistics and stories about bald eagles don’t speak to everyone. Some people prefer guidance from the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran. Each tradition has a story about a young person who asks an elder why he is planting a tree when surely he will not live to enjoy its fruit and shade. The elder replies: “Someone planted a tree for me, and now I must plant a tree for the generation to come.” All three sacred texts implore us to do the right thing so that our children may live. How can religion help us make decisions today and what is the proper role for religion in public life?

The Arts

Many Americans derive inspiration from the literary and visual arts, in part because they remind us of the possibility of human creativity and suggest new ways of seeing the world. They, too, can help us plan for our children. Martyl Langsdorf’s Doomsday Clock, for example, illustrates how close we are to nuclear war. She has moved the clock’s hands to a new position of 2 minutes until midnight. Tamar Hirshl builds aquaria filled with dead, sculpted fish. Chakaia Booker fuses ecological concerns with explorations of racial and economic difference by recycling discarded tires into complex sculptures. Inspiring countless girls and women of all races and classes, Kristen Visbal created “The Fearless Girl,” who faces off Wall Street’s “Charging Bull.” Pat Oleszko constructs large three dimensional polar bears sitting on tiny icebergs surrounded by blue plastic bags. The 2015 Nobel Laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich, published books of interviews with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. The people she interviewed are obsessed with the question: What will happen to our children?

Currently on view in the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis University’s Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is work by 86-year-old visual and performance artist, Helene Aylon. Her work that will move to Jerusalem in mid-June. The installation consists of multiple videos, provocative metal sculptures, challenging wall text, and her own performance. Aylon invokes God, whose Second Commandment warns us that it is not we alone who are punished for our mistakes. Rather, it is our children who will suffer for what we are doing. “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the third and fourth generations.”

Now is the time to start this vital national conversation so we can save our children from our short-sightedness. I call on college and university professors to organize conferences, students to hold teach-ins, and our politicians to hold town hall meetings on this topic. Religious leaders can speak about children from their pulpits; teachers can talk to their colleagues and pupils; the business sector, artists, doctors, statisticians, news anchors, and more can start the conversation so that our children stay front and center.

Dr. Shulamit Reinharz is director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University.