Friday, September 30, 2005

We Live in an Age of Hope, Unlike the 1970s

Words define an age and former NBC News anchorman Edwin Newman accurately captured the 1970s Americana in two of his books-Strictly Speaking and A Civil Tongue

The 1970s were a strange time, indeed.  President Richard Nixon and his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned their respective offices.  Congressman Gerald Ford had been all but shoved into the White House.  Viet Nam ended in debacle.  The gold standard was scrapped.  Inflation not only soared but seemed impossible to control.  And all of this happened before a "born again" president, Jimmy Carter, ran for reelection on a platform of "malaise", "stagflation", "misery index", "hostage crisis", and oil companies "rippin’ us off." 

"Hopefully" is one of the 1970s words that Mr. Newman writes about.  He points out that people had given up saying (correctly), "I hope that something will happen."  Instead, Americans of all educational levels began saying, "Hopefully, something will happen."

Technically speaking, the adverb "hopefully" does not modify the verb in any sentence that begins, "Hopefully, …"  That is why it’s usage is incorrect.  But from a psychological viewpoint, "hopefully" came into accepted use because it captured the funk and angst of the 1970s.  The American people, after all, had been conditioned to expect bad outcomes ever since President John F. Kennedy was gunned down.  And we have not elected a U. S. senator to the presidency ever since Lyndon Baines Johnson so adequately demonstrated why we shouldn’t.

Given the failed missions of all the presidents from Kennedy to Carter, it is not surprising that people fell into the routine of saying, "Hopefully, something good will happen." 

Times change, and eventually, good things happen.  I am very reluctant to say that good times came about solely because of Presidents Reagan, Bush (41), and Clinton.  Each of these administrations had their brush with failure.  The Democrats wanted to hang Reagan and Bush over Iran-Contra and the Republicans returned the favor by trying to hang Clinton over Monica.  All was not pretty during the 1980s and 1990s.

Rather than a president, it was the sacking of our embassy in Iran that dramatically changed people’s expectations.  They changed from hoping something would happen to making something happen; from the passive to the active, so to speak.

As we all know, our embassy staff in Tehran was freed just as Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.  But it was not Reagan, the man, who brought about the hostage release.  This was not a case where Gary Cooper, armed with a badge and six gun, was standing alone in the street.  On the contrary.  The Iranians correctly read that the America people were ready for change and that they had hired a man who would, if need be, use our full military power to make that change happen.

Contemporaneously, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rallied Great Britain by defeating Argentina in the Falkland Islands war.  It was Margaret Thatcher who best described the turnabout in 1980s attitudes when she said, "We have ceased to be a nation in retreat."

We are now a quarter century into the future.  Yes, there still are negative thinkers among us who begin their sentences, "Hopefully, …"  But the word that best describes our age is the frequently-used, one-word answer to even the most challenging of questions: "Absolutely!"  And "Absolutely!" is spoken in a winner’s dialect whenever uttered.

As in the 1970s, we are paying record-high oil prices.  The television networks report on the war in Iraq with the same anti-military bias that they did in Viet Nam.  There are millions of hard-core Democrats who think the presidential election of 2000 was another Watergate.  In essence, you do not have to look very hard to find enough negative sentiments to make one believe that we are reliving the 1970s.

But there is a difference in our age.  People have positive expectations of all outcomes, no matter how dire the situation. 

Witness the outpouring of aid after the Christmas tsunami in Asia or Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.  In the face of overwhelming destruction, Americans have opened their wallets and their hearts to the victims of these disasters.  And between disasters, Americans volunteered their time to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border and search for a missing girl in Aruba.

We live in an enviable age.  We believe in ourselves, our motives, and the American way of life.  And that is a refreshing change from the 1970s.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Will West Virginia Lose the Potomac River? (part 2)

Part Two of Two

As many as a dozen federal regulatory agencies have some responsibility for the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Six states and the District of Columbia are responsible for the health of the Bay’s 64,000 sq. mi. watershed. I assume that none of the responsible bureaucracies are doing their job very well or one-third of the Bay would not have been declared "dead" in July of this year.

The usual suspects-light rainfall and agricultural runoff-were indicted in press releases. The EPA trumpeted that "new limits" agreed to by the states would further reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges in an effort to reduce dead zones. Then it was back to business as usual.

When you rub a dog’s nose in his own mess, he gets the message. When it comes to government, however, the lesson fails. In fact, the opposite happens. Regulators always respond with puppy dog faces; that they have neither the funds nor the manpower to fulfill their mandate. Whimpering gets them off the leash for another budget year.

Eventually, this do-nothing attitude will change because the people who draw their drinking water from the Potomac will begin to get jittery about intersex fish. As it is now, a dead crow in the Maryland suburbs creates hysteria about West Nile virus. Imagine the panic if a human health connection is made to endocrine-disrupting compounds in drinking water.

In a worst-case scenario, the Potomac watershed in eastern West Virginia is at risk of either being condemned in the public interest or declared a federal territory. Or perhaps, the federal courts would impose some form of environmental easement to accomplish the same. My belief that this could happen sounds far-fetched-hyperbole if you will. But in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, the rules of logic have changed.

The March 2002 issue of California Law Review contains the 100-page article "Is West Virginia Unconstitutional?" The last two sentences in the article read: "West Virginians may rest secure in the knowledge that their State is not unconstitutional. Probably."

If your lawyer wrote you a 100-page memo regarding your own legitimacy, how would you feel if he ended it by saying, "Probably."?

The authors also asked themselves, "Why would anyone care?…Given that…West Virginia is not…going to be absorbed back into old Virginia…" In other words, without a plaintiff with standing, nobody is going to force the issue of West Virginia’s statehood in court. I would like to see this article updated in light of Kelo vs. City of New London. For it appears to this non-lawyer that either the federal government or the municipal water districts of metropolitan Washington, DC have a unique opportunity to do exactly what New York City did to the Catskills--condemn a faraway watershed to provide drinking water.

Okay, that’s enough shock and awe.

West Virginia does have a window of opportunity to get out in front on the issue of intersex fish. But our attitude and response must be positive and inquisitive rather than the predictable role of regulators satisfied with assessing penalties and tinkering with discharge limits.

West Virginia is developing a promising biometrics industry through research and development. Thus, why can’t we use the R&D model to move to the forefront on stream and river research? The Potomac, more than any other river, ought to be a powerful magnet for federal research grants for our universities.

Thomas Jefferson was so inspired when he visited Harper’s Ferry that he wrote, "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature." This is the same inspiration that we must embrace if we intend to clean up the river. But instead, we find ourselves living in an age when vandals have painted the very rock upon which Jefferson dipped his quill pen.

The Potomac River is under attack.

Dr. Robert E. Putz, Founder of the Freshwater Institute at Shepherdstown, WV contributed to this article.