By the time you read this, I may be a grandfather. Or maybe not.
My daughter’s due date was Tuesday, but no word as of late Tuesday night. Never trust a Crisp to make a deadline.
There is no trick to making babies. As Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,” once put it, if all you want is a bigger population, plenty of people are willing to take on the job, and they will be happy in their work. Or, as I occasionally point out to students, kids are a renewable resource.
But the prospect of impending grandfatherhood does serve as a cheerful reminder that what you leave behind gradually becomes more important than what lies ahead. If you don’t start thinking about what little you may have done to change the world, then you probably aren’t thinking at all.
It is some consolation that my grandchild will enter a world better than the one I entered. We were at war in Korea then, our third major war of that troubled century. A fourth war would follow, right in the middle of my prime war-making years.
That world I entered was a hard place to be black, or to be a woman with career ambitions. Cars were more dangerous and broke down more often. Cancer was a death sentence. Air and water were getting dirtier every day. That good old gasoline smell was poisoned with lead. Old people struggled to stay out of poverty and hunger.
Despite the talk radio hype, people today are freer now to pursue their private goals, to express their beliefs, to live out their lives in comfort and to practice their religion than they ever were in the bucolic 1950s.
I don’t deserve much credit for all of that, but at least I was on the right side for most of it. Slowly, uncertainly, in a clumsy, to-and-fro waltz, the world has become a better place.
So when I hear people say that America is on the wrong track, that the only hope is to shake things up as they have never been shaken before, I sometimes wonder what world they are living in.
Some of this, clearly, has to do with my obsession with the presidential election. After all of those overnight shifts at the Billings Outpost, I have had trouble adjusting to a normal sleep schedule. I wake up so early that a few months ago I began passing the early hours getting election news from “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
Now I can no longer tell whether I watch “Morning Joe” because I wake up early, or if I wake up early so I can watch “Morning Joe.” Either way, it ain’t healthy.
The last time I was this worried about a presidential election, I was 9 years old. My fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me that the election of John F. Kennedy would force America to genuflect at the altar of the papacy. It didn’t take too long to learn that most elections aren’t that catastrophic.
Perhaps this one will be. A cousin said he was disconnecting from everything electronic and going out to sit on top of a hill until Monday night’s debate was over. I told my brother, who was calling to check on the grandbaby, that the future of America could be determined by a Hillary Clinton coughing fit.
It doesn’t help that my light reading of late has been Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” You probably know the outlines of this story, but Mayer digs into it in mind-numbing depth, conducting hundreds of interviews over five years and backing up her 380-page text with 44 pages of thorough notes.
As she documents, the problems didn’t start with Citizens United. During the Gilded Age, the wealthiest Americans began diverting chunks of their wealth into tax-favored private foundations with limited accountability.
Hard to believe now, but many Americans initially opposed those foundations. Among the critics was Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “No amount of charity in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” The Rev. John Haynes Holmes called them “repugnant to the whole idea of a democratic society.”
As late as 1930, only 200 private foundations existed; by 2013, the number had risen to more than 100,000. Enter Charles and David Koch, whose gold-encrusted fingers have dipped widely and deeply into the American pie, backing conservative groups from the John Birch Society to the Cato Institute. In addition, they have gathered so much support from other wealthy Americans that by 2014, the top 100 campaign donors spent almost as much on politics as the 4.75 million Americans who donated $200 or less.
And those are only the reported donations. When all the dark money is included, wealthy conservatives spent … well, nobody knows. Money is distributed by the bucketful through dozens of ostensibly apolitical nonprofits that use it to back local candidates and issues. Even Mayer’s diligent research can’t unravel it all.
Put it all together, and the book explains a lot about American politics in 2016. It helps explain why an entire political party attacks the Environmental Protection Agency and pooh-poohs human-caused global warming (Koch Industries was the nation’s largest producer of toxic waste in 2012). It helps explain why Democrats lost more than 900 state legislative seats and 11 governorships in the 2010 and 2014 off-year elections.
And it may help explain why so many Americans have rallied behind the one Republican candidate who could afford to ignore the Koch Brothers and finance his own campaign. Charles Koch, the most political of the brothers, has declined to meet with Donald Trump and remains uncommitted in this year’s election.
So it could turn out that the vast tentacles of the Koch political octopus could unwittingly elect the cruelest, most undisciplined, least qualified and least conservative president in American history.
My grandbaby will enter a better world than I did. Keeping it that way may be the work of that child’s lifetime.