Rekha Basu

Rekha Basu

We opened 2019 with the federal government in shutdown over funding for a wall with Mexico. We closed it with an impeachment and acts of terror against minorities: A man who kept handwritten anti-Semitic screeds allegedly barged into a New York Hanukkah party and stabbed five people; a Des Moines woman tried to drive over a black boy and then a Latina girl telling authorities it was because she was “a Mexican.”

Scarcely a day went by in 2019 without reason for shock, anxiety or anger. If not signs of hatred, or an extreme climate event, it was a divisive, unsettling political rant by tweet.

We open the 2020s at what feels like a turning point. Fears are mounting over job losses in a future economy propelled by self-driving cars, self-checkout lanes and everything moving online. Some corporate “downsizing” is already underway from mergers, as many in the news business know firsthand.

Stress morphs into blame, and distrust, insecurity and isolation trigger a palpable malaise. “They’re scared,” observed former Vice President Joe Biden in a recent Register editorial board meeting about his presidential candidacy. “This fourth industrial revolution is real. Will there be a middle class?” That fear has led fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang to propose a universal basic income of $1,000 a month to every working-age American.

Consider a group of several hundred wealthy Americans in 34 states, who call themselves the “Patriotic Millionaires. “ They've been lobbying others of their status, along with elected officials, to raise taxes on the super wealthy and corporations. In 2019 the group, which includes Disney heiress Abigail Disney, helped develop legislation inspired by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call for a 2% surtax on those with assets over $50 million — 3% on those above $1 billion. In November, they introduced a bill to raise the estate tax. In July, the House passed another bill they supported, to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2025.

Some jokingly quip that they are “class traitors,” but the impetus is the alarming concentration of wealth at the top. A study referenced in a New Yorker story finds executive pay has jumped 940% since 1978, while worker pay has risen only 12%, leaving income inequality as extreme as in the 1920s.

Then there’s climate change and the fight against it led by a 16-year-old who is Time’s 2019 Person of the Year. Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who has Asperger’s syndrome, had been worrying about climate change since age 8. At one point she got so depressed, she stopped talking, eating and going to school. Then in May 2018, she wrote a climate-change essay that won a competition in a Swedish newspaper.

Back in America, a new activism mushroomed over one of the world’s oldest standoffs: the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Jewish Voice for Peace, a 501(c)(4) organization that counts 170,000 U.S. supporters, formed JVP Action to lobby for human rights for Palestinians. Its members are currently in Iowa to make a case to Democratic presidential candidates for conditioning aid to Israel on an end to human rights abuses against Palestinians. A poll by the progressive Data for Progress finds the idea is supported by 65% of Democrats. So far, Sen. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate to voice support for a major change in strategy.

“Palestinians, like everybody else, deserve freedom and human rights, and we are against the U.S. paying for injustice against Palestinians,” said Michael Deheeger, an organizer with JVP Action, by phone. He said the Action wing was formed in August to support U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who is Muslim and was denied a visa by Israel. Some members were inspired by Black Lives Matter, he said.

Members of the Catholic clergy found the courage in 2019 to speak publicly against the handling of sexual abuses against seminarians and priests by the Church’s chain of command. On Aug. 15, Stephen Parisi, dean of his class in the Buffalo, N.Y., Catholic seminary, wrote to its bishop about a priest who took confession from a seminarian and then blackmailed him by demanding sex. He also wrote of one who plied a seminarian with scotch, resulting in the latter’s DUI. He wrote the seminary was being used as a “dumping ground” for problem priests with “troubling personal histories.”

Parisi and the academic chairman of the class alleged they faced bullying by superiors, interrogation by their academic dean and shunning by fellow seminarians for speaking out. But they opened eyes.

In the face of so much that’s wrong, it’s heartening to see people push back and make a dent. As always, the best antidote to despair is action. Let’s make 2020 matter.

In other news

In the 2018 general election, there were 1,287 early voting ballots cast out of the 1,350 that were issued in Madison County. A total of 10,544 ballots were cast, so only a little more than 12 percent were early ballots.

I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s new book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” which chronicles the first year of Winston Churchill’s wartime stint as prime minister. He was a gifted rhetorician who used the power of words to move a nation.

On Jan. 20, the United States confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. The nation’s political and media elite obsessed over Mitch McConnell’s just-announced resolution governing the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.