Young: Why optimism trumps despair at New Year's

Benjamin Nadorf, 4, fools around with his new

Benjamin Nadorf, 4, fools around with his new glasses while waiting for the new year at Times Square in Manhattan. One million people are expected to fill the area for the countdown. (Dec. 31, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and

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The world did not end in December 2012, as some thought an ancient Mayan calendar predicted; but in too many ways, it has become a more dangerous, less friendly place.

In the United States, we have lived through an election in which rabid partisans on both sides warned that the world -- or at least America as we know it -- would end if the other side won. Millions of Americans seemed to believe them.

The election is now well behind us and passions have cooled, but political warfare seems to be a new permanent state. While the dreaded "fiscal cliff" is not the end of the world, it is a symbol of how dysfunctional and compromise-averse our politics have grown. The last major news event of 2012 in America was a school massacre that led to a polarized, politically exploitative debate over gun control, paranoia, and mutual demonization.

In other places, ideological zeal and intransigence have taken far more extreme forms. Events in the Middle East have dashed hopes that the Arab Spring would fulfill its promise of freedom. In Egypt, presidential elections ended in victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose lip service to democracy masks an authoritarian religious agenda, and in a power grab that sparked new unrest. In Libya, an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi took the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an idealistic champion of that country's liberation from dictatorship.

In Israel, new deadly violence deepened pessimism about solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- at least for the foreseeable future. Some fear a threat to Israel's existence, particularly with the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Others foresee decades of tensions that will undermine Israeli democracy, promote Palestinian misery and foment hatred that perpetuates a vicious cycle.

In Russia, the year began with a resurgence of protest and activism in response to Vladimir Putin's new presidential bid. It ended with Putin in power, the opposition demoralized and persecuted, and U.S.-Russian relations at a new low since the end of the Cold War: After the U.S. Congress adopted sanctions penalizing Russian officials involved in human rights violations, Russia retaliated by banning American adoptions of Russian orphans.

Yet amid all this fodder for pessimism, there are the good things. In countries beleaguered by oppression or violence, some persevere against great odds to fight for a better life, from pro-democracy activists in Russia to feminists in Pakistan. In America, we still have a system of governance that, whatever its malfunctions, protects individual rights and ensures that political disputes are resolved peacefully. And, as the aftermath of superstorm Sandy showed, we can still come together in a crisis.

As we head into 2013, let us help the good things grow. The 20th century saw far darker moments, and still ended in unprecedented victories for freedom and human rights. As long as we have not lost the will to make the world a better place, every new year will begin with new hope.