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Class of 2020: Congratulations, but first an apology | COMMENTARY

In this Oct. 7, 1954, file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh.
In this Oct. 7, 1954, file photo, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh.(AP)

Dear Class of 2020: On behalf of boomers everywhere, I want to apologize for the mess that awaits you — the deadly coronavirus and the resulting economic crisis with massive unemployment. When you started your senior year last fall, who could have predicted this would happen?

Actually, scientists did. The U.S. military did. Our government’s intelligence agencies did. They were not certain when it would happen, but there was consensus that a pandemic from a novel virus could occur at any time. The record will show future generations that, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, the rich and powerful United States — the nation that had helped contain Ebola just a few years earlier — was not only unprepared for threats from a new disease, but our leadership downplayed the possibility right up until the pathogen’s arrival.

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Sorry, seniors. That was not a great way to start a commencement message. This message is supposed to be congratulatory, celebratory, encouraging and optimistic.

But I think it should be apologetic first. We should have done better. We should have had a better country, a better world by now. My generation came tumbling through a lot of history. We saw a lot and supposedly learned a lot. We should have demanded more progress instead of tolerating the backsliding that now has people in other nations expressing pity for us.

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A bit of history most relevant to the moment: Baby boomers were born on both sides of the polio epidemic that hit the country hard in the 20th century. Children became infected at an alarming rate. Men and women of the Greatest Generation — your grandparents or great-grandparents — had been through the Great Depression and World War II and, just as they started to enjoy peace and build their families, they feared polio would disable or kill their kids.

But science ultimately prevailed. Doctors and medical scientists developed a polio vaccine, and soon parents lined up their children to get it, and the deal was sealed: Americans believed in medical science, took pride in it.

Today, that seems long ago and far away. Nowadays way too many Americans — prominent ones, even the president — question and attack nearly everything as if it’s some liberal conspiracy; they dismiss science as quickly as they dismiss anything else that pushes against their hard prejudices.

Now, I’ll be first to tell you that baby boomers, who came of age during the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate, learned to question authority. That’s a good thing. But we did not so easily question science.

There was always sarcasm about eggheads and nerds. But, generally speaking, we did not dismiss the smart people who seemed committed to saving lives, serving the public good and informing our government. They cured diseases. They put a man on the moon. They helped women avoid unwanted pregnancy. They protected us from DDT and other toxins in the environment. They warned us about climate change.

But something happened. Things are upside down today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no link between vaccines and autism, but some anti-vaccine parents insist there is. Some Republicans in Congress have started to accept climate change but have done nearly nothing about it, and some scientists believe a global disaster is already underway.

We have people marching, some with guns, to state capitols and even local government offices to protest the informed and wise actions of governors, mayors and county executives to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The mothers of the baby boom, the women who fretted about their children getting polio, would be appalled.

Obviously, the country needs to get back to work and to start having fun again. But we have been delivered a horrible moment in human history and, if we want to live to see a better day, our first job is survival. And that means trusting science over politics and prejudices.

I should not have to say these things, but I frequently feel like saying them out loud to young people, starting with my own son and daughter.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that millions of Americans thought Trump would make a good president. I’m sorry that 40 years of anti-government rhetoric left so many of us so vulnerable to disasters financial and natural.

I’m sorry that you have to live with the threat of mass shootings because of our crazy gun culture. I’m sorry that higher education costs so much and that millions of Americans still don’t have adequate, affordable health insurance.

I’m sorry about persistent racism, about grotesque income inequality, about our inability to move more people out of poverty and to resolve the conflicts over immigration.

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I’m sorry that more American adults don’t have a sense of sacrifice for the common good and that they’ve twisted the concept of selfless patriotism into a crusade for personal rights — the right to carry a gun, to spend unlimited amounts of cash on politicians who will serve their interests, to refuse to wear a mask in a pandemic.

I’m sorry that we haven’t settled our differences as a nation and raised the quality of life for everyone so we could all bear the current crisis better.

We should have made more progress on all fronts by now. My generation should have insisted on it. We came up way short. Please accept this apology, and understand it as a charge to do better.

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