When I talk about the ethics of writing about tomorrow, I don’t mean “tomorrow” in a literal sense. I’m talking about those brave souls who write about something that has not yet taken place but is expected to happen. Could be tomorrow. Could be in eighty-seven years. It’s what pollsters do every day, along with trendsetters, psychics, stockbrokers, priests giving the last rites, everyone running for office, and those unfortunates serving out their prison terms.
Some write about tomorrow to predict the future, protect their investments, and console those facing death, or worse — losing a cushy job. They often start with the past, as in, “You voted me in in 2016, but I can do even more if you vote for me next November.” Then they tell you what you should do tomorrow—meaning at least once before the close of the election booths in November. Some politicians are writing about tomorrow as if there were no tomorrow. Others rely on repetition—tomorrow, tomorrow. Think Annie the musical. “The sun’ll come out Tomorrow—bet your bottom dollar—that tomorrow—there’ll be sun!”
Tomorrow is a goal. The sun is a metaphor. And betting your bottom dollar is what they really want. Your dollar, their sun, and it will all happen tomorrow. It’s not just politicians doing it these days. Covid-19 victims are living for tomorrow. Covid-19 deniers are hoping for tomorrow when they can throw away the masks they aren’t wearing. High school seniors are beside themselves about it. And the CDC scientists are hoping tomorrow gets here before they are fired for even mentioning it.
Some politicians are writing it as though it isn’t tomorrow—it’s 1955 in disguise. The want their voters to remember how good it was when everybody looked alike, minded their manners, and knew their place. But it’s 2020 and voters seem to be asking for change because they actually remember what it was like in 1955. They kept their place, voted a straight ticket, and didn’t complain much. They liked Ike. That’s not tomorrow thinking; that’s yesterday.
The ethics of writing about tomorrow are different. Writing “tomorrow” calls for a clear look ahead and a promise to meet the expectations of tomorrow’s voters. Besides clarity, tomorrow’s voters are entitled to the truth about tomorrow. Will it be what it was, or will it be the future? One that recognizes diversity, anticipates new needs, knows that Black lives matter, and is shocked by scolding, mocking, and stalking.
Are there new ethics—new norms—new standards—new thoughts? Those writing about tomorrow are taking stands, making bets, and hoping for a “better” tomorrow. Most political arguments are imagining how lives might be affected by new thoughts, programs, new leaders, and new powers. The best political writing—when tomorrow is the goal—gives voice to different expectations about progress and change, and to different intuitions about the character of human life.
What we read today about what some want tomorrow is a central focus of tomorrow’s ethics. What we did ethically in the past will bear fruit. But if our past is rife with ethical doubt, intentional misleading, and insistent references to how good it was in 1955, we won’t have tomorrow, we’ll only have the past. From an ethical perspective, experience is the past and hope for meaningful change is the future, disguised as tomorrow.