“It Was the Worst of Times…”? Maybe Not.
The same huge problems keep returning to plague us — but that doesn’t mean nothing is changing.
By Christopher Kent, June 1, 2022
Right now we’re facing a litany of societal problems that most of us hoped would be resolved by now. Things that have long haunted humanity, including fascism, race hatred and religious groups trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else, along with more recent problems such as climate change, all seem to be coming to a head.
Fascism, for example, swelled to world-threatening levels during World War II; then it subsided to more manageable levels for decades. Now it’s back with a vengeance. Most recently, the umpteenth mass shootings in the United States — this time at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Texas — have millions of Americans demanding change. (My emotions finally got the better of me when I read about the 24-year husband of one of the two teachers gunned down in the Texas school; he dropped dead a few days later. The loss of his beloved wife was too much for him.)
Those of us who grew up in the middle of the 20th Century lived through periods of great optimism, when at least some people could sense a better world coming soon. And yet, here we are, with many of the same problems the world has faced before, staring at us once again. (Plus some new ones.)
When living through a time when old problems are resurging, it can indeed seem like the worst of times. It’s easy to lose heart in the face of everything scary we see going on around us. And yet, there are some reasons for hope that may not be obvious.
Allow me to explain.
A Little Light in the Darkness
In a recent episode of Star Trek Picard, the indefatigable Captain Picard observes that things never change for the better as quickly as we think they should. That may just be human nature; we’re always resistant to change, even if the change would solve a serious problem. And, there are “metaproblems” we face (such as believing that certainty is justifiable and harmless) that have been preventing us from solving other long-lasting societal problems. And of course, short-sighted wealthy people are often good at manipulating the public into not making changes that would undercut their bottom line. (See last month’s essay, Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies, Part One.)
Another reason things seem to take forever to change for the better is that many of the problems we face are really big problems. A really big problem can take a long time to solve, even under the best of circumstances. Instead of a quick solution, many of these big problems are resolved through a cyclical process, along the lines of two steps forward, one step back. Periodically, these problems rise up and become very urgent; that forces us to make some stopgap changes to try to solve them, and our efforts cause them them to back off for a while.
But if we haven’t completely solved a problem — if we’ve only addressed some of its symptoms — then it doesn’t disappear. Sooner or later, it becomes a major threat again, capturing everyone’s attention. When that happens, many of us recognize that we’ve seen this problem before, and we get discouraged. Why are people still being gunned down? Why is racism still rampant? Why are dictators still invading neighboring countries? Why can’t we get laws passed that address economic inequality? Why can’t we get fossil fuel companies to learn some new tricks that might not put our future at risk? Why are we still fighting over abortion?
Given all of this, why shouldn’t we lose hope? There are actually two reasons, and they both have to do with the cyclical nature of these problems. The first reason is that each time one of these problems rears its ugly head, we do something about it. Obviously, our efforts fall short, which is why the problem returns later. But those efforts do make a difference; the next time the problem shows up again, it’s different. For example, racism hasn’t gone away, but 200 years ago, millions of people were enslaved in this country. Then slavery was abolished. That didn’t end racism, but it did make a difference. The civil rights movement in the 20th Century, and the laws that were passed as a result, didn’t end racism, but they did make a difference. Our response each time has had an impact. As Martin Luther King said, The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
The second thing that’s important to remember is that each time a great problem forces us to confront it, people are swayed by the experience. Not everyone changes their opinions and/or behavior, but up-and-coming generations see what’s happening, and the result is a shift in attitudes that has profound implications the next time around.
Rethinking the “Good Old Days”
Most of us remember recent times when things didn’t seem as bad as they seem right now, which can add to our feeling that we’re living in the worst of times. But we’re often not remembering the last time the big problems peaked. For many of us, that may have happened before we were born.
I recently read a book written by one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson. This particular book, titled One Summer, tells the story of what happened during the summer of 1927 in America. As it turns out, this was a pivotal year for America. In many ways, it was the year in which America really became a force in the world for the first time.
Among the things that happened that summer: Charles Lindberg became the first person to fly across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris. (A lot of other folks tried to do the same thing that year and disappeared into the ocean.) Besides making people around the world aware that Americans could do things no one else could do, and making the world suddenly seem a whole lot smaller, that trip put aviation on the map. It spurred an estimated $100 million in aviation investments in this country.
Interestingly, Lindberg may have had an even bigger impact when he flew around the country from city to city on a national celebratory tour in the months following the Atlantic crossing. That “grand tour” was covered by every newspaper in America, and his ability to get from one city to another in a matter of hours changed everyone’s idea about the distance between cities. Immediately after that, the demand for public air flights soared and major airlines came into existence.
Besides Lindberg’s unprecedented feat, during the summer of 1927 Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, a record that stood for decades; the first “talking motion picture,” The Jazz Singer, was released in theaters; television was invented; work began on Mount Rushmore; the Mississippi River overflowed, causing one of the greatest floods in American history; and the Federal Reserve made key decisions that led directly to the Great Depression two years later.
Quite a summer.
But some of the most disturbing things captured in Bryson’s book aren’t mentioned until late in the book. At that point he begins to share some of the popular ideas and beliefs that were still in sway at that time in America (and yes, around the world). Reading about the dark side of that period was eye-opening for me. It gave me a different perspective on the times we’re living through right now.
It turns out that, despite facing many of the same problems we currently face, things are considerably better now than they were during the “Roaring Twenties.” For example:
As Bryson points out, bigotry was “casual, reflexive and well-nigh universal.” People who were perfectly good at their jobs were fired for being Jewish. Even successful African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens by nearly everyone. President Herbert Hoover often spoke of the inferiority of anyone with dark skin. In the Supreme Court of the United States at that time, justice James C. McReynolds wouldn’t speak to or acknowledge fellow justice Louis Brandeis because he was Jewish. (He also ignored upper-level government officials if they were female.)
The Ku Klux Klan was at its peak in that decade, spreading hatred far and wide. Members not only attacked African-Americans; they also went after Jews, Catholics, Asians and Southern Europeans (e.g., Italians). At its peak, the Klan had between five and eight million members. Seventy-five members of Congress were either members of the Klan or were publicly associated with it. A number of cites and states had mayors and governors who were members of the Klan.
Meanwhile, the United States was a hotbed for the idea of eugenics — the notion that “inferior” people should be put to death, or at least sterilized, to prevent them from “watering down” the genetic stock of “superior” white people who were rich and successful. These ideas were very popular at the time, especially among many academics. In fact, the Nazis sent people from Germany to study these ideas in America(!). (Ironically, these ideas finally fell out of favor because the leaders of the eugenics movement were consorting with Nazis.) These ideas were used to justify forced deportations, restrictions on where people could live, the suspension of many individuals’ civil liberties, and tens of thousands of people in the United States being sterilized against their will. (You read that right.)
Yes, we have prejudice and bigotry today. And right now, it’s rearing its ugly head in a big way again. But compared to the 1920s, we’ve made enormous progress. The number of people who still enthusiastically support bigotry and racism has shrunk to a small minority. That certainly wasn’t the case 100 years ago.
We just haven’t solved the problem. Yet.
Déjà vu All Over Again
Last year on January 6, more than 2,000 Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capital, hoping to prevent the confirmation of Joe Biden’s winning the presidential election. Yes, this was unprecedented — but perhaps not as unprecedented as it seems.
A book by author Sally Denton talks about a little-known plot to assassinate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. By the time FDR was elected, America was in turmoil. There were no government safety nets — no Social Security or Medicare, or even minimum wage laws. FDR thought the government should be at the forefront of fixing this, which scared the pants off of the richest Americans — the bankers, industrialists and Wall Street brokers. They saw this “redistribution of wealth” as a threat to their riches. Many of them thought that the rising overseas dictators they read about might have the right idea about how to get things under control!
It was in this setting that a group of business leaders apparently decided a coup was necessary, especially after FDR eliminated the gold standard, which they saw as potentially causing their riches to lose value. They asked a renowned, very popular war veteran to lead a private army funded by the the business leaders. The army would march on Washington, oust FDR and set up a fascist dictatorship. Luckily, it turned out that the veteran didn’t actually think this was a good idea. Instead of following through, he reported the planned coup to J. Edgar Hoover and the president.
It’s not clear whether the coup would have succeeded. In fact, in the end FDR may have used it as a bargaining chip to get the rich business leaders to stop opposing the New Deal (or face charges of treason). In any case, the idea of the very wealthy manipulating big chunks of the populace during upsetting times and trying to overthrow the government isn’t a new one.
What about the Covid-19 pandemic? We’ve certainly been through this before, and when the great flu epidemic happened in 1918, the same problems arose; people claimed that wearing a mask was equivalent to taking away their rights. But this time around, far fewer people have died, in part because of science and medicine, and in part because we’ve learned from many of the mistakes that were made back then.
What about the abortion rights fight? As I write this, the Supreme Court has just overturned Roe v. Wade. This will allow many states to treat women who get an abortion as murderers, essentially creating enforced pregnancy—even if the woman was raped. Notably, not one of these states has passed any laws requiring the man who impregnated the woman to help support the resulting child, or bear any responsibility for the situation.
What about 100 years ago? One hundred years ago, women in America had just gotten the right to vote. Today, women’s rights are an issue recognized by people all over the world. So whatever setbacks women suffer in the upcoming years will inspire ferocious action in response, a backlash that may end up getting women’s rights set in stone.
It’s a New Day
The point is that the problems we face aren’t still plaguing us because nothing has changed. They’re plaguing us because we haven’t completely solved them — yet. But things are not the same as the last time these problems forced us to confront them. The number of people willing to go along with dictators has shrunk drastically. The number of people who think women or minorities don’t deserve to have the same rights as white men has dwindled to a small (but still vocal) minority. The number of people willing to ignore climate change has plummeted. The number of people willing to stand by while gun and ammunition manufacturers game the system to prevent changes in our laws that would save thousands of lives has shrunk to a small group. (Recent surveys have found that up to 90 percent of Americans want common-sense gun-purchasing restrictions.)
It’s true that the big problems we face haven’t been resolved yet. But we’re getting closer and closer. Right now, we’re at one of those pivotal points when the big problems we face are back with a vengeance, demanding our attention. But we’re not the same country — or world — that we were the last time around. The universe is simply telling us that once again it’s time to fight for what’s right and move our world closer to justice.
Although it may seem like it, these are not the worst of times. In fact, we’re closer than ever to the best of times. Sooner or later (hopefully sooner) we really will solve these problems, once and for all. Maybe this moment in history will galvanize enough people to solve some of them in the immediate future.
So, don’t lose heart. Instead, keep fighting for what’s right. Your efforts really do make a difference, and future generations will thank you.
Copyright 2022 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.