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Bad as We Are

We’re Better than We Were


When I was young, I went to a party thrown by my editor. Over a bowl of Sangria, we had an impassioned discussion about how bad the world was becoming.

I am, by nature, pessimistic but I had just finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s, A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century, so, rather atypically, I found myself arguing that the world was much better than anything we could imagine from the past. It’s been four decades since that conversation and despite the current state of the world, I cling to my belief that mankind has made strides, however imperfectly, toward greater humanity.

That is not to say that there aren’t sobering—even frightening— regressive trends in society today. Around the world there is an increasing interest in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes despite the track records of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Pol Pot. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, described the movement in a 2017 NPR interview. He said undermining democratic institutions starts by suppressing judicial independence, packing the courts and discrediting the free press.

“So, it’s really a progressive, step-by-step elimination of countervailing forces in the political system, the judiciary, the media, the business community and civil society,” he told the interviewer. “And you don't do it all at once. So, it's like the frog boiling in the water. If it happens gradually, the frog doesn't jump out of the water, civil society doesn't rise up and the international community doesn't sufficiently complain.”

There are clear attempts to undermine the judicial department, the intelligence community and the media in the United States today—the land of the first large-scale democratic experiment in history. These efforts, combined with undercutting immigration, the condemnation of “political correctness” with all that it implies—reassertion of disrespect for women, persons of color, those with disabilities or those of different religious or sexual orientations—are the antithesis of what we are told America stands for.

I see all this as very dangerous—the beginning of an America I will not recognize. And even more dangerous is the apparent willingness of the Millennial Generation to accept a diminution of their rights. Neil Howe, a historian, economist and demographer, writing in Forbes magazine in 2017, reported that only about 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s “essential” to live in a democracy, compared to 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s. Very scary, indeed!

So why don’t I think we are in the worst of times? Because history shows that the United States has staggered from one precipice to another, wavering in its direction repeatedly, but always pulling back, finding its core decency and correcting its course. As recently as the 1930s when the country was at the lowest point of the Great Depression, people were willing to consider a dictatorship. Influential voices called for granting the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, unprecedented powers. Nationally-syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann asserted, “A mild species of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead,” and the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, asserted FDR should have “the powers of a virtual dictatorship to reorganize the government.” Even the New York Herald-Tribune declared itself: “For Dictatorship If Necessary.” But Roosevelt, although he expanded the powers of the presidency, passed on the offer.

We can only hope that today’s generation, feeling many of the same uncertainties that crippled society in the 1930s, will recognize that discarding civil liberties is not the way to be more secure and, like Roosevelt, will fight for democracy.

We are now told that we have never been more divided, but any superficial reading of our history will prove otherwise. We mustn’t forget that little “divide” called the Civil War nor the dissent that led up to it.

When we hear violent political rhetoric and bemoan the current inability to listen to opposing ideas, we might recall what happened when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner insinuated that South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler was a pimp for slavery. Two days later Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly beat Sumner to death on the Senate floor. Today’s verbal fisticuffs barely qualify as a “floor fight” in the modern Congress.

And the current war on the press, while intensely worrisome, is barely a blip on the seismic scale when contrasted to the 1850s when the Abolitionists sought to change public opinion about slavery. Consider the case of Cassius Clay, a Kentucky planter who became a prominent anti-slavery crusader. He served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives before losing support for his abolitionist position. So bitter was the opposition to him that in 1843 he barely survived an assassination attempt during a political debate. Despite being shot in the chest, Clay leapt from the stage, drew his Bowie knife, tackled his assailant, cut off his ear and nose, blinded him in one eye and threw him over an embankment to his death. President Trump, by contrast, only urges his rowdy followers to “knock the crap” out of hecklers, promising to pay the legal fees of his defenders. Perhaps his bone spurs prevent him from fighting his own battles à la Clay.

Out of office, Clay went on to establish his own anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, in 1845. Located in Lexington KY Clay did not have to worry about tweets from a media-savvy president undermining his message. He had to worry more about death threats and to arm himself against the same kind of violent attack that had earlier killed abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy in Kansas.
Clay’s answer to protecting Freedom of Speech was to sheath his newspaper office’s windows and door with metal, to set up four-pounder cannons inside the building, aimed at the doors, and to rig the building with enough gunpowder to blow it—and any intruders—to pieces. In the end a mob of 60 men broke in while Clay was ill and seized his printing equipment. Clay relocated his newspaper to Cincinnati OH, a center of abolitionists in a free state.

The issue of immigration now convulses the nation but we have never been an inclusive society. John Adams, the nation’s second president and one of the greatest proponents for the rights of common people, signed the heinous Alien & Sedition Acts in 1798 only a decade after the ratification of the Constitution. The Acts made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous and criminalized making false statements critical of the federal government. The Sedition Act resulted in the prosecution and conviction of many newspaper owners who disagreed with the government. So much for Free Speech.

This was an eerie precursor to the current administration’s claims of “false news.” The Acts were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801 after the Democratic-Republicans took control of the government, an action that reflected the political stance of the ruling party of the time. “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states. States function only in terms of what those in control perceive as power or personal ambition and both of these wear blinkers,” declared Tuchman in A Distant Mirror.

But relief from the Alien & Sedition Acts did not signal an open door for the oppressed of other lands. A half-century later, as millions of Irish and Germans flooded into the country, the Native American Party, aptly known as the Know Nothing movement, was anti-Catholic and hostile to immigration. Instead of marauding Mexican rapists, The Know Nothings believed a “Romanist” conspiracy was afoot to subvert civil and religious liberty in the United States and sought to organize native-born Protestants in what they described as a defense of their traditional religious and political values. Mercifully, they soon broke apart over differences over slavery.

There is more—much more. Racism is alive and well in the United States although gains have been made. Those promises, as yet not fully realized, of a just and equal society must be jealously guarded however, as we see court rulings that undermine the right to vote, the right to equal educational opportunities, to decent housing and health care.

We are far, far better than we were in the 14th century when mercy was largely the purview of the church and rights for the common person were unknown. We are even better off than we were in the mid-19th century when slavery was largely condoned. We are better off than when women could not own property or vote. We are better off than when people of color or of the “wrong” religion were denied their civil rights. I remain hopeful that enough people of resolution and moral rectitude remain in this country to again steer it along the road mapped so long ago by our Founding Fathers.