Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What a long, strange trip it's been

This post has been bubbling around in my head for a while now, and recent events and discussions have brought it to the fore. I keep hearing people bemoaning how things are worse than they've ever been, and I think of my childhood and wonder how they can believe it. In the wake of the Tucson shooting, I hear people talking about the vicious, violent political rhetoric of today and I feel like I'm channeling Crocodile Dundee: "That's not vicious, violent political rhetoric- this is vicious, violent political rhetoric..." That's when I remember that I'm older than many UU bloggers, so my perspective is different. I think it's important for us to reflect just how far we've come, just in my lifetime.

I was born two weeks after the lynching of Emmet Till. It was well past the heyday of lynching; there were no box lunches or commemorative postcards sold- still, I would be a teenager before the practice stopped. Call a black man "Mr. President"? They wouldn't even call him mister- I was nine years old before the Supreme Court ordered federal courts to use honorifics when addressing black men and women. But there was no such requirement for newspapers, magazines, state and local government offices, and the general public to do so, and they generally didn't. The man we know as "Mr. President" would back then have been known simply as "Barry". I was twelve years old when Sidney Poitier's delivery of the line, "They call me Mister Tibbs! in the movie "In The Heat Of The Night" became a stand up and shout at the screen moment so big they based a sequel on that one line; I would be old enough to vote before all mainstream newspapers and magazines would routinely use honorifics.

Violent politics? While I don't remember the first, unsuccessful attempt on President Kennedy's life, I certainly remember the second one. I also remember the assassination of his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, and several civil rights leaders. I remember the assassination attempts on Wallace, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. I remember the riots the assassination of Rev. King caused- all told, 150+ killed and 2,000+ wounded across the United States, in addition to property damage so great many neighborhoods still haven't recovered.

Think the targets-on-the-map articles by Palin and the DLC are oh, so violent? I remember the SLA filling the hollows of their hollow point bullets with cyanide before attacking a school board meeting. I remember the Weatherman's bomb throwing. Think Code Pink or the Tea Partiers are the ultimate disrupters of public gatherings? I remember the riots at the 1968 Democrat National Convention. I remember how Vietnam war protests routinely turned into disruptions, if not always full fledged riots, until the protesters learned what a dangerous game that was at Kent State.

Oh, by the way- all of the above occurred while the Fairness Doctrine was in full effect.

And it's not just in the US, or the G-8 nations that progress has been made. When I was born, the majority of mankind lived in absolute dictatorships; today, only a handful of absolute, not answerable to the public in any way dictatorships survive. And the whole world is learning that violence doesn't have to be the answer- the peaceful breakup of first the Soviet Bloc, then the Soviet Union itself show that empires don't have to devolve into endless civil wars. And speaking of wars, we've now had the longest period in recorded history in which none of the European powers have gone to war with another!

For all of mankind's history, from the first curious ape to the last few decades, our politics, philosophies, and religious truths have been based on the underlying fact stated so well in "Jesus Christ Superstar": "Surely you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always pathetically struggling..." This is no longer true- as George McGovern wrote in the United Nations Chronicle "Here are some other encouraging statistics: the world now produces a quantity of grain that, if distributed evenly, would provide everyone with 3,500 calories per day, more than enough for an optimal diet. This does not even count vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, poultry, edible oils, nuts, root crops, or dairy products." We now have the capacity to feed, clothe, and house every man, woman, and child on Earth- we need only find the political path to do so. And the history of the last couple centuries have shown that once it becomes technically possible to relieve suffering, it will eventually become politically possible as well- if only to allow the powers that be to enjoy their comforts without listening to the rest of us whine.

All this progress has come while simultaneously improving the environment, not making the situation worse. From the Cuyahoga river catching fire, to being able to develop photographic film inn the waters of lake Ontario, to the destruction of the Aral Sea, economic or technical improvement has often meant environmental degradation in the past; but today's technology means that as the Third World catches up with us, they don't have to go through those destructive stages- they can leapfrog to societies that are both modern and clean, while we developed countries continue to work on cleaning up our past.

Wow... 900 words, and I still haven't gotten to advancements in Gay rights, Women's rights, the rights of minority religions, Voting rights, OSHA and workplace safety, product liability laws, any number of things that makes this a better place to live than when I was born. So when you hear worst-evers and never-befores and other such negative superlatives, take a breath and reflect. We've come a long, long way in a very short span of time; don't let impatience and frustration at imperfection blind you to that fact. Remember that exaggeration and hyperbole are an activist's job, to claim things are much worse than they actually are, so that when s/he compromises, s/he'll be getting what he actually wanted. Avoid the greatest trap of the social activist: believing your own propaganda. You'll feel better.

1 comment:

Bill Baar said...

I remember when MLK was roundly condemened in Chicago for inciting violence with his Speech.