When you’re a kid, stuff that happened ten years ago seems ancient. Old movies are the ones not in theaters anymore. Mom is old because she’s past 30.
As you get older, phrases like “a long time ago” change for the shorter. My senior year of high school doesn’t seem that long ago (1987) and I’m pretty sure my kids grew up overnight (born 1996 & 1998).
But somehow this change doesn’t seem to apply to history. The Civil War was well over a century ago, Prohibition seems unimaginable, and the Civil Rights movement was something my parents lived through when they were younger than I am now. But that’s all totally in the past, right? Over and done with. Stories from times long ago.
Except that they aren’t. They aren’t over and done with, and it wasn’t so long ago. If American life expectancy is about 80 years, the Civil War started only two lifetimes ago. Prohibition? Just over one. Civil rights? This lifetime. Many important past events are closer to the news cycle than the history book.
Why should we care? We should care because few things are ever settled “once and for all”. There’s a reason the phrase “history repeats itself” exists. Often times ills and mistakes of the past lurk just behind us, waiting for a chance to step back in front, especially if we let our guard down. Examples of this are all-around us. Remember the movie Fatal Attraction? In the climactic scene, Glen Close’s character is assumed dead, only to spring out of the tub for one final attack. Football fans know the frustration of seeing their team in the lead, near the end of the game, with a victory all but clinched- only to lose at the last second because of a lax defensive scheme.
I wonder if we are guilty of that lax defense- the assumption that the history we studied in school is settled, never to be relived. But things are far from settled. Look at the news. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. are not defeated. Instead, they appear to be getting stronger and unashamed . I don’t think we’re headed toward another civil war, but clearly we are a toxically political, divided nation again. Well, at least beer seems to be here to stay! Of those three major historical issues, 2 of them are still unresolved years after we supposedly resolved them. And the one we did solve is trivial in comparison.
Why is this? Shouldn’t we have matured as a people beyond where we are now? I admit, I assumed we had. But that assumption makes me guilty. Guilty of being surprised and unprepared for how the seeds of hate grow we aren’t looking. Guilty of not noticing as our political perspective gradually eroded from that of one country, to that of two parties. Personally, I rarely looked over my shoulder- I thought those weeds were pulled. But I was wrong. Here we are.
So what’s next? Do we have the courage to speak out, re-defeating hate of all kinds again and again and again? Do we have the patience to actually talk to our political opposites, trying to understand their point of view, and working for common ground? Certainly doing nothing and being partisan are easier, but what good comes from them?
History is polluted with examples of how well we can hate, mistreat, and fight with each other. And despite some great gains to the contrary, those things remain. Progress may seem like 2 steps forward, 1 step back; but it will be 3 steps back if we don’t keep walking.