Seems like Americans just can’t agree on anything these days. News stories tell us we’re polarized to a degree never before seen in history. We’ll never get anything done. We’ll never improve, become our better selves.
Bad news is on the television, and the computer screen and the dwindling number of newspaper front pages. Black and white, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, all at odds with one another.
Indeed, to many Americans, times look bleak. But stop and think for a minute. Were the “good old days” really that good?
Let’s start at a nice even 100 years ago. By this date in 1914, World War I was well underway. That little adventure killed some 16 million people by the time it was over, making it one of the deadliest wars in world history. And it sowed the seeds for World War II two decades later.
And let’s not forget the 1918-19 worldwide influenza pandemic. It killed up to 50 million people. No vaccine was available. My maternal great-granparents both caught the flu. While they were fighting to stay alive, four of their children lost the same battle.
Seemingly minor injuries could kill — there were no antibiotics until 1942.
World War II and its attendant horrors drew to a close only after the introduction of atomic weapons to the world.
In terms of civil rights, “separate but equal” was the order of the day, especially in the South. By the 1950s, activists began working to change things. It became a bloody, decade-long battle from Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus to implementation of the Civil Rights Act.
The ’60s brought political assassinations, the Vietnam War, calls for revolution, and protests in the streets. Hard to imagine we’re more divided today than we were by 1969.
The ’70s gave us the Kent State shootings, Watergate, two energy shortages and the kidnapping of American hostages in Iran. The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident brought us lies from government officials and corporate officials. Sitting in gas lines, we grew more cynical.
The 1980s led to the Challenger space shuttle disaster, And Iran-Contra. Vicious attack ads sank political careers on the left and right. The ’90s saw the impeachment of a president for only the second time in our history, the O.J. Simpson trial and its aftermath and an attack by American terrorists in Oklahoma City.
The last 15 years have seen terrorist attacks on our nation, a global economic meltdown, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instability in the Middle East, and the aforementioned divide among our citizens.
But I suspect that divide isn’t nearly as wide as it was when black and white Americans couldn’t marry each other freely, or sit in the same classroom, or even drink from the same water fountain. It’s not as wide as when some young Americans went to war, others burned their draft cards or moved to Canada and some marched in the streets against the war. It’s not as wide as when being “out of the closet” meant one risked their employment, their housing and all too often, their lives.
In other words, we have made progress. As the events of Ferguson, Missouri in the past few weeks demonstrate, we still have a long way to go. We are not perfect. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.