There is no question we are facing real challenges, as individuals, as a democracy, as a country, as a species. There is no shortage of institutional failures, of horrors, of existential threats. “Deaths of Despair” has become a bit of a meme — although it’s getting some pushback as people take a closer look at the phenomenon.
The point is, it is not unreasonable to be worried as hell about WTF is going on these days. But, it also helps to keep a sense of perspective and remember that that has always been the case. While the caution “Past results are no guarantee of future performance” is something to remember, it is useful to know that people have managed to cope in the past with circumstances that in hindsight seem unimaginable. If we face huge challenges, it’s worth remembering that we have tools today that our predecessors would consider miraculous. Somehow they coped with what they had. What’s our excuse?
Kevin Drum has an exercise in perspective that’s worth a read. It’s titled “The life and times of my grandfather.”
Here is the story of my grandfather (on my mother's side). Yes, it has a point:
My grandfather was born in 1900. He was 14 when World War I broke out and 17 when America entered the fighting. He was 18 when the Spanish flu pandemic swept the world. He was 20 when the Palmer Raids and the associated red scare broke out. He was 25 during the Scopes trial and 29 during the St. Valentines Day massacre. He was 32 when the Great Depression got into full swing and the US banking system came within days of collapsing. He was 33 when famine killed millions in Ukraine and 34 when he lost his job as an electrician for Western Union and had to spend the rest of the decade as an elevator operator. He was 39 at the start of World War II—the biggest, most destructive war in human history.
He was 45 when, in the Pacific, the US detonated two atomic bombs over Japan. On the other side of the world the full horror of the Holocaust became public and the Soviet Union swallowed Eastern Europe. He was 47 when the Cold War started. He was 49 when communists took over China and the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb. The country would live under the specter of nuclear annihilation forever after that.
He was 50 when McCarthyism took over the country—the second red scare of his lifetime. He was 57 when Sputnik was launched and 59 when famine killed upwards of 50 million people in China. He was 62 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 63 when a president was assassinated, 64 when Tonkin Gulf ignited the Vietnam War in earnest, and 65 when the Watts Riots broke out a few miles from his home. He was 68 when both a presidential candidate and the country's preeminent civil rights leader were assassinated. He was 74 when Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate. He was 78 when Three Mile Island melted down and 79 when hostages were taken in Iran. He was 80 when gasoline prices doubled and inflation hit 15%. He was 86 when Chernobyl melted down.
A few years later he died.
When you consider what events this one lifetime encompassed in the 20th Century, it’s difficult to not be amazed. Drum goes on to pull up some numbers and comparisons with the problems we are facing today. Read The Whole Thing.
Drum makes a case that the 20th Century was no walk in the park, and that we need to remember the positive accomplishments that have taken place, the progress that has been made in that time as well, and where we are today.
It’s very easy to get caught in a mental doom-loop where every piece of bad news reinforces the conviction that things are in a death spiral. That’s especially true in the modern disinformation age, where the quest for clicks and eyeballs fills the news and social media with tales of horror, scandals, and impending doom from multiple directions — because that’s what get clicks.
Good news is not news. Things working the way they are supposed to is not news. People quietly getting their jobs done and getting along is not news.
Consider also that we have ‘news’ sources dedicated to inflaming people with fear and anger — as well as hostile actors employing social media to the same ends. We have people doing it for ‘fun’ and profit. There is a significant fraction of America convinced the borders are totally out of control, cities are hellholes with murder on the streets and stores being looted.
We have people working to discredit our government, looking for some Strong Man who can magically restore order and put ‘those people’ in their place. We have all kinds of conspiracy theories because they provide easy explanations for people desperate to make ‘sense’ of the world — even if their ‘facts’ are backwards and upside down.
Again, read what Drum has to say, and do not let despair ensnare you, even though there is plenty of reason to find it. We would not be here today if those before us hadn’t met the challenge of their times. It’s up to us to do the same. In the darkest times, there is still light to be found, there are those who do what they can.
One reason it’s easy to believe things are worse today than they were in the past is simple: we don’t know our own history. Tom Sullivan has another relevant piece: Doomed or deliberate?
...Historian Seth Cotlar (Rightlandia) will be in Seattle on Tuesday interviewing Rachel Maddow about her new book Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism. Those who listened to her latest podcast, Ultra, know the basics. She traces the America fascist movement of the 1930s and 40s in more detail. What Cotlar finds interesting is how this history disappeared down the collective memory hole for most Americans in subsequent generations:
One thing we learn from Maddow’s book is that almost all of the seditious American fascists from the 1930s and 40s—people who literally wanted to work together with the Nazis to eliminate or deport the nation’s Jews and turn the country into an authoritarian homeland for white Christians—got off scot free after WWII and went on to live fairly normal lives as people who their neighbors generally thought of as “Commie-hating Christian Patriots,” if perhaps slightly eccentric or kooky ones.
Likely, history will once again consign people like Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, John Eastman, Steve Bannon, convicted insurrectionists from the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, et al. to the slightly eccentric or kooky category. Those who don’t go to jail will return to their normal lives, their yards, and their pet goldfish.
There’s more at the link, about Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, among other things.
There’s a couple of problems with historical amnesia. One is that we don’t recognize them as familiar when these phenomena pop up again — it’s like it’s always the first time and people don’t realize that all these exciting/dangerous ideas aren’t new or revolutionary. The false novelty without the historic context makes them seem more formidable.
The second is that we also lose the memory of all the people who fought against these things, the example of their courage, the things they were able to do to defeat them. Without that knowledge, it can make these recurring threats seem impossible to counter. Knowing that we’ve been able to handle these threats in the past — and how — is a huge advantage.
This is why the Right is working so hard to ban certain subjects in school, prevent the teaching of history that makes them uncomfortable — because for them Ignorance actually IS Strength. It’s a lot easier to pull off a con if the victims don’t recognize it.
The past is not a pretty thing to confront — but it’s a hell of a lot easier to head in the right direction once you know where you’re coming from.