One of the challenges in building hope for the future is the need to overcome cynicism. We consider racism, sexism, pandemics, authoritarianism, poverty, environmental degradation, fascism, financial inequality, and other challenges in the world today and we become cynical about our ability to make a difference.
Over the month of October, I have posted a series of observations on the lessons history teaches us as we fight the good fight to keep our democracy. I find two consistent lessons.
- First, the life that we see today is not permanent. Change will happen. If we do nothing to save our democracy, there are forces of tyranny ready to step into the breach.
- Lesson #2 teaches us that if we push and make great progress towards building a more just society, it will take work — long, tedious, boring, necessary work — to maintain and build upon those gains.
Hope for a better future is required if we are to find the courage to continue with our labor. The reason I turn to history and the places where history happened is because hope is grounded in memory. We can see how those before us faced challenges that looked hopeless — such as freeing the slaves or getting women the vote — and then they set to worked and achieved those things.
I began this series with my own challenge. In Let’s stop celebrating a past that never existed. Instead, let’s understand and honor the one that did. I suggest that our recollections need a reckoning and a reimagining. A reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining through recovered stories with hope for our collective future. In my push against the call for a “restoration” of “patriotic education,” I use my experiences at Jamestown, which I first visited as an 11-year old, to show how we can understand and appreciate a more complex and nuanced story and still love America.
Next I turned to voter suppression in a post entitled History tells us democracy is the objective. Voter suppression has been with us since the day the constitution was ratified. Sometimes it was based on the norms of the day, as when white, male property owners were the only ones with the franchise. Later, it became a tool to retain minority power when the policies of the minority went out of favor. I turn to history, and the small town of Hayneville, Alabama, to show the lengths such groups will go to maintain power, as they did in the case of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
In Let’s take a road trip to help understand the history behind religious liberty, I tackle a topic as fresh as the current battle over the supreme court. Many claim that our country’s religious liberty gives them the right to push their views on others through government action and to avoid criticism in the process. But the Constitution doesn’t protect people who have different religious beliefs from criticism. If I want to criticize a conservative charismatic Catholic group for suggesting that women should be subordinate to their husbands, that’s my right. Likewise, if a conservative Catholic wants to criticize the Episcopal church’s support for same-sex marriage, that’s their right. What the Constitution does is to bar courts and governments from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views. And that is important to know because any serious study of religious life in America uncovers how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in this country. To demonstrate that, I go all 2020 on you with a virtual road trip to Providence and Newport, Rhode Island; Orange, Virginia; and Mount Taylor, New Mexico.
Next up in the series is Recovered songs, recovered stories and a tale describing the challenges of wrongful imprisonment and racial violence. Recently, The Bitter Southerner posted a thoughtful article which examines how the popular folk tune Swannanoa Tunnel was taken from the wrongfully convicted black community in Western North Carolina. Forced to build the railroad tunnel as convict labor during the Jim Crow era, those convicts originally wrote the tune in the “hammer song” tradition of John Henry. A historian and a musicologist show how the song was reshaped and romanticized into an English-based folk tune in the 1920s – 1960s to appeal to white audiences before their recent work helped recover the real story and repatriate the recordings with the descendants of the original artists.
In Be a good boy…and follow your mother’s advice, I turn to the challenges that sexism and the denial of the right to vote to women have brought to our democracy. This story has a great hometown angle, in that Tennessee was the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment one hundred years ago. The historic Hermitage Hotel plays a role in this drama, where two of the lead actors are a mother and her son. The son, twenty-four-year-old Republican Harry T. Burn, was a first-term legislator from East Tennessee worried about re-election. His mother, Feb Burn — having read a barrage of bitter speeches opposing giving women the franchise — felt compelled to force the issue. She sat down in her front porch chair and penned a few lines in one of the most famous, or at least most effective, mother-to-son letters in history. She wrote:
“Dear Son, … Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. … I’ve been waiting to see how you stood but have not seen anything yet…. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. (Carrie Chapman) Catt with her “Rats.” Is she the one that put rat in ratification, Ha! With lots of love, Mama.”
Burn thought about that letter and the fact that all of the illiterate, uninformed male tenants on the family farm could vote; yet the intelligent, feisty, college educated widow and successful farmer who was his mother could not. He changed his vote, and the rest is history.
I wrap up the series with Misinformation and the threat to democracy by quoting Teri Kanefield when she says, “Democracy is based on rule of law, which requires a shared truth (a functioning public sphere). Fascism, to thrive, must destroy the common factuality so that myth can take hold.” The fake Hunter Biden laptop scandal is just the latest in a long list of attempts by Donald Trump and his enablers to destroy a shared truth and create a false myth. The use of misinformation and fake news has a long history in America, and I share one of the most famous examples: the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, which William Randolph Hearst and others used as an excuse to go to war with Spain.
In all of these stories, we are reminded again and again of the second of my two over-arching lessons: this takes work The country has made important steps in fighting voter suppression, ensuring religious liberty, facing wrongful imprisonment, calling out racial violence, giving women the right to vote, and combating misinformation. But the forces that want hierarchy and minority rule over democracy have pushed back in every instance. John Roberts and the Supreme Court decide that racism and voter suppression are no longer a problem and just like that, both are back with a vengeance. Slavery is ended but we find new ways to enslave blacks and just call it Jim Crow or mass incarceration. LGBTQ individuals win the right to marry and women are given control over their own bodies and in response religious conservatives pack the courts to put their theology above civic law. Women have the right to vote, yet the president of the United States feels comfortable calling the female Speaker of the House a “nasty woman.” We turn in the 20th century toward a free and responsible press, only to see changes that permit the creation of a giant right-wing infotainment network that distorts information for its own purposes.
Democracies are not permanent, and I included a book review this month on how democracies die. Two Harvard professors who have spent twenty years studying the decline of democracies all around the world write that their research shows that more often than not, it is the slow decline of institutions such as the judiciary and press that lead countries to move from democratic to authoritarian governments. That is certainly the case in 21st century America. But all is not lost.
Keeping a democracy and moving forward toward justice are never ending journeys. That journey has another important step next month on election day.
More to come…
Image by DJB: A California Condor flies over the Grand Canyon during our visit in 2008. These remarkable birds — now being re-established in the wild after having a brush with extinction — have a 9′ wing span, fly at about 55 miles per hour, and can soar to 20,000 feet and then coast for two hours. Imagine our surprise on our way to breakfast when a California Condor (#72 as tagged on his wings — he was that close) came swooping over our heads looking for his breakfast. It isn’t a bald eagle, but I thought it was an exhilarating image showing — in the environment and the rescue of a magnificent creature once set for extinction — just one of the many things we have to fight for in the United States.