America is experiencing a series of dispiriting upheavals that would be completely disorienting if we hadn’t seen similar challenges before. Racial injustice, the whitewashing of history, book banning, our gun fetish, misogyny, homegrown terrorism, fake news, religious intolerance, the marginalization of LGBTQ communities, oligarch-favoring government, and more are all part of our past and present.
Too many people want to ignore this part of our nation’s history.
So much of what we are experiencing comes down to money and power, just as it did with the Southern slaveowners and the Gilded Age oligarchs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Seeing others as unequal is the price that must be paid in order for those who feel threatened by democracy to maintain their grip on power. They reject the fundamental American ideal of equality. But as historian Heather Cox Richardson notes,
Once you give up the principle of equality, you have given up the whole game … Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have stamped your approval on the idea of rulers and subjects. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in the lesser group.
Those of us who seek to understand the lessons of the past also live in the present and very much care about the future. Understanding where we’ve seen these challenges before brings us in touch with ordinary people who figured out how to work together to save democracy. History gives us a way to think about our current responses to these challenges.
“The burden of citizenship,” writes journalist Anand Giridharadas, “is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem. And that, amid great change, it is in all of our interest to help people see who they will be on the other side of the mountaintop.”
History is clear that the fight for democracy never ends.
To move forward, we first have to understand our history of racial injustice, not ban it.
With our 400-year history of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and mass incarceration, one should hardly be required to point out that racial injustice is in the air we breathe. It makes perfect sense to try and understand that history and consider ways to break the destructive pattern. Yet the current whitewashing of that history from politicians as diverse as the suburban-friendly Glenn Youngkin to Ron “Trump 2.0” DeSantis seeks to impose a color-blind racism that erases the culpability of whites from the oppression of people of color.
Color-blind racism is an ideology that “explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of non-racial dynamics.” When conservatives in Oklahoma pass laws to restrict the teaching of the impact of past racists acts such as the Tulsa Massacre on the world today, we see color-blind racism at work, undermining efforts to reckon with our past. “Although the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Massacre did bad things,” writes professor Kathryn Shumaker, the conservative lawmakers would have us believe that the perpetrators’ “actions do not shape the world we live in — even though White rioters murdered scores of Black Tulsans and destroyed more than 1,200 buildings in the Black Greenwood neighborhood, annihilating decades of accumulated Black wealth.”
We cannot build the type of informed citizenry a democracy needs on false stories.
For most of our country’s history, the media has been partisan. “Fake news has existed as long as American journalism has been around,” notes historian Jacob Soll. Thomas Jefferson and other founders were attacked by newspapers supporting their rivals. William Randolph Hearst built an entire media empire based on muckraking tabloids. But for several decades in the twentieth century, the most rabid partisanship was reined in by rules such as the fairness doctrine. That was undone in the regulatory cutbacks of the Reagan years, and the internet has made it easy to spread lies and disinformation.
The Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit against Fox News Network has shown that the network consistently and willingly lied about the outcome of the 2020 election. But those paying attention have known this for years. Fox is “a disinformation machine designed to destroy trust in democratic institutions, including the idea that America’s electoral system is free and fair,” writes historian of authoritarianism Ruth Ben-Ghiat. “Fox also serves as the GOP’s de facto propaganda arm.”
And yes, the recent lies over “woke banks” is more of the same.
History tells us that equality means equality.
With a wide-open study of our history, children and adults alike are being exposed to lives different from their own and ideas different from their own — which creates compassion and empathy. They also learn how we overcame past challenges to democracy, which strengthens our community. As author Jodi Picoult wrote, “Books help people find common ground; book bans spotlight the differences between us.”
Heather Cox Richardson again:
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for the Senate, warned that arguments limiting American equality to white men and excluding black Americans were the same arguments “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will — whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.”
Either people — men, in his day — were equal, or they were not. Lincoln went on: “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it…where will it stop?”
It won’t stop until we decide to continue the fight for the ideals of equality. For Giridharadas reminds us that, “It isn’t enough to be right about the world you want to live in. You gotta sell it, even to those you fear.”
More to come…
Image: Photo montage by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.
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