At age 67, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. Some reasons are obvious (there’s more life behind me than in front; I have some great memories). Some are not.
One reason the past grows in importance, both personally and for us as a society, relates to the title of this entry – humanism. Adam Gopnik, in a recent New Yorker article, writes about declinists (those who chronicle the decline of countries, empires, and such) and humanism. I refer you to his article, as he did a masterful job.
Let me generalize about American humanism. Americans have traditionally cared not only about individual well being (liberty) but also about society as a whole. Our laws, the Supreme Court, and other institutions, maneuver carefully to protect the interests of both. The Constitution guarantees a large number of individual rights, even at the expense of what might be best for society as a whole (the right to bear arms comes to mind). Other features of the constitution guarantee that the greater good is considered, giving us protections from things that are harmful – environmental degradation, slavery, monopolies, fair interstate commerce, and so forth.
So, let’s look at the recent past – the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Lots has happened that we humanists consider progress: cleaner air and clean water acts, voting rights for women, recognition of gay marriage and gay service in the military, the prevention of child labor, near-universal health care, the Peace Corps, the 40-hour work week, the exploration of space, and much more.
So, the past is relevant, not just for the cliché of understanding the future (which, in fact, is a tool we have used only sparingly, and not very well), but for appreciating what we have and just how precious it is. Comparing the past with the present gives us a sense that we are making some progress – that our version of a civilized society is becoming more highly evolved. But that progress is vulnerable, and it is endangered.
These hard-won victories are, by definition, never safe, but they are increasingly threatened today by the Tea Party and its ilk, who wish to turn back the clock and reverse social evolution to benefit and enrich a whiny and vocal minority at the expense of the rest of us.
We’ve been complacent (as liberals often are, anticipating the best in people – a grave mistake, as it turns out); we’ve taken these (relatively) good times for granted. They can be taken away. A few brown shirts in 1930s Germany led by a psychotic grabbed power by whatever means available in the midst of social unrest and chaos.
Today there are those who preach about less government, lower taxes, and individual liberty over common weal. Can you imagine 50 states, each with its own environmental laws? Or different regulations with regards to slavery? Of course not. It’s silly, and so are the people who advocate for these arcane interests. They represent a significant threat to our society. Don’t let humanism die this way.