While there may be a number of metaphors to define our times in history, one certainly might be “an age of doubt.” For even the casual observer of modern opinion, through the media, politics, entertainment, and even sport, the notion of doubt, uncertainty, and even refusal is both universal and comprehensive in the primary culture. Reasons are difficult to specify. There is the usual: Democrats blame Republicans, vice-versa, President Trump blames the “mainstream” (self-defined) media, “fake news,” and many of his own staff (“ex” staff). But there are alleged deeper, more sinister, and foreign-born causes advanced. Russian “meddling,” Marxist influence on campus, the “Frankfurt” (Germany) school of “critical theory,” illegal immigrants, Hollywood, liberal “bias” everywhere.
Causes are, of course, important, but reality is more so, and pervasive. Historians still argue about the causes of war, but nothing brings back the millions who can’t come back. The reality of today’s America is a land of self-doubt, intense questioning, reflections on basic histories, virtues now turned into vices, and a complete reversal of many values that once were untouchable. For better or worse, that’s the reality, and it appears permanent, or at least enduring.
There is no need for examples; “pervasive” will suffice, and one would have to be blind and deaf to be unaware.
So what do we do about it? There are options. One is to accept, either “blindly” or willingly. Either way, a mass acceptance fixes the future. “Progressivism” defines the future, and history, to quote Henry Ford, is “bunk.” All history is challenged, and the present will turn into a future nearly unrecognizable to the past. If, as many want, the country’s birthday becomes the day of the first slave-ship (August 20, 1619), and Jefferson is defined by the slave Sally Hemmings, and “white privilege” erases Washington, Lincoln and Thomas Edison… then we have something brand new. So be it.
The second option offers a more “balanced” future. Accept critiques of history as “constructive” and work within them for a future combining both past and present. That takes prudence and restraint, rare commodities, both needed: “keep our eyes on the horizon, our feet on the ground.” In his eulogy to his slain brother, Senator Edward Kennedy reminded us of the benefits of each approach from Robert, “there are those who saw things that were and asked why, my brother saw things that never were and asked why not” (1968).
That is one reason why America still survives today, the world’s “sole surviving superpower.” But not without fault. How have others dealt with our “faults”? Are they as horrible as slavery, “white privilege,” or Harvey Weinstein?
In four years, 1861 to 1865, 720,000 white soldiers died in a population of 32 million. They (both sides) preserved the Union, and slavery was abolished. Not too bad (for “privileged” men), but at quite a cost. Could today’s society go on after 2.5% of its people were killed in four years, say, 2015 to now? That would be around seven million! All male.
All that appears completely irrelevant to the enthusiasm that will erase any and all symbols of whatever happened before “modern times.” But not to President Abraham Lincoln. A month before his murder, he told the country to build a future from our shared history. Many consider Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to be the greatest speech in U.S. history (or the Gettysburg Address). “With malice toward none, with charity for all, …let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind the nation’s wounds.”
Would “Honest Abe” turn over in his grave today? “Malice toward none” or “all”? “Charity for all” or “none”? “Bind the nation’s wounds” or “open them up”? Today’s cultural environment has to be the lowest in American history, and momentum is on the losing side.
If our definition of national life is slavery and privilege, I would advise moving (there has to be a place without either).
Fast forward to the Twentieth Century, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt offered hope in a land where millions (mostly men) waited in lines for work, sold pencils and apples on street corners, or moved west in truck caravans. Farms and factories were closed, and it seemed that all hope was lost. FDR began with perhaps our second best Inaugural Address, proclaiming that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” The New Deal put millions to work; Social Security and dozens of other programs continued to offer solace until the crisis ended.
History’s greatest war established America the world over as the “land of the free,” but 75 million died fighting it. That’s about 35,000 each day for six years! But millions still flocked into this country (legally) to become a part. Billboards on roadsides proclaimed “world’s highest standard of living,” a “world order” of free peoples was created, enemies were helped, and fear was replaced with “faith, hope and charity.”
Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, became a historic movie, closing with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) observing that “I left in love, laughter and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit” (1939).
Perhaps that’s the issue: the spirit is broken. The “truth” is elusive; there is little love and absolutely no laughter. Comedy is serious, sport is politics, and, in today’s “crossroads,” you “can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”