The scope and intensity of our present culture wars may seem unprecedented, but there have also been discussions of how today’s turbulences compare with those of 1968. I understand the urge to do that, but the earlier time is often brought up in a nonsensical, competitive way—was 1968 worse than today? I, too, have indulged in such discussions, but what is the point of old folks telling younger ones that it was worse or better a half century ago? The words of Alexander Pope should come to mind: “Some old men by continually praising the time of their youth would almost persuade us that there were no fools in those days; but unluckily they are left themselves for examples.”
On the other hand, we should examine the past to learn from it. The adage that unless we learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it is, of course, false. History is not a cycle or circle. It is a continuum. Today was not created this morning; the world did not begin with the sunrise. The seeds of the present were planted in the past, and an understanding of history helps us understand today. Certainly, many of the present battle zones are just further representations of themes of our history.
One fierce area of contention today is over sexuality. The battle may seem narrow concentrating on the transgender and same sex relationships, but U.S. history is replete with attempts to control sexuality. We have had laws that made fornication, adultery, and sodomy criminal. We have had laws restricting birth control. We have had dress codes, which, of course, were also aimed at restricting sexuality. We have had battles over sex education. And, I am sure, that you can think of other examples that were aimed at sexual impulses and identities. It may be the land of the free, but it has also been the land where some have always wanted to impose their sexual views on others.
Issues about race today may seem to center on the often-undefined Critical Race Theory, but one needs only a little familiarity with our national background to know that issues of race were with us when the country was founded and have been a central focus throughout our history. Pick any historical era, and you will find that concern about race was a driver of what was happening. The Civil War was about race, but only because of what happened before. The Civil Rights Era was about race, but only because of what happened before. The effort to stem Critical Race Theory is about race, but only because of what happened before.
Race has also been a component of immigration battles throughout our history. Our first naturalization law, — in effect for over a century — allowed only whites to be naturalized. This led to tortured Supreme Court decisions as to whether a Syrian or a Sikh was white. Our laws at one time banned Chinese workers from the country (and states forbade Asians from owning property.) Our restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s came in response to waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and others from Southern Europe because these people were not seen as really white (leading to the oft-repeated, only half-joking question, Are Italians white?)
The concern over immigrants, however, is also part of another theme of our history, an American concern and fear about the foreign “other.” From the country’s inception, there were strong anti-Irish sentiments that intensified after England’s heartless responses to the potato famine brought waves of Irish immigrants. As Catholics, they could not be American, or so thought many, under the theory that they owed allegiance to a foreign potentate, the Pope.
After the Civil War, the fear of the foreign other shifted. With accelerating industrialization came increased labor strife. Instead of examining the complaints about corporate or monopolistic practices, the owners and government officials dismissed labor leaders as foreign-born or under the sway of the foreign, un-American ideology of anarchism. The country saw something similar as it countered opposition to World War I. Fear of “foreign” ideologies intensified after World War II. Reformers of all sorts were labeled as communists or socialists. These were “foreign” ideas, after all, and those advocating for changes they thought could produce a better society must be under the influence of Russia and, later, China. Adopting a more current term, these reformers needed to be “cancelled.”
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union came the realization that there was no meaningful foreign-inspired radical movement in the country. For the first time in well over a century we did not have a foreign “other” to fuel cries for patriotic Americanism. But then 9/11 came to ramp it up again, this time focusing on Moslems. The current immigration fears of Mexican rapists, immigrant welfare recipients, and Venezuelan communists have their historical roots in a long, unsavory American history.
We have more positive themes in our history and society, but sex, race, and the foreign “other” have been dominant ones that continue in all sorts of ways. Conservatives still respond to proposals for government actions with the cry of socialism because socialism, somehow, always smacks of the foreign. That, of course, is not new. Medicare and polio vaccinations were called socialism. The environmentalist Rachel Carson was said to be inspired by the communists. Martin Luther King was following Russian orders. And now Critical Race Theory is dismissed as stemming from Marxism, even though I am quite sure that Karl, Engels, Lenin, and even Trotsky never considered CRT. Instead of debating the merits of its message, we seek to undermine it by implying that it is foreign-inspired. While these forces within of our history persist, a theme of our early history seems to have been lost. Our founding era was a product of the Enlightenment. This period was not characterized by a rigid philosophical notion or ideology. Instead, it was a way of thinking that encouraged an examination of the world with skepticism but with confidence in reason, study, and observation. Such contemplation and study was to lead to a better understanding of history, nature, and society with the core belief that things could be improved. This should be the primary goal of education, but such Enlightenment thinking seems to have abandoned us.