Is everything going off the rails? Are these the worst of times?
Not so fast.
History is not only our good guide but a comfort in those moments – that is, basically every day – in which grim hysteria seems to rule, abetted by our culture’s willful disregard of the past.
I liked Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, a deeply flawed and complicated man who nonetheless as president accomplished one huge thing nearly two centuries ago. He held the country together against strong forces trying to pull it apart.
Meacham was in town the other day (he has a new book to sell), courtesy of the Truman Library Institute. I went, looking for comfort and hope.
Two comments of his stand out.
First, our nation’s most generous interpretation of the Jeffersonian ideal of equality has always led to our greatest moments.
“It’s a fact,” he said.
Second, the American Revolution nearly two and a half centuries ago proposes the idea that reason can stand alongside tradition, superstition, and hereditary power in the way a nation orders its own affairs. Science and common sense – the basis of progress – at least have a voice.
I’ll take a bit of the pessimist’s view on that one because it seems to me that the role of reason and rationality in our culture has been up for grabs for some time. As is said, the thing about science is that it’s still true even if you don’t believe it. Fair enough, but many dismiss it anyway.
Again, Meacham counsels the longer view. Think things are bad? Think this president – or another one – is just the worst ever?
Woodrow Wilson conducted warrantless raids a century ago and shut down hundreds of publications across the country. Look up the Palmer raids if you’ve forgotten that sad chapter. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, meaning people could be detained with little or no justification approved by a court. FDR interned American citizens based on their race.
“Has it ever been so bad? Yeah, it has,” Meacham said.
His point is not to get too hung up on today’s headlines or tweets.
“History lasts a long time,” he said.
There’s a lot of talk right now about the tumultuous events of 1968. We are passing through 50th anniversaries of one brutal event after another – war, assassinations, riots and unrest, racial division.
Meacham touched on that, too. His take is that populism before then had been mostly about economic issues (Jackson comes to mind again), but in that time shifted to what we now call the culture wars, which tear at the nation’s fabric to this day.
There’s a flip side, too. Meacham points out that era of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson led to “unimagined material wealth available to an unimaginable number of people.” The GI Bill transformed a couple of generations. In the mid-’60s – at the country’s peak of prosperity and education – the country addressed both poverty and the rights of the marginalized.
That’s no coincidence. Again, the Jeffersonian ideal. Again, better days.
That said, do many of us want to re-live the ’60s? I doubt it. There is only one direction – forward.
So we hold on to hope, right?
“Well,” Meacham said, “there’s really no other choice.”
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @FoxEJC.