Thursday, August 17, 2017

Then and Now

I am not a student of American history. I took the classes that I needed to in school, and here and there I've read some nonfiction about this or that period, but I don't seriously study the history of the United States. There are only so many hours in the day, and they're often occupied by other things - like writing this blog, for instance. And so my understanding of things tends to be shallow, the sorts of things that either everyone knows, or are easily picked up by paying attention to everyday sources.

A few years back, I was in an online debate with a man who claimed that the Presidency of Barack Obama marked the end of the American commitment to the values of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Falling back on my limited grasp of American history, I offered up the examples of the attempted extermination of the American Indian, the internment of the Japanese and the Chinese Exclusion Act as historical examples of American failures to live up to those ideals. And I stressed that these were things that happened in the past, and that in moving past them, the United States showed that as time went on, it grew more committed to those ideals, and that nothing in the policies of President Obama could be seen as serious moves back to that past.

And this is my standard pattern with such historical events. I tend to leave out the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and the like. Mainly because I think that pretty much everyone already knows about them. But also because I don't want to focus on the negative aspects of "my own" history. I see no reason to constantly harp on what happened to "us," as it were. There was enough of that when I was growing up, and a side effect of it was a lack of empathy towards others and a certain need to always win at Misery Poker. And here's the thing about Misery Poker - you have to be miserable to win. And somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I didn't want to always be miserable, just so I collect whatever dubious prizes that Misery Poker offered.

The other day, an acquaintance of mine was holding forth about how terrible it was that someone dared say that the treatment of the Irish in days past (the 1840s being perhaps a good example) was worse than the treatment of Black people today. My acquaintance, and a number of their online friends, didn't even bother with laying out the hands of Misery Poker, but rather decried how anyone could say that anyone but the Black community would win. But being an indifferent student of American history, it seems to me that perhaps, given the choice to be Black today or Irish in 1845, I'd choose to be Black today. (I am, after all, rather enamored of automobiles, air conditioning and the Internet.)

Because here's the thing: The fact that it may have been worse to be nominally White at some distant point in the past does not mean that it is perfect to be Black today. And the commenter hadn't made the point that being Irish in the past was worse than to be Black at that same time - merely that the Black population of now is better off than the Irish population of then. And in so doing was pointing out the very thing that I had done some years back - noting the growing commitment of the United States to its ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Now, to be sure, I'm not a naïf. I understand, given the context of current events that the commenter likely meant to minimize the situation of today's Black Americans in the service of painting us as undeserving of the accommodations granted to us. But be that as it may, it still may be true that the modern United States treats its marginalized better than the pre-Civil War United States treated those much closer to the mainstream, but still unfortunate enough to not be within it. A truth put to an unjust end is still true, and should be judged on its merits, not those of the speaker.

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