History moves in mysterious ways.
This none-too-original thought occurred after a supposedly conservative-dominated Supreme Court upheld Obamacare and gay marriage, much to my satisfaction.
As a Baby Boomer trying to name our place in history after following the Greatest Generation of the Depression and World War II, I’m struck less by the technological progress of my lifetime (space travel, computers, wireless) and more by the social progress. Ideas of equality and peace that started in the 1960s are still playing out in the 21st Century.
In little more than a week we’ve had reexamination of Confederate heritage because of its ugly white supremacist side, confirmation of a major expansion government in health care, and a huge step toward equal rights for the lesbian and gay community. Being on the liberal-progressive side, I approve, but I also marvel.
I grew up in a white working class culture of the 1950s and 1960s when casual racism and sexism among relatives and construction workers was taken for granted. You could hear some of the same jokes on national TV: Sinatra’s Rat Pack made unthinking mockery of Sammy Davis Jr. What seems mean-spirited now was ‘all-in-good-fun’ then.
Those attitudes haven’t gone away. Exhibit A is Donald Trump’s recent insults to Mexicans, and the nuttier comments coming off the Republican field. The Internet has allowed anonymous expression of the crudest and cruelest kinds of prejudice, keeping hate alive.
But the Supreme Court gay marriage decision didn’t lead public opinion, it followed it. A majority of Americans say the issue as one of equality and fairness, not sex or lifestyle. This is the result of decades of hard work by the gay community, but as a straight white guy, I think the real shift started with AIDS.
What began as a “gay plague” initially stigmatized homosexuals, but it also forced them to come out and made them visible, human, and tragically sympathetic. They became not a category, but individuals, and once their humanity was unavoidable, prejudice began to break down. Rock Hudson was a shock, but an equalizer.
Adding to the shift was the rise in divorce among straights that made defense of traditional marriage somewhat hypocritical. Just how sacred was it?
Then there was the decline of religious authority from decades of scandals embroiling fundamentalist mega-churches and the pedophile discoveries in the Catholic Church. Suddenly the people throwing rocks were all in glass houses, and the number of Americans turning away from traditional religion rose sharply, according to polls.
As far back as the 1950s, black demonstrations and riots forced the rest of us to ask what ‘they’ were so angry about, and the increasing visibility of African-Americans in arts and entertainment in the 1960s and 1970s again made them individual people to us white folk – to the point most of America was comfortable with the son of a black-white marriage becoming President.
Blacks are still frustrated, and rightly so – white supremacists have reportedly killed more Americans than Islamic terrorists have since 9-11 – but the racial attitudes of my children and grandchildren are light years from what I grew up with. Police shootings that once might have been endured in black and Hispanic neighborhoods are now considered indefensible.
Women have made courageous, tenacious strides, and I watched them do it in the news business. The ‘parody’ of the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy had plenty of documentary truth.
Feminists shattered established gender roles, and in doing so opened all kinds of life possibilities for both women and men. That’s been a huge revolution, fueled by the pill, laborsaving home appliances, and changes in childcare that made it possible to work outside the home.
Now a church shooting by a loser-nut in South Carolina is forcing a critical reassessment of when pride in Southern heritage crosses into racism and hate. In trying to start a race war, Dylann Roof may have done more to get rid of the Confederate battle flag than a decade of polite complaints.
Here in Washington State, there were decades of protest and struggle for tribal fishing and sovereign rights, which I wrote about. But what really began to change our Native American sense of possibility was the educational and economic opportunities provided by income from tribal casinos. Young Indians have a chance.
There will still be Confederate flags, racism, reflexive gun buying, domestic terrorism, economic inequality, painful words, and hurtful jokes. Our attitudes must continue to evolve, and there will always be outliers like Roof who must be identified, confronted, and helped, before they go do something insane.
Our next social frontier might be that the denial of climate change and resistance to commonsense energy reforms is crumbling under the weight of overwhelming scientific evidence. We still have a ways to go on that one.
Meanwhile, some people will always believe the earth is flat. All progress is a slog up a sand dune, a couple steps forward and a slide back.
But the United States is blessed on this planet by having an arrow of progress, a sense that we are not trapped in our past but keep improving on it. I hope this is what the boomer generation might be remembered for.
And that the Millennials, who now outnumber us, slog higher than we did.