Asheville Daily Planet, March 2019
What will Americans yet unborn think of today’s Americans? These distant generations will judge us, you know, just as surely as we judge those who lived before us.
In a New Yorker magazine article on Frederick Douglass, the writer includes two sentences that stop your eyes and engage your mind: “We need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors – not as an act of charity to them but as an act of charity to ourselves. Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were. We should be kind to them, as we ask the future to be kind to us.”
Do unto those in the past as we would have those in the future do unto us. We can’t help scowling at slavery. So are we shocked that our descendants might scowl at us?
Our Founding Fathers owned slaves. John Locke, the guiding philosopher of American liberties, was a major investor in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. And yes, my Irish immigrant ancestors in South Georgia, who had very little, nevertheless owned a few slaves. Free blacks owned slaves. Priests owned slaves.
Some people today will find it hard to understand all this. I don’t. Growing up in the segregated South, I never once questioned Jim Crow. I never asked why our yard man took his lunch at the kitchen counter and not at the kitchen table. When I told somebody that Hank Aaron was making $100,000, he said, “I’d call him Boy.”
But in defense, our indifference reached an end. We questioned our customs. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ended school segregation in 1954, and our Congress ended Jim Crow ten years later. Now here we are, living in a middle ground between past and future.
The past is plain to see. The present – what we’ll be judged on – is not. After all, we inherited our forefathers’ “unconscious assumptions.” I’m a political critic, but as I sit here now, the future is a fog. What will those people many years hence say about the values of my time? Are we harboring a horror like slavery?
I think they will know of us. I think they will celebrate the changes we’ve made in American culture for the better. We’ve learned about good parenting. Girls can aspire to any career they choose. It’s not unusual when minorities succeed in every field of endeavor. We don’t litter. We stop friends from driving drunk. We don’t tolerate sexual harassment. So all the more, they will wonder how the heck the American people allowed what their history will call the Great Plutocracy – that era of greed disguised as the “American Dream,” that almost…almost…bled out America’s greatness.
Their history books will tell of 18th century slavery and robber barons and then use similar condemnations of the runaway power taken by the rich and corporations in the 21st century. They will liken us to Rome near its fall, when upper classes built new villas and ridiculed patriotism. A quote from our current president will be used in lessons on fairness and equity – his comment to his wealthy friends at Mar-a-Lago after the 2017 tax overhaul: “You all just got a lot richer.” And amazingly, they’ll say, the people shrugged.
A poem will survive into that future time, called…“2020”:
“Our basics of democracy were hollowed out by greed.
The richest few and business were hidden hands of power. They turned the Founders’ Congress into slavish, grubbing whores. Their agents viled our sacred halls with stinking flows of cash. With bedrock crumbling under them, the voters did more harm. They chose as president a man well known for nothing good. Sweet Liberty stood weeping, but her torch still burned on high. And just in time her children cast the vote that saved our land. Hist’ry knows their choice that year as Precious Guardian!”