friend: the pandemic must be over, because the mass shootings have begun. what a fucked up country.
me: it’s hard to be optimistic right now. but let me ask you this: are people generally better or worse off than 100 years ago?
friend: well…he says reluctantly and without caps...better. but is that the right comparison?
That’s an exchange I had this morning with a friend. We’ve all gotten a little covid-curmudgeonly, but it's a fair question: are we better off when considered over the span of a century, and is that the right standard?
Most of us want to see progress continue in something like a straight line. That’s what I thought was happening when my friend and I were young. WW II was behind us, Europe was rebuilding; we shucked off Viet Nam and Jim Crow.
Now I see that our society’s progress is like that of the stock market. The trend may be up, but when you’re in the middle of a painful setback, it can feel like the worst of times.
Jim Crow is back, wearing a suit this time. He’s just as dangerous…or is he? The contempt for blacks in the South of my youth wasn’t spoken in code words, it was right out there in plain language. If you were black, you bowed your head and stepped off the sidewalk when a white man passed.
We didn’t have mass shootings back then, but the violent streak that underlies them was certainly there. Bar fights and the occasional lynching were the outlets.
I just read The Cold Millions, a novel by Jess Walter that paints a frightening picture of labor oppression and police brutality in Spokane a hundred years ago. You wouldn’t want to live through that. Is it worse today on the South Side of Chicago? Maybe, maybe not.
We can’t get away with casual cruelty as easily now as then. There may be just as much of it, but it is called out more often. Racist attacks and sexual abuse, so common a mere generation ago, are less tolerated. Reckonings come more often, and more swiftly.
Maybe the reason things seem so bad sometimes is that we are learning to expect better. We won’t tolerate being kicked around as easily as we have in the past. We have voices. We demand to be heard.
This creates quite a lot of noise, but that’s what it takes to make change. Nothing is gained that is not demanded.
It’s a shame that we never seem to reach our goal of a more just and equal society. We may never. But little by little we are making better communities for ourselves by demanding them.
It’s exhausting to keep it up, but it must be done.