By John B. Hagney
“History gives us an understanding of ourselves and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.”
- Robert Penn Warren
To know history is to know that we are not alone. There were others before us whose path parallels our own and who remain visible if we look, who still speak if we listen.
New Year’s Day 1942: Hitler subjugated Europe and western Russia, the Great Depression lingered, and the Japanese ravaged Pearl Harbor. In modern times these were a confluence of unprecedented crises.
My grandmother lost her husband in the Depression She worked in one of the few functioning Chicago factories 10-12 hours a day, six days a week to raise her children on potatoes and a few vegetables. She was relatively blessed. A roof over her head, no “Grapes of Wrath” diaspora. Today one-third of us are on the precipice of a similar existence.
While our present is not their past, we should be heartened that our Depression-burdened kin confronted similar daunting challenges and prevailed. The legacy of 1942 is our shared story, a parable and inspiration for the present.
There are differences. During the Depression there was a greater sense of shared sacrifice for the common good. The pain of the Depression was almost universal. Present privations affect many, others relatively untouched even prospering with the ongoing disconnect between Main Street and Wall Street. Today many Americans have become inured to material comforts unimaginable in pre-World War II America. In that latter time, economic aspirations were more modest. Today such expectations are inflated by ubiquitous, intrusive marketing inducing us to consume beyond our means.
As in 1942, today there is raucous, ferocious polarization, a house precariously divided unto itself. Today’s sowers of discord, charlatans who profit by subverting truth, have caused a national schism not seen since the Civil War, a wound that still festers uncivilly in our streets, inflamed by malignant racism.
These proselytizers of fear know that human reason is fragile. Lincoln understood that the irrational haunts our nature and thus democracies can perish. After all, history is a story of how our common unchanging nature can incline us to great good and beautiful, creative acts that transcend our own mortality or incite us to atrocious deeds of evil and destruction that kill. Alas, we possess individual free will, yet too often in our histories we have acquiesced to the madness of the mob and the delusions of the demagogue.
Like Lincoln, the president of 1942 was a unifying figure even as he faced intense animosity. Throughout the national tempest, Roosevelt’s paralytic illness informed his empathy for Americans’ suffering. His disability did not deter him from tirelessly leading the nation out of the storm.
A caution: Be wary of nostalgic ahistorical hindsight, an escape from the present longing for a past that never existed and imbuing our predecessors with heroic qualities and overlooking their human flaws. History is not a fairy tale and even the “greatest generation” were not gods, at their best just a little lower than angels, not different from ourselves.
Political winds have shifted. For many voters the incoming administration has a fraudulent mandate. Like FDR who was vilified by Republicans, if the new president can vanquish our demons - the virus, economic crisis, virulent partisan acrimony - perhaps some of his adversaries’ww swords can be tempered into ploughshares.
A New Year’s resolution to bridge this great divide: We get to know one person who appears different from ourselves. Then perhaps, gradually, the virus of our uncompromising tribal certitudes, cause of our present schism, will be moderated and a healthy body politic restored. To paraphrase my grandmother, others are closed books the plot of which, if we choose to read, mirror our common dreams and disappointments. This may take a generation, which is why we should act on this resolution throughout our lives and thus inculcate this virtue in our children.
To some my cautionary optimism may sound like a sermonizing platitude, a quaint homily archaic in these cynical times. While certainly words alone change little, recall that for many despairing 1942 Americans, Roosevelt’s’s weekly Fireside Chats reassured and inspired a generation to persist and overcome adversities. (To listen to FDR’s still-resonant 1936 Fireside Chat on farmers and laborers, access this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRTbmGnI7pY)
We are not alone. Our Depression and war-assailed ancestors walk with us as we will walk with our descendants, the circle unbroken. Remember what they sacrificed, persevere in their memory, be grateful for what we have rather than lament what we lack and continue to audaciously hope.
John B. Hagney taught history for 45 years at Lewis & Clark High School.
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