For the first 70 years of my life, starting in the immediate aftermath of World War II, I really did believe that the world was progressing towards a common goal, one of peace and prosperity for all. Not just for white people with familiar names who spoke English (or in Canada English or French, or in other countries their main national language), but everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, visible or invisible disabilities, education level, or socioeconomic status. How could I have been so blind to the tribalism and basic self-interest of people for so long? It appears that people much more savvy than I, in particular those who crave power and money, have recognized this trait in populations and have played to this distrust of “others” to sorry advantage. And so, after 70+ years of the world kind of, sort of, creeping towards more progressive, egalitarian societies, we find ourselves taking ominous steps in the opposite direction. The walls are coming up; compassion and mutual respect are retreating.
I realize that I live in a bubble. And I realize that not everyone has been overjoyed with some steps forward in human rights and just plain decency that have been taken since I’ve been a kid. However, there have been some steps forward that I really don’t think will be undone. I can remember when I was young hearing grown-ups whispering about someone’s older brother or sister having to leave town because someone who wasn’t married was going to have a baby. Can you imagine feeling such pressure from society and your church to have to disown your own child and not see a grandchild because of that kind of norm? The cruelty in imposing that kind of unwarranted shame on ordinary people is hard for me to fathom. That wasn’t very long ago. These days I know people who are happily married to their same-sex partner and living supported, fulfilled lives, just like everyone else is able to do. I realize that some people aren’t very pleased about that, which always astounds me because it has absolutely zero impact on their lives, but there you go. We all know how recent this change has been and the degree to which LGBTQ folks have been persecuted in the past, and continue to be in many parts of the world, simply for being who they are. At least there have been some positive changes made in some jurisdictions; we can live in hope that this voice of reason, compassion and social justice will continue.
Let’s see, what’s happened that caused me to lose my innocence after 70 years of post-WWII living? Hmm, well, the world’s most powerful country elected someone whose modus operandi is to bully, insult, and threaten almost everyone, with few or no facts at the ready. Don’t expect leadership in compassion and inclusiveness from that corner of the universe for a while. And, at about the same time the UK voted to leave the EU – surely, one of the most courageous social and economic experiments the world has seen, bringing together countries with different languages and currencies which had fought each other for centuries. The Leave voters apparently want to rid their country of their EU immigrants and feel more like masters in their own house. This Brexit decision seems to have been pretty poorly thought through, especially as we watch the UK government trying to navigate uncharted “divorce” waters, but that was the will of the majority. (I’m not sure who is going to take up all the restaurant and hotel jobs in London if the eastern Europeans leave, but that’s somebody else’s problem.) Two nations with great pasts, both of which have played constructive leadership roles in making the world a better place in former times, now having decided that they’d rather retreat into their own domains. The repercussions have exposed heartbreaking warts that undoubtedly had been there all the time, but are now impossible to ignore, with overt racism being the most heartbreaking of all.
I doubt that I am alone in struggling to come to grips with these heartbreaking steps backwards. But it turns out that my worldview – the naïve one in which everyone really wants to live together in a caring, respectful society and that we’ve slowly been working our way towards that since WWII – is just one interpretation of history. And maybe a pipe-dream interpretation at that. While describing my deep consternation to two friends, both of whom happen to be historians, they replied at once, “Oh, you’re a Whig historian”. Now, I’ve been called a lot of things, but this time I didn’t even know what it meant! Whig history, as explained in Wikipedia, puts its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of humankind, towards liberty and enlightenment. It also turns out that among people who know this much about history – or interpretation of history, to be more precise – the term Whig history can be used pejoratively, as in, you must be kidding, you can’t really believe that! I’m not sure if that means that a less naïve interpretation of history shows that we’re doomed to be more often ruled by corrupt, nasty autocrats, with relatively short periods of enlightened and compassionate rule in between. I sure hope not. I guess it’s up to our democracies, and therefore every voter, to safeguard against this. This simply cannot be inevitable. It can’t be. Democracies are a relatively new phenomenon; let’s use them to make sure that compassion returns as the underlying foundation of how the world interacts, both within and between borders. Please.
Meanwhile, I want my innocence back again!