History Repeating

The times may change, but human dispositions remain stubbornly static

by Will O’Bryan
Published on November 18, 2010, 3:12am | Comments

There's a project I'm working on that is fascinating me. It involves scanning loads of old photos. One, in particular, is captivating. My late Uncle Jack is standing on the deck of the SS America. It's 1947 and the family is leaving the U.S., moving to Switzerland. There's my dark-haired Aunt Betsy, looking like a young Patricia Neal, and my adolescent mother sporting the smart suit that I know would soon fall prey to her seasickness.

And while at first remarkable, it really isn't. Change the trappings a little bit and you have a contemporary family in an airport terminal rather than on a transatlantic liner. It may look somewhat romantic in that ''golden age of something or other'' way, but the people in that 63-year-old photo are no different than their 2010 counterparts. They may stand in different contexts, but the differences are just window dressing.

What's most interesting is that a photo like this one compels a viewer to imagine himself or herself in a different historic context. For example, my mother tells me that the local Baltimore pool she would visit in the summer had a sign reading ''gentiles only.'' Her family – despite her parents having sponsored an immigrant Jewish couple fleeing the Third Reich – still used the pool. In the context of late-1930s Baltimore, apparently this sign was not so out of place. So I'm left to wonder if I'd have been the sort in 1939 to have shrugged my shoulders at that bit of discrimination, opposed it, or sanctioned it. What would I have thought of racial segregation in the South? In 1939, being gay means I probably would've joined the priesthood ­– assuming I still came from a Catholic family. I hope I would still be progressive. I think about that plenty.

I'm hoping that others think about it, too. Consider that Martin Luther King Jr. is generally revered today. We honor him with a federal holiday. But what happened to all those people who vilified him when he was alive? Plenty are still here. Some have evolved. Others who would vilify him, though, weren't even born till after King was assassinated. Simply, that corner of society, that mass that found its enthusiasm in hate, suspicion and fear, never went away; it just found new targets. Various individuals left the mass by either death or enlightenment, and others entered to take their places. You can find them today arguing against LGBT equality or considering every Muslim to be plotting to destroy America. Change the backdrop and securing the country from Islam is little different than the 1950s ''Red Scare.''

Some argue that past laws against miscegenation have nothing in common with today's laws against gay marriage equality. Sure, the situations are not identical. But they're close enough to be practically the same. If you're against marriage equality today, I suspect you would've been equally opposed to interracial marriage in the 1960s. The situational differences are esoteric. A hundred years hence, do you think the class of 2110 will be able to tell the difference?

There are laws that more or less mandate we all have our roles to play as we move from birth to death. Newton explained to us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Political, societal battles follow that rule. Occasionally, however, that rule is broken and some incremental progress is made.

To Sen. McCain, as he panders to the DADT crowd, or to the voters who would deny LGBT citizens their rights – and to many, many others – I grant that you, like I, have roles to play. And I hope that you sometimes step back to recognize what role you've accepted from those who have played it before you, and that you like what you see.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace