Lessons from the Past
History tells us that things get better in time only if we make it so.
I spent a major part of 2017 immersed in a different time. I was working on a biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, the spiritual teacher best known for his iconic memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi. Because he lived from 1893 to 1952 and spent almost all of his last three decades in America, exploring his life and the social forces affecting him was a relief from the madness of our daily news. It was also illuminating.
For one thing, thanks to my time travels I realized that those who say our sociopolitical climate is the worst it's ever been are in most cases incorrect. Climate change is an unprecedented crisis, as is the character of our current president. But most areas of concern are actually better now than they were in the past.
Income inequality and middle-class stagnation are painful and debilitating. But the Great Depression inflicted an entirely different dimension of misery on a far greater portion of the population. We’ve had non-stop wars for nearly two decades now, and the sorrowful legacy of Vietnam lingers. But few families escaped grievous personal loss in the two World Wars. Political polarization is infuriating, but it seems tame compared to the urgency and vitriol over President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and the fights over whether America should enter the war in Europe. We all wish no one anywhere was impoverished, but worldwide far fewer live in extreme poverty now than ever before. We wish everyone could read and write, but there is far less illiteracy than there was a generation ago, much less a century ago.
Women's rights? Yogananda landed in America during the 1920 presidential election campaign. It was the first time women were allowed to vote. Few occupations outside of secretary, nurse, and waitress were readily accessible to women then. The usual suspects—patriarchy, male egos, stereotyping—were to blame, of course, but so was sheer necessity. Getting food on the table and caring for children was more than a full-time job before refrigerators, packaged food, irons, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and the like became affordable to the masses. Baking a week’s worth of bread for the family took up a full day all by itself.
Racism? In the first half of last century, the assumption of white supremacy was commonplace, and its virulent forms exploded frequently. Lynching was not that rare, beatings and rapes even less so. In the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had about four million members, and on two occasions nearly 50,000 assembled in robes and hoods to march in the nation’s capital. Yogananda and other Indian spiritual teachers were embraced by the open-minded but regarded as heathens and treated abysmally by others, despite their education, erudition, impeccable manners, and passports issued by the British Empire. The open-minded embraced them, but others denounced, tormented, or threatened them. We think of Winston Churchill as a colossal hero of World War II, but he was also a colossal racist who called Indians “a beastly people with a beastly religion” and viciously trashed Mahatma Gandhi.
The hot-button issue of immigration was a lot hotter in the past too. Groups now installed in the category of “white”—East European Jews, Irish and Italian Catholics—were reviled, debased, feared, and discriminated against by large segments of the population, and Asian—now “model minorities”—were legally barred from becoming citizens.
But there is another lesson to be drawn from looking back: Things that are better now are better because human beings made them so.
Societies take backward steps even as they march forward, and sometimes those reversals can cause massive suffering and institutional destruction on a scale that is hard to repair. We’re in such a phase now. Every day, norms of civility, cooperation, and honesty are violated. Political and ethnic tribalism gets more and more deeply entrenched. Authoritarian impulses are to an alarming degree tolerated and even encouraged. Reactionary backlash to social change, normally confined to the fringes, is now driven by people with authority and legally sanctioned power.
As Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But I’m sure he would agree that brave individuals with strong a moral compass have to do the bending. No social progress is made without struggle. Women voted in 1920 only after a decades-long crusade against men who fought tooth and nail to keep them “in their place.” The safety net created by New Deal legislation (Social Security, etc.) and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) has survived, so far, only because ordinary citizens and progressive politicians fended off determined efforts to destroy them. Immigration laws loosened up because inclusivists outfought and outsmarted xenophobes. LGBT rights? Not that long ago, gay bars were routinely raided and their customers charged with crimes, even in New York. They and their allies stood up, and now homophobes are reduced to suing over the right to not bake wedding cakes.
Right now, Congress is using the so-called Dreamers—grown, well-assimilated immigrants who were brought here as children—as bargaining chips. But over 80% of the population is in favor of giving them a path to permanent residency or citizenship. That remarkable shift in public opinion did not come about by virtue of some cosmic law, like a lunar eclipse. As described by Laura Wides-Munoz in this lucid Los Angeles Times essay, it happened because activists planned, organized, and persevered. “They staged teach-ins,” writes Wides-Munoz, “then sit-ins, then hunger strikes, upping the ante to stay in the spotlight.” They got the attention of journalists, and when that waned they turned to social media. Now even conservative Republicans voice support for Dreamers.
So, by most measures things are better. But our problems will only get worse if we assume that progress is inevitable. History needs us to act, just as evolution needs us to reproduce. Spiritual practitioners often want to disconnect from society’s woes to preserve their spiritual integrity. It’s an understandable impulse, but there may be more integrity in engagement. I was surprised and inspired to discover that Yogananda, whose mission was to introduce yogic ideas and practices to the West, did not hesitate to speak out on front-page issues. He risked deportation by praising Gandhi; he created an African-American center in Washington, D.C. when black people were barred from his public lectures; he denounced the greed and exploitation that led to the Great Depression, and spoke out against bigotry of all sorts.
There are no formulas for what must be done; we can each do only what we can. But history tells us that things get better in time only if we make it so.