This morning on Twitter Michael Brown posted the following image with this description: “This is something we can all agree on”:
Except I couldn’t agree on it. To be sure, I do agree with the importance of repentance. But I don’t agree with the Trumpian sentiment about making America great again. And this is because, for all its faults, America (like my country of Canada) is right now far more equitable and just than it ever was before.
So I asked Michael Brown: “Serious question: when was America better than it is now? It is presently better for women, handicapped, minorities, no?”
He replied: “Although there have been improvements for blacks & others in the last 50 years, in many other ways, we’re in steep decline.”
I don’t know about “steep decline”, but I do agree we are moving backwards in some cases. Nonetheless, if we want a balanced assessment of societal progress, we need to say something more about the improvements for those “blacks & others”.
Let’s begin with one “other”, the indigenous community.
Take a look at this ad posted last year on Kijiji in Prince Albert, Canada. (Within Canada, Kijiji is the equivalent of Craigslist):
Note how the ad specifies “No natives please.” Forty years ago that stipulation would not have raised an eyebrow. But today it is the cause for (nearly) universal condemnation, so much so that this lowly ad even made the national news in Canada. So while life for indigenous people in North America is hardly a picnic today, I think it is safe to say that for most the situation is far better than it was in the past.
The very fact that the propriety of calling a sports team the “Redskins” is now a matter of ethical debate is indicative of societal progress concerning the representation of minority groups.
Next, let’s consider another other: the physically handicapped and “unattractive”. As I pointed out to Brown in a tweet, up until the 1970s several jurisdictions in North America had ugly laws which allowed businesses to refuse service to people who were considered physically unattractive. Thus, for example, a man with burn scarring on his face could be refused service at Denny’s simply because other patrons didn’t want him around. How “great” is that?
I grew up in southern British Columbia a couple hours drive from the town of Greenwood. During WW2 Greenwood was the site of a Japanese internment camp: more than one thousand Japanese Canadians were interned at this camp while having their life savings seized by the government, simply because of their Japanese ethnic ancestry.
The United States followed a similar policy concerning Japanese citizens and residents on the Pacific Coast: ultimately, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were detained in camps during WW2.
The opposite sex others
What about the lot of women in the past? As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Take a look at this 1970 ad for “Mr. Leggs” slacks:
This grotesque ad hearkens back to an age in which you could proudly boast of grabbing women by the “pussy”. Thank God that retrograde world of sexism and misogyny is a thing of the past. That said, it is most distressing to see it rearing its ugly head in this current election cycle. (One woman at a Trump rally this week insisted that the women who claimed the Groper-in-chief assaulted them needed to “grow a pair.” She did not specify which pair they needed to grow, but one thing is clear: such cavalier defenses of sexual assault are inversely related to societal greatness.)
Most people have a far better sense of the extraordinary improvements in civil rights over the last fifty years. Granted, there is still far to go, but few can doubt how far we’ve come. A few months ago I read John Howard Griffin’s classic book Black Like Me. In the book Griffin (a Caucasian writer) describes darkening the pigment in his skin and shaving his head and then travelling across the Deep South. His first-person accounts of experiencing bald racism and seething hatred still provides a deeply disturbing first-hand account from an outsider of what life was like for millions of disenfranchised African Americans.
Far from perfect, but still better than before
Neither America nor Canada is perfect. And as Brown would rightly observe, in some significant respects both of these western nations are in decline. That said, it seems to me that by most objective measures, including the treatment of various “others”, both America and Canada are on a slow but steady journey toward improvement toward the Good Society. Indeed, I’m willing to venture that overall we’re now better than we ever were.
So make America “great” again? No thanks, it’s pretty great as it is. But let’s keep working to make it better.