Those of us who have grown up in the industrialized Western world have been fed a steady diet of faith in progress, dating back to the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. We were told that between the ongoing evolution and maturation of the human species, especially the freeing of our minds from the shackles of superstition and faith and replacing it with reason, and the astounding accomplishments and discoveries of science and technology, life will continue to improve. There may be setbacks, and still, on the whole, we are on a path towards a bright future.
I’ve always been suspicious of this tale, and only more so over time. It’s not so much that I don’t see aspects of life that I trust have improved since hundreds or even dozens of years ago. It’s that I also see aspects of life that have gotten worse, some alarmingly so, within that same time period. This is true both on the material plane and even more so on the social plane. Compared to our pre-industrial ancestors, we have much more convenience, and less time, overall, to enjoy it. We have far fewer deaths from infectious diseases, and far more from degenerative ones. We have more choice, and less community.
I was shocked, for example, when I first learned that there was a higher percentage of women faculty in universities in the 1910s and 1920s than in the 1970s! Even more so, when I learned that shortly after the end of the Civil War, for a short period of time, Black people were even elected to Congress – and then the Jim Crow system was installed which took decades to challenge and at least partially dismantle.
It is within this context that I see the Supreme Court decisions of last week. Much as I am celebrating the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act – which now allows same sex couples to have the same access to married privileges provided they live in the right states – my joy is truly overshadowed by the sense of defeat and mourning of the striking out of the core element of the Voting Rights Act, the iconic accomplishment of the Civil Rights movement in 1965. Are we moving forwards or backwards or both? I can only quote Tom Atlee, who coined a phrase that has stayed with me for years: “Things keep getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster all the time.”
Why my grief ultimately is the more pronounced is that I have some modicum of knowledge about the immensity of what it took to create the conditions for the U.S. Congress and President to accept the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The amount of mobilization, the amount of love and courage, the amount of strategy and leadership, and the immense suffering of so many to achieve these goals are inconceivable to me at this time. All the more grief because here we are, once again being in a position where, if we want to protect the rights of some people to have access to the meager participation in decision making that electoral politics offers, we will need that same kind of genius and determination, because the legal recourse is no longer there. The children in this image from 1965 saying “Let our parents vote” are now in their 60s and have been able to vote all their adult lives, so long as they didn’t run foul of the New Jim Crow, but now may have to fight the fight over again for themselves and their own offspring. I sure hope this time around there will be more white people working with them than back then, willing to take risks to transform the system that still bars so many people from full access to basic civil and human rights.
As to why this happened in the way that it did, I can only refer you to an analysis from Michael Lerner. I don’t have a word to add or take from this piece. It’s called Why “Voting Rights, NO, Gay Marriage, YES” from the Supreme Court? I urge you to read it. I urge all of us to never give up.