By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
All the bad news and societal changes lately probably have a lot of people yearning for the good old days. When exactly were those?
If someone invented a time machine to transport you and me to other eras, imagine what we would see.
Let’s start our trip in the 1700s, as the nation was being founded on democratic ideals. Traveling to that time period, we might land in the middle of a slave auction where people were being sold as property. Picture the cries of sorrow we would witness as husbands and wives were separated and as children were yanked forever from their families. Around us, the buyers would not be troubled enough by the scene to stop what they were doing. Meanwhile, society continued to compromise its values to allow it to continue.
Maybe the time machine might then take us to 1838-39, when the Cherokees were forced by the government to march west from their native land across the Mississippi River, trudging through Arkansas along the way. Of the 15,000 who started the Trail of Tears, 4,000 died.
A couple of decades later came the Civil War, in which 620,000 men died, or about 2 percent of the population or the equivalent of 6 million today. At Gettysburg, 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in one battle. The wholesale indifference to human life would be striking. We would watch troops line up across an open field from each other and then just start shooting, until someone gave the order to advance. According to the Civil War Trust, almost as many troops on both sides died while prisoners of their once and future countrymen as the number of Americans killed in the entire Vietnam War.
Our time machine might then take us to the Industrial Revolution, where in the latter 1800s and first part of the 1900s, children instead of going to school toiled unceasingly in terrible factories that employed them because they worked cheap and were easier than adults to control.
Along the way, the time machine might stop in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919. An organizational meeting of a farmers’ union led to a race-based shootout and then days of bloodshed. Whites descended on Elaine, along with troops sent by the governor. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, “Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds; five white people lost their lives.”
From there, the time machine might take us to the 1950s – seen by many as an idyllic era. But for many Americans, it wasn’t exactly Mayberry. Society was set up on a separate but unequal foundation, and African-Americans, including World War II veterans, were forced to live second-class lifestyles. Suddenly transported to that environment, you and I would be shocked at the injustices and inequalities suffered by people who, in many cases, are still alive today.
Would you really want to go back to that? Would you really want to go back to any of those earlier eras?
The point is not that things have always been terrible. It’s that every era has had its troubles and persecutions – this one no more and in many ways far fewer. Children today spend their days in schools (yes, imperfect ones) instead of working for pennies in squalid factories with little hope of lifelong advancement. Likewise, the United States remains an imperfect union, but progress has been made in creating a more just society for people of all races. Even the problems that seem so bad today are not as bad as they were recently. Violent crime dropped 16.2 percent from 2005 to 2014, the FBI says. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy created 287,000 jobs in June, which is really good. The unemployment rate in Arkansas is the lowest it’s ever been at 3.8 percent. True, that’s partly because many frustrated workers have left the workforce. But still.
Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” Pining for the past is pointless and ignores the past’s problems.
Anyway, no one has invented a time machine yet, so we can’t go back even if we wanted to. We can only learn from history, live in the moment, and try to make the future better.