Baffling phases of history

 

The Charleston Gazette  -  Aug. 24, 2004

 

By James A. Haught

MOST of us senior folks were youths during the tumultuous time when World War II dominated everything. The death toll in that global cataclysm is estimated as high as 40 million people. America's supreme enemy was the fascist Axis: Germany, Japan and Italy -- while the Soviet Union was a noble ally. Patriotic feelings in America were intense, fanned by speeches, songs, magazines, movies, posters and the like.

After the war, a role reversal occurred. Germany, Japan and Italy became our friends, and America's supreme enemy became Soviet communism, the Red Menace, the "Evil Empire," in President Reagan's words. That threat sparked the Korean War, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the thermonuclear missile buildup, the Vietnam War, CIA plots in Latin America, and sundry other nightmares. Throughout the half-century struggle, U.S. patriotism focused on "commies."

Then, unexpectedly, the Cold War vanished. No experts foresaw that the Soviet Union was about to collapse, eliminating one side of the international duel.

Just as unexpectedly, a new stage of history arrived, with Muslim suicide fanatics becoming America's supreme enemy and religio-ethnic conflict wrecking Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Algeria, etc. Although "holy war" zealotry and ethnic ferment had smoldered here and there for centuries, few experts foresaw that they would erupt as the all-consuming menace of the 21st century. Today, most of American patriotism focuses on Islamic extremists.

How remarkable -- we seasoned seniors have lived through three distinct epochs of conflict, without quite realizing it at the time.

And we witnessed different epochs, too. We watched an amazing U.S. moral transition. Back in the 1950s, blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, etc. -- and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket -- and gays were sent to prison for "sodomy" -- and it was a crime for interracial couples to marry -- and Jews were banned from some clubs -- and birth control was still a crime in some states -- and "blue laws" made it illegal for stores to open on Sunday -- and police raided theaters showing the equivalent of today's R-rated movies.

Today, all those Puritanical taboos have vanished, and seem antiquated. Why did American morality do a backflip in our lifetime?

Part of the moral transformation stemmed from the youth rebellion of the 1960s -- America's liberal heyday, when protesters denounced the Vietnam War. Why did that phase explode in the '60s, but not during other wars? Why did liberalism retreat afterward?

It's fascinating to ponder the changing phases of history -- human eras that reigned  for a while, then were forced offstage by new periods. Look back at a few:

Colonialism was a major reality for centuries. Strong nations felt perfectly entitled to seize weak ones by force and exploit them as possessions. But that phase finally ended during our lifetime.

Slavery -- people owning people as work animals -- was condoned and accepted for millennia, even by the Bible. Now it seems utterly unthinkable.

The anarchy period a century ago was a mini-phase, when bizarre radicals assassinated leaders and planted bombs in an attempt to wipe out all government. An anarchist from Charleston shot President William McKinley in 1901.

The Industrial revolution -- the arrival of high-production machines and factories -- transformed the world's economy from farm life to urbanism. And today's high-tech computerization is touted as another great leap forward.

Here's one that intrigues me: For centuries, religion was so crucial in Europe that dozens of Catholic-Protestant wars were fought, the Inquisition burned nonconformists, witch hunts burned women, a half-dozen Crusades were waged against the Muslim east, persecutions drove off-brand groups into exile, etc. -- yet today, religion has virtually died in Europe, with church attendance minuscule. Why did faith go from all-important to unimportant? Will it make a comeback, or disappear?

Europe's gradual shift coincided with the rise of science as the most valuable pursuit of the human mind. Science and technology have wrought more change than all other factors combined.

Phase after phase, cultures keep transforming, mostly unperceived. There's no end to it, and no way to predict what's next. Newspapers chronicle thousands of daily happenings -- while mighty paradigm shifts creep in the background, half-seen in the haze.

Where are we heading? How long will the current human bomb period last, and what will follow it? Will America always have a supreme enemy? The wisest scholars can do little more than guess.

(Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.)