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Two steps forward, one step back through history

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What if he was wrong?

I majored in history and went on to graduate school to study it even more. As taught, history was the story of human progress. Over that long arc, oppression, discrimination, poverty, war, and sickness yielded to justice, equality, sufficiency, peace, and public health. There were, of course, detours and even U-turns on the road to progress, but overall humankind moved linearly toward a better world.

Growing up Jewish, I was exposed to another view of history. Another man surnamed King, the comedian Alan, captured it best with his seemingly flippant explanation for the raison d’être behind Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

Thus, to celebrate Jewish triumphs over a Persian vizier, Egyptian pharaoh, and Syrian king, we enjoy hamantaschen, matzah ball soup, and latkes. Underlying Alan King’s bittersweet epigram then is the tenet that history does not move in a line—it revolves in a circle. Similar events repeat again and again over the decades and centuries.

What has brought all this to mind? The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If President Trump’s nominee to fill her seat, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, is indeed confirmed by the Senate, what will happen? The Supreme Court can continue to turn the clock back to when states had a free hand in obstructing voting rights, women had less control over their own bodies, and the poorest among us had no medical insurance.

Since the day in June 2015 when Trump descended a golden escalator to announce his candidacy for the presidency, haven’t we all seen ample evidence that Alan King’s epigram carries more weight than Martin Luther King’s? Take a look at some examples of what I mean:

  • During the 1918-19 pandemic, San Francisco authorities ran ads beseeching residents to “Wear a mask and save your life.” Using an obsolescent word for the flu, Colonel Philip Doane, who was in charge of health in American shipyards, told the Associated Press, “The so-called Spanish influenza is nothing more or less than old-fashioned grippe.” In March of this year Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, told her viewers, “All the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly [than the common flu] doesn’t reflect reality.”

  • On May 27, 1968, Robert Kennedy told the people of Roseburg, Oregon, “With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles.” On October 1, 2015, Chris Harper-Mercer shot to death eight fellow students and an assistant professor at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg with legally purchased firearms.

  • Eight decades after the federal government put Japanese-American citizens into internment camps, the Trump administration has put refugees seeking the American dream into internment camps while separating children from their parents.

  • In 1858 future president Abraham Lincoln said, “This government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” The current American president is defending memorials to the Confederate generals who fought to maintain slavery as “a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our country.”

  • Southern planters before the Civil War exploited African-American slaves to accumulate great wealth. During the current pandemic, “essential workers” kept showing up at nursing homes, hospitals, grocery stores, farms, and pharmacies at high risk and low wages to do their jobs, keep from getting fired, and feed their families. The comfort of affluent Americans is again built on the backs of the underprivileged, often people of color.

  • In 1968 the typical middle-class Black family had 9.4% of the wealth of its white counterpart. By the early part of this century it had climbed over 15%, only to slip back to 8.7% by 2016.

  • The Declaration of Independence pronounced King George III of Great Britain to be “a Prince, whose character is marked by every act which may define a Tyrant.” The current president of the United States has declared, “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Are we humans “captive on the carousel of time” as Joni Mitchell sang in “The Circle Game”? Are we condemned to the fate of the mythic Sisyphus who pushes a boulder up a steep hill over and over again for all eternity? Perhaps. I do empathize with my friends, colleagues, and students who are despondent about the state of human civilization and its stubbornness at being improved by our efforts.

Still, since the beginning of this essay cited Alan King’s insight, why not conclude it with that of another Jew? Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not obligated to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it.”

I reckon we might as well go along with that ancient sage in trying to make this planet a better place. What’s the alternative? For better or worse, I fear it’s going around in circles.

In his checkered past, Keith has monitored the activities of the CIA, NSA, and other three-letter agencies while counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He’s also run for Congress, founded an internet software company, managed a DNA sequencing business, published five thrillers, and written the occasional op-ed piece. A longtime resident of Silicon Valley, Keith has been a resident scholar and lecturer at Harvard for the past three years.


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