The Transylvania Times -

Has American History Gone By The Wayside?

The Journey Inward


January 30, 2020

One of my joyful memories is history classes with Dr. Richard Zuber at Wake Forest University. I had been invited by history department professors to take part in the Senior Honors program in history. I became a member of a small group of aspiring historians led by Zuber. We wrote theses and received critiques from peers.

My papers were about the progressive movement of the early twentieth century and the Revolutionary War Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge in North Carolina. The paper on the progressive movement was well received. I was chided about my research on the battle. Dr. Zuber said I tried to glorify the contribution of the Scots in the battle.

“Perhaps it is difficult for a Scotsman to write objectively about Scots,” he chuckled.

One of the important lessons I learned way back then was that reading about and understanding trends in American history is invaluable. As a result, I was drawn to an article by Yoni Appelbaum entitled “How America Ends: A Tectonic Demographic Shift is Underway, Can the Country Hold Together?”

She traces the events leading up to the Civil War as a classic example of anti-democratic trends.

The slave holding South exercised dis-proportionate political power in the early republic. And the South initially dominated Congress with its ability to count three-fifths of the enslaved population for the purposes of apportionment.

As the North became more industrialized with congressional representatives from that region advocating free labor, abolition and inclusion of immigrants, Southerners reacted.

My ancestors, while still the power brokers in the House of Representatives, enacted in 1836 a gag rule whereby mentioning slavery was prohibited. This ruling lasted for nine years.

Appelbaum writes: “As Southern politicians perceived that demographic trends were starting to favor the North; they began to regard popular democracy as a threat.”

A threat to their way of life pushed the South to war. Anti-democratic trends in the country did not stop after the Civil War. During reconstruction and for many years afterwards voter suppression was common and Jim Crow “separate but equal” laws were enacted at the local and state level. The Democrats were in power and resisted any shift in black voter participation.

Segregationists domin-ated southern politics, mostly within the Democrat Party, but in 1948 Strom Thurmond established the Dixiecrat Party. The party symbolized efforts to resist desegregation.

Today we also are experiencing a major shift occurring in this country; demographic data points to the emergence of non-white majorities in this country and their desire to be heard and participate in the political process.

Now the shoe is not on the Democratic foot but on the other foot. The Republican party has tapped into white fear regarding these trends. In Republican controlled statehouses throughout the country legislators have used every conceivable means, such as gerrymandering, voter IDs, fewer voting days and sparsely located voting sites, to curtain voting in heavy Democratic districts and non-white areas.

One aspiring Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, Pete D’ Abrosca, is very clear about the motivation: He “has warned white Americans that they are being replaced by Third World peasants.”

This is to be understood within the context of anti-democratic trends throughout our history. And tracing these trends shows us the value of looking at history to understand the present.

A retrospective review suggests we have been able to move through turbulent times when those who exercise power become afraid of their decline, even if the threat is unjustified.

However, in our time there is a major complication. There is an ascendency of social media. Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, in an article entitled “Why It Feels Like Everything Is Going Haywire,” suggest that youth of today get their information from social media and this minimizes their ability to develop reflective capacity regarding where ideas come from. Same is true for adults.

In previous generations, our ancestors passed on information, mainly through American history, which included a study of the Constitution, important milestones and an understanding of the broad sweep of how we got to where we are at any given point in time.

Our institutions, such as the branches of government, churches, schools and financial sectors, were based on organizing principles derived from our rich heritage. In the background our institutional de-liberations considered, even though imperfectly, where we came from and how we got to a point in time – in other words, the organizing influence of American history, especially the bulwark of the Constitution as the framing document.

Even the anti-democratic trends noted above have been modified by those who see the importance of our founding ideals.

But the use of social media, though a blessing in many ways, often is used to spread ungrounded misinformation. Farfetched ideas, seemingly historical, are spread without any awareness of precedents.

Haidt and Rose-Stockwell state the problem well: “…..citizens are now more connected to one another, in ways that increase public performance and foster moral grandstanding, on platforms that have been designed to make outrage contagious, all while focusing peoples mind’s on immediate conflicts and untested ideas, untethered from traditions, knowledge and values that previously exerted a stabilizing effect. This, we believe, is why many Americans – and citizens of other countries, too – experience democracy as a place where everything is going haywire.”

There are many things that should be done. Here are a few ideas. Social media needs to be refined in ways that support democracy, not tear us apart at the seams. I also feel that a renewed emphasis on generational wisdom, which includes immersion in American history, is crucial.

Our present impeachment crisis may have been averted if there was a better understanding of history and the Constitution specifically. Without that perspective ad hoc decisions are made in anti-democratic ways. Our faith in institutions thus suffers.

We also need spiritually sensitive people to study our present situation from a moral and ethical lens. For example, efforts to suppress voting is not only undemocratic but also immoral when those with little power in the country are denied free access to the voting booth.

This past weekend I read how the twelve tribes of Israel joined forces under the leadership of David to engage the Philistines. What held them together was the Law and the Covenant. Prophets later called the nation to return to these same unifying principles, especially when faced with demographic threats.

Do you think, as I do, that we need to look once again to our generational wisdom to support us through these times of great trouble and great possibility?

(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)


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