Like the British in World War II, we must keep calm and carry on.
With many in the majority of those who voted last Tuesday, I’ve been feeling anxiety caused by the ascendance of a political party that will, if it can, undo much of the social and economic progress that our nation has made in the last 80-odd years, ever since Social Security was enacted in 1935.
There is no doubt that a Republican Congress would like to roll back such programs and many other markers of social progress. Paul Ryan already has announced his intention to attempt to phase out Medicare. Privatizing Social Security is another long-term GOP goal that, if achieved, will worsen life for everyone who isn’t grandfathered in. Women, LGBT, and minorities are right to feel anxious; an uptick in hate crimes and assault already has occurred.
Our anxiety is not misplaced. But it helps me to think of what I’ve already lived through and to realize that ordinary life, for most of us, went on every day, that as we struggled, things got better, and that human history seldom time travels entirely back to the ugly past.
Think on this. My first political memory is listening to President Kennedy’s speech on October 22, 1962, revealing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. I was 15.
Watching the nightly news shortly after I turned 16, I saw Bull Connor’s police force, using dogs, fire hoses, and billy clubs, assaulting black children in Birmingham, AL, protesting segregation as part of what was called the Children’s Campaign. That was May, 1963. JFK was assassinated that November.
When I was 17, as a pre-vet major, I probably would have chosen A&M, home to one of only 18 colleges of veterinary medicine in the nation. But A&M didn’t then accept women as undergraduates, so I went to small coed Texas college instead.
The summer before I started college, LBJ began building up U.S. troops in Vietnam from a small number of advisors to over 500,000 combat troops. More than 50,000 Americans eventually died in that war; as many as 1 million Vietnamese civilians died in it as well, possibly as many as 2 million.
While I was in college, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and America’s cities erupted in violence, arson, and looting.
At 22, I graduated and got married. That December, my husband and I held our breaths while the Selective Service conducted its first lottery, to determine the order in which young men would be drafted for duty in Vietnam.
I was a working wife then, putting hubby through in that era of help wanted ads segregated by sex, “Help Wanted, Male; Help Wanted, Female.” That was also the era of rampant sex discrimination; I made $30 a week less than the man who held the job before me. And there wasn’t a word then for the sexual harassment that was pervasive. As Gloria Steinem famously said much later, “Back then, we didn’t call it sexual harassment; we called it Life.”
In 1970, when I was 23, the National Guard fired upon peaceful student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. Those students were white. Ten days later, police in Jackson, MS, killed two black students and injured twelve while dispersing a crowd in front of a woman’s dormitory on the campus of Jackson State College.
In 1971, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was marred by violence when Vietnam war protestors were set upon by Mayor Daley’s cops in what an investigative commission later called a “police riot.” I could go on: the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, Watergate. These events are ancient history even to today’s 55-year-olds, and more so to the Gen-Xers and the Millenials. To newer generations, these events must seem as pertinent to what we’re facing today as do the Punic Wars.
But the point is this: no matter the great tides of history, human beings live our lives day by day, in the present. We pursue education, we find jobs, we marry or not, have children or not, make our lives as best we can. By saying this, I am not discounting the people likely to be hurt by the Republican ascendance, nor do I imagine that the privilege enjoyed by a retired middle class white woman extends to my LGBT friends, to people of color, to the less-advantaged, to young women, all of whom now will face some of what once was just “Life,” but with which they have not yet had as much hard experience.
All I would say is this: those movements of the sixties, those social programs now in danger, the great strides in the spread of college education, all matter. There now is a great reservoir of people who have grown up in a more tolerant, more egalitarian, more progressive time. That reservoir didn’t exist during those earlier struggles, much of which were devoted to winning minds and hearts that now are won, however much the alt-right might wish otherwise.
Whatever the result in the Electoral College, that reservoir cast the majority of votes in last Tuesday’s election. That majority is here. It isn’t going away. Our LGBT friends aren’t going back into the closet. Educated women aren’t going to resign their positions, forget their education, and retreat to the kitchen. African-Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, and other minorities aren’t going to move to the back of the bus. There’s just too many of us and we’ve come too far. We expect different.
We will have to fight, of course, just as Churchill admonished the British: we have to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, in the hills. We shall never surrender. No retreat, baby, no surrender.
So keep calm and carry on. We’ve been through worse. We’ll make it back to better.