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Those Who Do Not Study History Will Despair Of Its Ever Repeating

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For a number of years, I did a lot of historical research for a local theater company, which did older American works. One of the bigger projects I did concerned a show from 1911, in which a sex scandal was used to block a progressive congressman. As this came shortly after Clinton-and-Monica-gate, a good chunk of my research involved other actual political sex scandals. Some of what I found was absolutely beyond the pale (trust me, Clinton had nothing on Warren G. Harding when it came to Oval Office hijinks), but one thing I came across in my research stopped me short – the Congressional page scandal from 1983. I was reading about it in a list of “famous political sex scandals,” and after a few lines of description I suddenly flashed back to being just thirteen years old, and hearing bits and pieces of the story on various news broadcasts as it unfolded. “Wow,” I thought, “I’d totally forgotten about that!”

And it hit me.  I had totally forgotten about it. This had been a nightly news leader for weeks, it had been all anyone could talk about – and within nearly 20 years I had totally forgotten about it ever having existed.

Just like the world had totally forgotten about Warren G. Harding’s affairs, or Thomas Jefferson’s, or JFK’s, or FDR’s, in the days before Clinton; and just like, I was now sure, the world would eventually forget all about Bill Clinton’s scandal as well. Studying history has taught me that that’s just what we do in the case of scandal – we salivate over the titillating details and gossip and squeal and bloviate and titter, but within a fairly short span of time, something else more titillating comes along and we look over at that instead and before long – save for a couple of people who want a cheap fallback joke – the scandal that occupied everyone’s attention is forgotten. And I’ve had a much more mellow attitude towards such scandals and gossip ever since.

***

This morning’s Supreme Court ruling on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores hit me hard at first.  And I was angry for a good while.  A couple friends have pointed out that the ruling is actually narrow in scope; technically it only states that Hobby Lobby itself will not pay for the portion of an insurance plan which covers only two specific forms of contraception; rather, it is now able to apply for the same government supplement which is available to non-profit religious institutions, in which the government steps in and covers contraceptive costs.  They’ve even pointed out that Alito pointed to these very supplements in his decision (and argued that therefore, the flurry of lawsuits which seek to bring them down would probably not pass the Supreme Court themselves).

Technically this is true.  But I was looking at this in a fuller overall historic context; this ruling, coming as it has after another ruling which struck down “buffer zones” which prevent people from harassing clients at women’s health clinics, which came after the Isla Vista shootings, which all come after the relentless chipping away at reproductive rights that’s been going on since before I was even born  – well, it’s hard not to think that this ruling is part of a larger perpetuating pattern, in which others believe that they have more of a legal say over my own life than I do.  It’s bad enough that everyday yutzes in society think this way – the guys who catcall me on the street, the casual dismissals of how I thought in favor of how I looked, the relative who once implied that maybe i was single because I spoke my mind too much and “guys don’t like that” – it’s when even the law of the land states that the religious opinions of a corporation’s stockholders count more than the medical opinions of a woman’s doctor that I can’t help but think that the toxic water in which I as a woman swim daily is being institutionalized.

But then I took a step even further back, and saw things from a fuller historic context.

And…was comforted.

A lot of the progressive blogs today decry this decade as a sort of “new Gilded Age”, in which a lot of wealth is concentrated among a fraction of the population while the rest of us poor slobs go broke. Ironically, the original Gilded Age is the period I studied most; delving into the lives of the elites, the political establishment, the privileges they enjoyed, and the pressures lurking underneath. I also studied the period which came right after – the Progressive Era, in which a lot of those privileges were overturned, a lot of the corruption was swept out, a lot of social rights were advanced, and a lot of the framework which supported the Gilded Age was torn down. The “Occupy Movement” of the 1910’s had had enough and took over. Womens’ rights especially made a great leap – we went from a society that believed that we were nothing more than the “Angel of the House” to being finally given the right to vote.

And that kind of pattern has happened again. After the restriction and repression of the 1950’s, we had the 1960’s, in which civil rights and womens’ rights took great leaps forward. Griswold v. Connecticut, which gets cited as a right to privacy, was a 1965 Supreme Court ruling which granted an individual’s access to contraception. Marital rape was declared a crime in the 1970’s, and Roe v. Wade  came then too.

The common trope for the pattern of human lives is that of a “wheel of fortune” – all of us cycling through good luck and bad, up and down. But history has taught me that society is more like a pendulum – swinging back and forth from left to right, progressive to conservative. No matter how far it’s swung in one direction, something will set it swinging back the other way before long – and at some point, the momentum will set it swinging back again. But the advances we’ve made and the progress we’ve won over time have stayed put – no matter how far back we swung in the 1950’s, we didn’t take votes away from women. And no matter how far we’ve swung back now, marital rape is still a crime.

And so now I see today’s ruling as one more tiny piece of weight that will soon send the pendulum swinging back to the Progressive side. It may have already started its swing – the Occupy Movement and the rapid spread of same-sex marriage rights are huge leaps forward – but even if it hasn’t started yet, it will happen in future.

And history has comforted me now.

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