“Yesterdays goodness isn’t good enough”, says Jackie Summers.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence.
A nobler sentiment you’d be hard pressed to find, especially one made by statesmen. These iconic words have been a guiding principle of democracy for centuries. The founding fathers who penned those words were visionaries, proud men who craved freedom; just not freedom for all, as the majority of them owned slaves. Slavery was not only morally acceptable as the economic bedrock of a fledgling country, it was a status symbol.
This was the culture of their day. While many of them may have seen chattel slavery as morally reprehensible, most of the early presidents owned slaves–many while holding elected office–and did little or nothing to stop it.
While their version of moral excellence provided the cornerstone upon which to build a nation, 18th century goodness is tantamount to 21st century barbarism. What sufficed 200 years ago, is repugnant today.
“Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves.”
– Ulysses S. Grant.
This laudable statement was made by the 18th President of the United States. An early crusader for civil rights, and the first American President to benefit from the 15th Amendment, his proclamation is made even more curious by his stance–or lack thereof–on women’s suffrage. Despite being married to what many might consider a feminist, the women of his day lacked the right to vote, the right to own property, and equal representation under law.
The culture of his day gave husbands the right–legally–to “use such a degree of force necessary to make the wife behave and know her place”. It would be more than half a century before the passage of the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote. Whatever his personal sentiments may have been, his actions–or inactions–belie his lofty words. Four presidents later, Grover Cleveland is noted to have said “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Debates on the nature of 19th century goodness precluded the inclusion of women from the conversation. Today, even in most conservative circles, such opinions would be considered ignorance.
“America is not anything if it consists of each of us. It is something only if it consists of all of us.” – Woodrow Wilson.
The abject hypocrisy of the above words–in the light of the systemic economic, educational, and social disenfranchisement of black Americans of his day–is almost comical. After the end of the first World War, the 28th President of the United States helped found the League of Nations, and draft the treaty of Versailles. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. History cannot rob him of these achievements abroad.
At home, Wilson enforced anti-miscegenation laws, passing legislation that made interracial marriage a felony. He refused to speak out on public lynching, and introduced racial segregation on a federal level–starting with the military–as he believed blacks “lacked courage.” These policies–which came to be known as “separate but equal”–would continue for decades, ending officially with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The effects of systemic racial inequality reverberate to this day. 20th century goodness is tantamount to 21st century backward-thinking.
It’s been less than a decade since the Supreme Court–by proxy–invalidated laws making same-sex sexual activity illegal; less than five years since the House of Representatives passed a bill ensuring equal rights for gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the workplace. Just this week, for the first time, a seated president has come out in support of gay marriage, calling the difference of opinion “generational.”
While the LGBT community continues to struggle for–and win–the same rights that heterosexuals enjoy by default, what was considered goodness only a few short decades ago has expanded to include sexual orientation among the aforementioned unalienable rights.
It is easy to confuse greatness for goodness. The two, however, are intrinsically different. Greatness speaks to capacity, whereas goodness speaks to quality. An earthquake or a hurricane, for example can be described as great, simply for its magnitude. In a similar way, the appellation “great” could be ascribed to many men of history, who were utterly lacking in virtue. Goodness–specifically goodness in people–is contextual, as the quality of moral excellence can only be measured by comparing it to previous incarnations of itself. In the same way medical treatments that were acceptable even ten years ago would be considered malpractice today, as the breadth of our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in expands, so does–and should–our definition of goodness, expand.
What was perfectly acceptable 200, 100, 50, 25, 5 years ago–just doesn’t cut it today. This is the 21st century. Yesterday’s goodness, isn’t good enough.
Unfortunately our technology is outpacing our morality by a factor of magnitude. As surely as we’ve made advancement in medicine and science, so too we are growing in moral goodness as a species, albeit at a glacial pace. While we can take into account cultural allowances for what was once acceptable behavior, this serves as no excuse. Like those who came before us, and those who will remain after we’re gone, the window of time will serve as magnifying glass to our actions and inactions.
History is watching. How will the goodness you claim today be judged by our descendants?
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photo: william brawley / flicker