Hinges of History

By Morf Morford

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

There’s a series of books by Thomas Cahill he calls the “Hinges of History.”

A “hinge of history” is a time where strands of thought and history (and perhaps a natural catastrophe or plague) converge, and everyone realizes, with a shock or with an eye for change, that, whether anyone desires or intends it, life from this moment on will never be the same.

You don’t need to be a historian to acknowledge that we, the inhabitants of the year 2020, are in such a time.

And you don’t need to be a political scientist to realize that pivotal situations like these galvanize local and national, political and business leaders who articulate a vision and inspire their fellow workers and citizens to sacrifice and work together toward a common goal – even if that goal is a gritty and possibly messy survival.

And no matter your political persuasion, it is all too obvious that the determined, focused sense of sacrifice and resilience is nowhere to be seen.

Among other things, COVID-19 showed all of us, even those determined not to see, that our global, national and even local fractures were widening into uncrossable gulfs.

These gulfs, much to the surprise to many, and the expectations or predictions of almost as many, were, and are, in every area.

The “digital divide” became unforgiving and immense. Those willing or able to use the new “currency” of the quarantined economy from Zoom to streaming and Uber Eats flourished as they worked from home, ate well and had access to the world’s best entertainment and resources.

Those on the other side, were stranded and left behind – financially and culturally.

Another gulf was our much-vaunted supply-chain. Everything from toilet paper to fresh produce and baking yeast became just another bit of flotsam surging on the waves of an erratic marketplace.

Every basic item it seems, went to the highest bidder. And if you weren’t a bidder, you weren’t in the game at all.

Schools (at least in my area) became, not centers of learning, but distribution centers for food for those students (about half, even in affluent neighborhoods) who would not otherwise have what we so euphemistically label “food security”.

This is an America unimaginable even one year ago.

But I think we all know that it is, in fact, the America from now on.

Each day I hear fewer and fewer people use the term “back to normal”.

I think it’s because we, one by one, are realizing that this – the chaos, instability, incoherent and contradictory statements from those who hold office, the collapse of our rituals and routines, from attending school, church or sporting events, is, to use phrase already a cliché, our “new normal”.

Who among us has had scheduled medical or health care recently?

Who of us expects to in the foreseeable future?

Who of us has anything like financial stability on their horizon?

A 30-year home mortgage, once the standard, was always predicated on the assumption that relationships and employment would hold steady for that long.

The cost of a mortgages has exploded – as has the typical relationship and career track.

What job, even what entire industries, will exist 30, even 10 years from now? Who holds a job, or even wants to, more than a year or two?

The world has lived for decades in the shared belief that the USA is, and would continue to be essentially forever, the global economic and military superpower, with military bases – and allies – around the world.

China is projected to be the world’s largest economy, by every metric, by the end of 2020. By several measurements it already is.

The United States will be fortunate if it can hold onto the number two position. For a variety of reasons, I am convinced we will hold the number three position semi-indefinitely.

Our long-time allies are distancing from us more every day.

Our health care system, once the marvel of the world, barely holds a place in the top ten in most disciplines.

Our universities, once the envy, and model for higher education around the world, are barely operating, with online education programs as their “new normal”.

A generation ago, higher education, thanks to community and technical colleges, became open to all. They too, struggle to keep their doors open.

In short, in these ways, and many others, we are at a “hinge of history” – we are moving in many directions at once, few if any of them unified or coherent. Yet.

But there are a few streams, a few principles, taking shape. The first one might be that our economy, even at its best, was not working for everyone.

A large percentage, at every stage, in every industry, were being left behind.

Our educational system worked well – for some. For those with special needs or in low income areas, the “public school to prison pipeline” had a near total, almost gravitational grip, on the student body.

Our legal and law enforcement systems became painfully apparent in their inadequacy and inequity in 2020. In 2020, “Liberty and justice for all” became a sarcastic punchline instead of the rallying cry as, in a more innocent time, it once was.

With temperatures above the Arctic Circle passing 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time ever in June of 2020, we know, if we didn’t know already, that our climate is in a state of crisis.

Even our nation’s history and national identity has been shaken under our feet. Who of us knew, even a short time ago of the Tulsa Massacre? Or of the power of Juneteenth?

Or the bombing (in 1985!) by police of a home in Philadelphia which led to a fire which destroyed over 60 homes? Or that the site of Central Park, the gem of New York City, was once a thriving black community? (https://timeline.com/black-village-destroyed-central-park-6356723113fa)

To use the ultimate overused metaphor for 2020, even those who did not or could not see before, could not deny the obvious now; we are seeing, and living in one of those transitional eras where looking back, even a year or two, feels like looking into a mythical world with vastly different rules and possibilities. We all know that world, for whatever set of reasons is gone, and we will never set foot in it again.

And we all know, as much as we might deny it, that the world we are headed for will be nothing like the world most of us have known.

Back in the late 1990s, a college I worked for instituted a campus wide email system that would carry all school information and notices. It was required that all staff and faculty use this new comprehensive system.

Several professors refused and retired early.

We are in a situation much like that today – technologies and philosophies (and conspiracy theories) emerge, morph and evaporate at light speed in front of us. They flicker, dazzle and are gone.

Some are left behind and some flounder and struggle to keep up, while others give up entirely. Many don’t even have a chance to learn, let alone keep up with, technological changes.

Oddly enough, as all this is happening, in our streets, we commonly see the banners of the two causes which have been the biggest threats to our nation and our way of life: the Nazi Swastika and the Confederate Battle flag. The Nazis, as we seem to have forgotten, literally set the world on fire in World War II while the Confederate “cause” led to the most American casualties of any war in our history.

Both “movements” were based on the subjugation, if not elimination, of those human beings not considered “worthy” in the larger society. (Hitler, it is worth noting, sent German researchers to the American South to study strategies of racial segregation in the 1930s)

It is revealing that both movements, with deliberate dehumanization as their focus, see 2020 as a time of revival and legitimate recognition. My sources tell me that both movements firmly believe that finally, their time has come.

Hinges, on doors and in history, swing both ways.

History is only plain (if ever) in looking back. Will we take the higher way and become more civil, more decent, more open and more accessible or will we pursue the way we already seem to have chosen and become more closed, more hostile and more suspicious?

Will we become more united or more divided? More courageous or more afraid? More determined or more paralyzed?

Will we be transfixed by our love for an unreachable, if not mythical past, or work together toward a future based on the values we once aspired to?

Community and fragmentation are both conclusions we can work for. Every step we make is a step toward or away from them.

When I was kid, a common question children asked of their parents was “What did you do in the war, daddy?”

Years from now, young people will ask what we did in our national, if not international, time of crisis and upheaval.

On all the swirling issues engulfing us in every headline if not conversation, what did we do, what will we do, to make a difference, to make our voices known, to claim our destiny and our place.


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