What Can We Learn From the 20th Century?

COMMENTARY-Humanity emerged from the 20th century leaving behind the Spanish Flu, two World Wars, the Great Depression, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Cold War, colonialism, overt racism, imperialism, the military-industrial complex. . .lots of really bad stuff that we were relieved to see in our rearview mirror. 

But it also gave us the tools to confront many of the challenges we have faced and will face in the 21st century. 

For all its devastation and the political chicanery over the past 20 months, countries mobilized and contained the novel Coronavirus far faster and far more effectively than during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic which infected one-third of the world’s one and a half billion souls and left 50 million dead. 

At somewhere shy of a quarter of a billion infections and five million deaths, out of a total worldwide population of almost eight billion people, the response in comparison has so far been nothing less than spectacular.

Unions organizing, much derided in the United States since the rule of Reagan, provided us with basic regulations we all take for granted – a minimum wage, the 8-hour day, overtime pay after 40 hours, workplace health and safety. We can organize again for positive change. 

During the Great Depression everyone learned how to do more with less and, in many cases, it was the poor reaching out to help those who were poorer still. The lessons learned – waste not, want not, and altruism for the sake of doing right by others – can serve us well in today’s world where resources are diminishing and wealth inequity escalating. 

During the Second World War with all the men fighting in Europe and the Pacific, Rosie found she could be a riveter and women learned to balance hearth and careers. 

If we look at today’s world, it is less a conflict of Republican vs. Democrat, of right vs. left and more one of a patriarchy challenged by the rights of women and communities, the environment, and Mother Earth. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the 60s gave rise to ecological activism, and a growing understanding that all living things are interrelated, and mankind cannot injure part without putting the whole at risk. DDT and Agent Orange went from being miracle cures to the opioids of their day. 

Racism has tainted our country throughout its history and, despite ignoring the fact it did not end with the Civil War, the controversies surrounding critical race theory is publicizing the unabated oppression of Native Americans as well as those of Asian, Hispanic, and African origin. 

Again, the activism of the 60s forced changes but while they gave us many of the tools, we need to take up them up again to ensure permanent egality for those who look different from those whose forebears came from northern Europe. 

More recently, racism has flared up in tandem with religious bigotry against people of Muslim heritage. Given that more than half the country now lists “no religious affiliation” on questionnaires, it’s time for the majority to put those who think they have a God-given right to impose their beliefs on others solidly in their place as a distinct minority. 

Our leaders need to stop catering to the caterwauling of this vocal minority and make it clear that the U.S. was established and continues to be a land where people are free to worship whom and how they please. 

There are laws on the books to accomplish this if we can pull our Supreme Court out of the 19th century. But I shouldn’t insult the 19th century. . .when some of the current justices would never have been confirmed if proper checks and balances had been observed. 

Eisenhower, a five-star general and supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II before becoming president, called attention to the growing danger of the military-industrial complex. The term may have been coined for his farewell address in 1960 but his concern that escalation of warfare stole from the poor and disenfranchised dates back to his first year in office. 

His fears were justified as was seen in the decades following his presidency when the U.S. war-machine wreaked havoc on the world, from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan. This allowed the bottom lines of weapons manufacturers to balloon and the Pentagon bureaucracy to increasingly impose its influence on American foreign policy. 

ALL the financial problems this country faces today would be solved by relegating the military to a tool best used rarely and ramping up humanitarian projects around the world. After all, if we were to truly earn the admiration of other countries, Americans would no longer have to live in fear. 

More recently we have had reports on the prison-industrial complex with incarceration farmed out to the highest bidder and the development of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This, like red-lining and deciding where factories and freeways get built, may be new news to the average consumer but has disproportionately impacted the poor and communities of color for decades. 

Discounting this because these people are poor and are more likely to commit crimes compounds the discrimination. . .raising the question, just WHY are these people poor? 

If we are to respect ourselves, we must respect all people, regardless of wealth or race. By raising our voices to publicize their plight, we can work with these communities drawing on the same tools of organizing and civil disobedience developed to battle previous injustices. 

Public funding of education has also been much in the news, both for the appropriateness of funding charter schools out of public funds which drives more of a divide between the haves and the have-nots, and the need for publicly subsidized post-secondary education so that all of our graduates can compete with those of other countries for the best-paying jobs. 

The cost of a university education has grown dramatically as for-profit industries associated with schooling have further destroyed many families’ ability to provide their children with the education that they need to compete in today’s world. 

Affirmative action while well-intentioned is one approach from the 20th century that does not work today. Hiring or promoting individuals predicated on race not only does a disservice to the company but also to many of the supposed beneficiaries. If they lack the qualifications in the first place, how are they going to thrive? 

The real solution is to address discrimination at its roots – the lack of prenatal care, early childhood education, robust health services, enrichment activities, a supportive family structure that values reading and the discussion of current affairs. These are the building blocks that give their wealthy white peers a leg up long before kindergarten.

The new challenges of the 21st century include the acceptance of new sexual orientations into our society across the board. 

But the one aspect that remains constant is that all of us need to focus more on taking care of one another, and less on getting ahead in the rat race. By placing increased value on improving the lives of those around us, we will all share in community growth and prosperity. 

If you want to know more about some of those who contributed to change in the last 100 years, read Occidental Professor Peter Dreier’s The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century. This book should be required reading in all classes on modern American history.


(Liz Amsden is an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.