We might not be doomed after all


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As we begin 2023, it’s hard not to feel pessimistic about the state of the world.

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As we begin 2023, it’s hard not to feel pessimistic about the state of the world.

To recap, in the past 12 months: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin launched a brutal and senseless war against Ukraine; COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses remain a health threat; violence and mass shootings — mainly in the United States — stoked by hatred, racism and antisemitism have been frequent; the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — which had made abortion a federal right — and has permitted many states to deny women this right.

Also, inflation and high grocery and gas prices continue to make life more difficult; climate change continues to wreak havoc around the world; health care in Canada — and especially in Manitoba — remains mired in bureaucracy, controversy and political feuding; and last but not least, more than two years after he lost the presidential election of 2020 and instigated a violent insurrection, Donald Trump intends to run for president again in 2024 and has yet to be indicted on an assortment of federal and state crimes he is being investigated for.

And those are only the high-, or rather, low-lights.

Are we doomed? The optimistic side of me says no. But here are some thoughts on a few of these key events keeping you up at night:

The inevitability of a Third World War

In the aftermath of the devastating U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War, followed by the nuclear buildup of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, it seemed likely a third world war was inevitable. And in October 1962, with U.S. president John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev essentially playing a game of chicken over the Soviet’s decision to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, it appeared those fears would become a reality. But then, “cooler heads prevailed.”

Assuming Putin has not completely been crippled by paranoia and utter recklessness, one would have to believe he would not intentionally use nuclear weapons, a decision that ultimately could lead to the destruction of most of Russia. Still, it is an ever-volatile situation.

Social and cultural issues

For much of my career as a historian, I have subscribed to the theory that the march of liberalism and progress is unstoppable. True, it is a gradual, slow and at times painful march; on occasion this movement comes to a screeching halt, as it seems to have with the right to legal abortion in parts of the United States. I’m no soothsayer, but my view is that within the next two decades, this terrible decision will be either reversed or a new federal law will be passed reinstating this right to every American woman.

Consider how far women have come in the past 123 years. At the start of the 20th century, nearly every aspect of life was different. Women had few, if any, legal rights in a marriage. A Canadian mother at the turn of the century had, in the eyes of the law, “no more legal relationship to her children than a stranger.”

In Manitoba in 1913, a person who stole a post letter bag or a cow received a much stiffer prison sentence than someone who seduced a girl between the ages of 14 and 16 or committed an act of indecent assault on a “female.” Women were denied the right to education and employment and could not vote — though that changed for some (but not all) women in 1916 in Manitoba, and 1920 in federal elections.

Denying someone a job or a property or barring someone from a social or sports club because of their “race,” ethnicity, religion or the colour of their skin was legal in both Canada and the U.S. Antisemitism was part of day-to-day life and experienced nearly every day by Canadian and American Jews. Homosexuality in Canada was illegal and remained so until 1969.

In the U.S., African-Americans in the south were subjected to Jim Crow segregation laws, only slightly better than they had been treated under slavery. Moreover, from 1900 to 1920, mainly in southern states, 1,362 African-Americans were lynched, compared to 156 white Americans in the same period.

In Canada, Indigenous peoples were regarded as a “problem” that had to be expunged. And the federal government, which had established residential schools as way to assimilate Indigenous children, ignored reports about rampant disease and horrific abuse. Both Conservative and Liberal governments were guilty of this.

Today, discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity, religion or skin colour is illegal in both countries. In the U.S., the recent passage of the Respect for Marriage Act protects the rights of same-sex and interracial couples under federal law.

Yet, as the daily headlines remind us, prejudice and hate, often visceral, persist and likely always will. Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to suffer tragedy and trauma on almost a daily basis.

That said, it is still better to remain positive. Attitudes do change and acknowledgment of suffering past and present is a small step in the right direction. The march of progress will kick-start again. At least, that’s what I tell myself in the middle of the night.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

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