Stop Judging Past by 2020 Standards

Stop Judging Past by 2020 Standards

For all its breadth of information, Harry Gleicher’s well-written opinion piece (“Young People Have the Power to Make Wrongs Right,” July 30) needs to define key terms and put them in a context more meaningful than his generation’s righteous rush to judgment.

Equality, enshrined in the nation’s founding document, is one such term. But does it mean equal treatment, equal opportunity, equal rights, essential sameness of character, or equity of outcome? Any mother will tell you that personality differences begin to manifest in the womb; even identical twins, of which I am one, are not equal in talents and tendencies as even the prenatal environment has begun to shape them into different individuals.

Nonetheless, each is free to pursue happiness in their own way (though not guaranteed happiness itself), especially as societal structures — laws, policies, socio-economic support, tax-funded programs — create a more level playing field for everyone. But when it comes to our favorite pro sports teams, I think we want the best players on the field; no one is calling for quotas from developing countries (paid the guaranteed minimum) in the name of equality or for the proportion of white players to equal their numbers in the general population.

Protest is another word in need of nuance in Gleicher’s essay. The federal government is responding not to “peaceful assemblies” but to riots like those at the courthouse in Portland. One brutal irony of this anarchy, permitted by mayors and governors as a strategy to discredit the incumbent president, is that a law-and-order candidate is more likely to be (re)elected in November. It occurred in Nixon’s second run, despite the fact that the main challenger, George McGovern, had much more momentum than Biden does now.

Slavery. Do we need Gleicher’s generation to teach us this horrible legacy? With their faces pinned to their smart phones, they seem to think so. Sadly, slavery was practiced by virtually every culture for millennia, including the enslavement of native Americans by other indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples and Black by Blacks. We were among the first to abolish it.

That historical context doesn’t make it right, but it should broaden our perspective beyond this prosecution of guilt by even the remotest of association. A more difficult lesson might be that we can’t, any of us, beam our ideological selves back in time and make morally improved choices. If we’d lived in Weimar Germany, for example, we’d be like those people, equally products of that culture and period, possessing the same fears, desires, and flaws, and no less prone to a demagogic tyrant.

My hope for people reading Gleicher’s message of equality is not that they continue prosecuting the past by the standards of the present. It is that they realize how the giants of social media and telecommunication skew the search results of our questions to suit ideological biases and use algorithms to govern our tastes and values.

The George Floyd video is prioritized; the equally evil death by restraint of Tony Timpa is much harder to find. The same media that Gleicher touts for delivering instant announcements to countless fans of equality and (not always) peaceful protest is fostering imbalances in power and knowledge, in effect surveilling the thought and action of each and every one of us.