Cynicism is as much a part of the human condition as the hope that, on balance, overtakes it. Particularly in the Information Age, it’s easy to get swept up in the torrent of news that streams neverendingly, forgetting all that came before. Engagement is the key to success in the fragmented media world of the 21st century—it drives ratings, syndicated research scores and, the payoff, advertising dollars—and part and parcel of engagement is fanning the flames over the most smoldering of stories. Consequently, we inevitably fall into “This used to be a great country” moments, harkening back to a better time that may or may not have ever existed.
Last Friday was a momentous day in American history as the Supreme Court of the United States upheld gay marriage as a constitutional right. It’s easy to lose sight of it before being dragged headlong into the next news cycle.
But before you do, remember this: We as a country, over time, move ever forward. The arc of American progressivism, like the Dow Jones Index, goes through capricious whims both bull and bear, but we ultimately grow. We leap forward by yards, fall back by inches, and leap forward once more, eventually becoming, as President Obama said last Friday, “a more perfect union.”
Think about it: 150 years ago, the Civil War ended, and with it went the odious institution of slavery, banned constitutionally through the 13th Amendment. Fifty-five years, later, in 1920, women, long denied the ballot, were given the right to vote. Less than a half a century forward came a complement of civil rights reform through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. We may have setbacks—African Americans went from slavery into decades of indentured servitude, bigotry and systematic injustice; women suffered discrimination and further decades of second-class citizenry; voting rights are being challenged today, disproportionately affecting those people of color, and putting at risk the strides made 50 years ago this summer—but we never go back completely to the way things were.
How many Americans today believe that slavery should be reinstated, or that women and people of color should be denied the right to vote, or that minorities shouldn’t have the same access to public accommodations as whites? Though gay marriage is currently supported by 53 percent of Americans while 47 percent, primarily in C and D counties, oppose it, is there any doubt that half a century from now Americans will look back at a time when gay and lesbian Americans were denied the right to marry as unimaginable?
Americans, as diverse as we are, as divided and disparate as we can be, are united in timeless tenets that help define us as a people and as a nation: belief in egalitarian liberty, respect for the law, and a proclivity toward basic fairness. We saw that last Friday.
So, before we move on, before we get caught up in the controversies and tempests of another day, let’s savor this moment. Let’s remember it and fix it in our minds, just as we do the tragedies that inhabit our collective consciousness—the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, 9/11. On Friday, June 26, 2015, after years of struggle and sacrifice, debate and dispute, polemics and pain, we leapt forward. This is part of who we are. This is what makes us great.
Mark K. Updegrove is an historian and the author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency.