The Benefits of Knowing History in a Time of Fear

If you’ve read my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries (1899-1909), you know I put historical research into my ghost stories. I do my best to get it right. I’ve often thought that, if my life had gone a different way, I might’ve been a history teacher.

Come to think of it, I am a history teacher.

Others are more focused on the future. I recently came across a blogger who made a prediction about what will happen if a president who represents capitalist greed is elected over one who represents humane social justice. (I won’t link or name the site because it offers “intuitive services,” payable by Paypal, and that’s a transaction from which I choose to keep a distance, neither encouraging nor condemning it.) The blogger predicted that, were such a president elected, the U.S. would see war on its shores for the first time.

I immediately thought of the wars that have been fought on U.S. soil: the War of 1812, the American Indian Wars, the Civil War — and I did my best to politely note this on the Facebook page that had linked that blog. The blogger must have seen my comment and quickly did the honorable thing by revising his statement. He then stated on Facebook that he had meant since that time (presumably, the 1800s or thereabouts).

Given his quick correction, I kept quiet about Pearl Harbor.

Bumping into someone who writes on the assumption that our nation’s past was safer, more peaceful — more “golden” — than true history records it, I decided to look up some facts and figures. My goal here is to counteract the “everything’s falling apart” syndrome that is easy to fall into given recent news and, ironically, what’s often found on Facebook.

You know what we haven’t had this century — or even since the midpoint of the last century? A world war. The Great War had an estimated 8.5 million deaths. World War II raised that to 60 million dead (15 million from battle plus 45 million civilian deaths). Two massive wars happened about 25 years apart from each other, and it’s been about 70 years since the end of the last one. Yes, of course, there have been horrible wars since then. Yes, war takes a toll in ways other than lives lost. Still, these death counts give us a way to realize that times have been worse.

There was also a deadly flu epidemic between those wars, one that followed closely on the heels of World War I. In fact, it killed more people than that war: between 20 to 40 million deaths, according to a Stanford University site on the topic of viruses.

Shifting from the globe to the United States, it certainly can feel like the country is being ripped apart by political polarization, but think about the roughly 620,000 men, 2% of the national population,who were killed in the U.S. Civil War. Of course, these figures are debatable — and debated — but they help us to see that we are not in a period of unprecedented turmoil.

Furthermore, if we can move beyond either/or thinking (something that very likely accelerated that war), we can say that the Civil War was fought for many reasons. Race and slavery were among them. Racial violence still haunts us. However, many historians consider the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 as the worst of its kind. Damage, injury, and death estimates are especially inconsistent. Those left dead might have been 31, if we trust one official report, but there are good reasons to think it went up into the hundreds. Imagine living in or near Tulsa, Oklahoma, during World War I (1914-18), the flu epidemic (1918-19), the race riot (1921), and World War II (1939-45). How did those people cope? They must have held onto the lesson that, while humanity can be very cruel, humanity can also be very courageous.

Let me repeat a point I say above: we are not in a period of unprecedented turmoil. I know it can feel like we are — and those feelings are very real. But the fear that seems to clutch all of those feelings together is dangerous. It can be used to manipulate, legislate, and hate.

It clearly is being used to manipulate, legislate, and hate. But there’s some solace and strength in knowing one’s history.

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6 thoughts on “The Benefits of Knowing History in a Time of Fear

  1. Tim – I agree with you. Those of us who remember the spring and summer of ’68 can attest that this country has seen worse even more recently. I definitely remember the panic of those days. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    • Yes, the 1960s could have worked about as well as 1914 through 1945. At least as I recall it, I grew up having my Saturday morning cartoons interrupted with images of fire-hosing protesters in the South. A president assassinated in 1963, his brother and a Civil Rights leader both assassinated in 1968, students at Kent State shot in 1970 . . . and so much more.

      Some people hang on hard to the idea that the 1950s were the last “good old days” that were truly good. But there’s plenty of history there to sour that notion, too. Commie witch hunts, segregation, intense conformity . . .

      Of course, we shouldn’t forget the good stuff, too. It’s all about balance.

  2. Thank you for reminding me in these troubling times that history was never a paradise nor are modern times as bad as they may seem.

  3. There is I feel an irresponsible trend on the part of televison news media and internet sites to report on the most terrible crimes, the most bloody and savage, and to capitalize on the “hot topics” that will continue to create divisiveness among the citizens of the world. Am I blaming them solely? Not really. But it can’t be denied that the continual outpouring of horrifying news, of carnage from terrorism, of mass murder, of cop killing and cop killers, is out of proportion with all the good that is going on in the world. Imagine what it must be like to have job where it is your primary duty to look for all of this kind of thing of a daily basis in the name of ratings. What must that do to one’s psyche over time?

    • That’s a great point. In this era of information over-saturation, it seems like truly good news would “sell” like crazy. Instead, we cope by sharing cat videos and looking for Pokémon.

      But now I’m being negative…

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