Gaining a Little Perspective Through History
I am skeptical of the idea, popular especially among evangelical Christians, that society is in a sharp downward spiral – particularly American society. This has resulted not from reading one or two specific volumes but from reading a wide variety of historical literature…and it comes not from volumes attempting to make such an argument but from volumes which incidentally address moral issues in their historical accounts. [Incidentally, my interest in history has revolved for some time to some extent around an understanding of the sociological and psychological…particularly, in understanding the differences, similarities, causes, and effects of behavior in the past and the present…]
[I think elder generations look at younger generations frequently and abhor their moral degeneracy (e.g. profanity, sexual looseness, school violence) while younger generations gaze in confusion and disgust at the moral lapses of the elder generations (e.g. racism, genocide, hypocrisy). I’m not sure either is inferior or superior to the other, rather I hypothesize that history is somewhat cyclical and that the changes reflect difference emphases on moral depravity rather than an increase or decrease in overall depravity.]
Add to this pile an example par excellence in Anthony Summers’ tome Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers takes several years to write each of his books, spends a massive amount of time researching and interviewing as he prepares the volumes, and the sheer amount of knowledge he manages to acquire in this process is clear in this volume in the text itself but also in the extensive end-notes and bibliographical sources he provides.
Let me share just a few representative examples out of so many that this volume contains of moral degeneracy:
- There was something really wrong with John F. Kennedy. He was addicted to sex or women or something in a way I’ve seldom heard before (e.g. far worse than Bill Clinton)…I knew he had been one to ‘sleep around’ but I had no idea the extent…nor the reckless way in which his actions endangered the nation (nor that it included prostitutes). [This was apparently a pervasive issue for the Kennedy’s, Joe Kennedy’s (the father) sexual exploits are well-known, and Robert Kennedy doesn’t emerge unscathed either.]
- While still controversial, it seems fairly clear, that for all Martin Luther King Jr.’s positive attributes and accomplishments that he also was a frequent philanderer. As a pastor, I find this especially disconcerting. [The evidence for these sexual improprieties was presented to newspapers – for JFK, MLK, etc. but at this time would not be printed or acknowledged…which to me raises the question – how much have these sort of things increased in frequency and how much where they simply ignored in the past?]
- Summers makes a strong case that J. Edgar Hoover persecuted homosexuals so vehemently because he himself was one and wanted to reduce suspicions regarding his own sexuality via this persecution. Further, Hoover appears to have been involved in pedophiliac relationships with teenage boys. [It is worth noting that homosexuality is not a cause of pedophilia. Pedophilia is frighteningly common among heterosexuals.]
- The overwhelming prevalence of bomb threats and actual bombings (domestic terrorism). [Compare this especially to the school shootings of contemporary society.]
- The prevalence of organized crime and its close ties with many significant political figures (including Hoover, JFK). [Gang violence is horrifying, but I have high doubts that the level of sophistication is anywhere near that achieved by the mafia in its heyday.]
- The extent of wiretapping, strong-arming, blackmail, violence, and other techniques to quell political opponents. [While I won’t make any excuses for the extent of contemporary abuses of power in observing American citizens by governmental powers, I will note that it appears to be largely passive in nature whereas in the past it was oftentimes active (and violently so).]
- The extent to which racism permeated official government institutions as well as society at large. [Traditionally northerners sometimes perceive racism as a ‘Southern’ problem – but racism was deeply embedded in the north as well…and sadly, is still a much bigger problem than we oftentimes care to admit…if you doubt me, see the Newark (New Jersey) riots of 1967.]
- The hypocritical behavior of many of our best leaders. [I am not upset that these individuals, for example, were excessively profane and vulgar in their speech, but rather the hypocritical manner in which they publicly derided such behavior while privately engaging in it to the hilt.]
- The many disconcerting questions remaining around the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, and even J. Edgar Hoover – questions which raise the possibility of involvement by government officials (sometimes at the highest levels) as well as organized crime (in collusion with government officials). [The implications here are that the government was potentially not nearly as controlled by democratic principles as we would like to imagine. See also the prevalence of organized crime mentioned previously.]
Reading this list should clue you in that this read is not entirely pleasant and for those who find profanity disturbing in their reading – this book is not for you. The profanity while historically accurate (e.g. direct quotes) is pervasive…and while Summers never seeks to titillate in describing the sexual behavior of various individuals, the presence of immoral sexual behavior is also pervasive.
My main suggestion, should the book be rewritten is that some of the material be moved into the end notes. For example, Summers gives numerous in-text examples of how individuals perceived other individuals (e.g. how JFK and Nixon perceived J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa), a representative example or two could be given and an end note then referenced which provides the more exhaustive list that is currently in-text.
[Let me conclude by noting what I believe is the ‘take-away’ from my hypothesis that society tends to run in a circular manner of immorality, in which the shape of immorality changes from generation to generation rather than the amount of immorality (and I do think there are exceptions, I just think we are horribly inclined to view every other generation as ‘worse’ than ourselves b/c their immorality is different than our own). I do not mean this to be a ‘then we shouldn’t worry about our own immorality.’ Rather it is a call to mind our own immorality…rather than focusing on other’s, or as Christ told us – to take the log out of our own eye before attempting to take the speck out of another’s.
It is easy for individuals in each generation to become incensed at those in another for the failures they have or are committing morally…and doing so puts the generations at odds…but this stirs up anger and resentment and does nothing to clear up the issues of immorality.
In general, we would do better to remove judgment on whose sin is worse and instead focus on what the sins of our generation are and how we can address them.]
[For those interested in examining, proving, or disproving my hypothesis, a few of the other works which have been influential in my forming these conclusions include (a) Christian Scripture (compare what is taught versus what is lived), (b) John Toland’s Adolf Hitler, (c) John Toland’s Empire of the Rising Sun, (d) William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (e) Jeff Shaara’s Revolutionary War (Rise to Rebellion, The Glorious Cause) and Civil War (Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure) novels, and (f) H.W. Brand’s The Money Men.]