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Haught: Humanity continues to evolve, progress

Last week's Supreme Court ruling that boosted gay equality was another ripple in the tide of history.

If you ponder our culture throughout the past century, you can see an erratic march toward ever-greater tolerance and human rights, making civilization fairer and more workable, steadily more democratic. Virtually all the progress was won by political liberals who defeated conservative resistance.

When I was young in the 1950s, it was a felony to be gay. Suspects were thrown into the old stone prison at Moundsville under archaic "sodomy" laws. But gay sex became legal in the 1970s, and now, same-sex marriage is gaining acceptance in state after state.

Also in the '50s, blacks suffered under the cruel Jim Crow system. They were excluded from white schools, neighborhoods, jobs, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools and nearly everything else. They survived in ghettos, however they could. But the historic civil rights movement gradually won their equality.

Back in those bad old days, it was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath and for clubs to sell cocktails, and for people to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or a sexy R-rated movie, or for "numbers" operators to sell lottery tickets, etc. A single girl who got pregnant was disgraced, along with her family. If she terminated her pregnancy, she and her doctor or nurse risked prison. It was unthinkable for an unwed couple to live together or even share a hotel room. Jews were excluded from various Charleston clubs. Women couldn't hold most jobs and couldn't serve on juries. A few decades earlier, they couldn't even vote.

Now all those taboos have vanished into the mist of the past, as society transformed. Sunday is a big shopping day. Around half of babies are born to single moms. Unwed couples live together openly. Bars are wide-open, and the lottery is run by the state government. Morality turned upside down.

In the 1950s, birth control still was illegal in some states. A half-century earlier, it was a crime even to discuss contraception, and crusader Margaret Sanger was jailed eight times under puritanical Comstock laws. Now, thanks to landmark Supreme Court rulings, it's difficult to remember such a world.

Meanwhile, violence and warfare are receding. Several recent books claim that civilization has entered a new phase lacking international wars. Dueling and lynching ceased. Murder has declined enormously. The death penalty has been banned in most advanced countries. Democracies have multiplied, replacing military dictatorships, kingdoms, theocracies and "strong man" rule.

At the start of the 1900s, the average human life expectancy was 48 years. Now it's nearing 80.

Passage of Social Security saved retirees from poverty. Passage of Medicare and Medicaid brought health treatment to millions - and President Obama's 2010 reform was another stride toward universal medical insurance.

Looking at the entire picture, you can see amazing progress toward a fairer, safer, more humane society. Many of the political advances were opposed bitterly by conservatives. They resisted voting by women, birth control for couples, Social Security for oldsters, human rights for blacks, Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for the poor and now equality for gays. But liberals gradually prevailed, and society advanced.

Saving the world is tough work, with many setbacks. Last week's victory for gays was one more step in the long march toward a better life for all types of people.

Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.


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