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Most readers of “First Thoughts” are likely, being mostly conservatives of some sort, to feel that things are always getting worse and that the contemporary world has fallen a few steps down the slope towards decadence from the position its predecessors held. In many ways things are getting worse, of course, but in many ways they aren’t. The world may have jumped down a few steps in some places, but in others it has taken a few steps up.

We tend to forget the sins of the past, especially if you’re an affluent WASP whose ancestors were always privileged. I was reminded of this by accident, when I stumbled across an old cartoon while looking for old Warner Brothers “Goofy Gophers” cartoons. (The gophers, Mac and Tosh, are exceptionally polite while they cause gopher-like havoc and the cartoons still crack me up.) The cartoon I saw is a 1943 Warner Brothers cartoon in their Merrie Melodies series titled “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs” — I’m not going to provide the link — and startling in its use of racial, and racist, stereotypes.

Then I happened upon novelist Ed Falco’s When Italian immigrants were ‘the other’ . He describes “the largest mass lynching in U.S. history,” the victims of which were Italian-Americans, in New Orleans in 1891.

After nine Italians were tried and found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, a mob dragged them from the jail, along with two other Italians being held on unrelated charges, and lynched them all. The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide.

What was the reaction of our country’s leaders to the lynchings? Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said they were “a rather good thing.” The response in The New York Times was worse. A March 16, 1891,editorial referred to the victims of the lynchings as “ . . . sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: ”Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans . . . .”

John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were”just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

I’ve run across several reminders of the accepted and unashamed anti-semitism of the past, as in a story about the literary critic M. H. Abrams, The Last Critic Turns 100 , I just saw this morning (and commend to your attention). He was studying at Harvard in the early thirties when
a career as an English professor must have looked like a pretty tenuous possibility for a young man named Meyer Abrams. Indeed, while Abrams recalled that he experienced no overt anti-Semitism (though “if I looked for it, I would have found it,” he said wryly), he was given a “downright warning” by his faculty adviser that the “profession was not open to Jews.”

It’s the casual “Of course, you can’t be an English professor” aspect of this that’s so revealing.

You can’t imagine a major studio making such a cartoon today, nor Italians being lynched, nor the  Times and a governor talking about them like that, nor a Harvard professor telling a student that an academic field is closed to Jews. That’s a significant change.

You will find many bigots who hate blacks, Italians, Catholics, and Jews, and more who don’t hate them but approve the bigot’s stereotypes — these are the people who tell you that they’re simply facing facts or just being honest — but they are not nearly so prominent and influential. There are some things a man just doesn’t say in public, even if he believes them, and many of those who believe them feel guilty for doing so. You can get fired from conservative magazines for expressing much milder versions of these views.

So some things do get better. As much as we reject the degradation of contemporary life — the sexualization of the culture, for example, which is not only libertine but coarse — it has been refined in some ways, particularly in the public treatment of others who are different from us. That’s something to remember.

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