Only 4% of the American public supported interracial marriage in 1958. By 2013 it was 87%. If you were living in 1958, at your current age, you would probably have been one of the 96% of people who did not like the idea of white and non-white Americans marrying. It wouldn’t be just you either. Most or all of your friends and family would have felt the same way. Only 1 in every 25 people you saw walking down the street would have accepted interracial marriage.
A lot has changed over the decades and centuries. As far as I know there is no data to show what support for slavery was in the United States in the early 19th century, but it would have been high, and you probably would have supported it too.
It’s comforting to think of people in the past as different from us. They believed horrible things and we don’t because those people were different. Problem is you would probably have been just like them. It’s uncomfortable to realize that if we lived in a historical period we would probably have had the same disturbing beliefs as everyone else.
Here’s another uncomfortable thought: History isn’t finished. One day you and what you believe today will be part of history. There are going to be things we believe today that will be considered disturbing and morally wrong decades from now. What is something that 96% of us believe today that our grandchildren will hope we never mention around the dinner table?
It’s more than a thought experiment. It could have real effects on how you will be remembered by your descendants or even by history.
Jack London wrote stories of the harsh wild’s, and people and animals that live and endure them. His writing style was crude, brutal, and was an altogether different beast from the typical writers of the time. He’s also a deeply tainted man. We know him as a writer, but much of his life’s work was devoted to bringing a racist, violent, socialist revolution to the United States.
A Slate article by Johann Hari in 2010 describes his dark side:
“I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist,” he said, and he meant it. His socialism followed a strict apartheid: It was for his pigmentary group alone. Every other ethnic group, he said, should be subjugated—or exterminated. “The history of civilization is a history of wandering—a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit,” he said coolly. “The dominant races are robbing and slaying in every corner of the globe.” This was a good thing, because “they were unable to stand the concentration and sustained effort which pre-eminently mark the races best fitted to live in this world.”
And for those who are not “best fitted to live in this world”? In his 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” the United States—with the author’s plain approval—wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes it over. It is, the story says, “the only possible solution to the Chinese problem.”
Socialist movements in the late 19th and early 20th century often held the same ideas on race as the rest of society in the era. An Australian labor publication called “The Queensland Worker” once asked in 1894:
Are the white men of Australia willing to permit their women and children to be inoculated with loathsome diseases and polluted by the presence of the swarming hordes of Asia? Will the white people who are engaged in business pursuits without a protest suffer themselves to be ousted by Javanese, Syrians, Chinese, or Japanese? Should not all white people unite to save their race and civilisation from going down before the black, brown, and yellow invaders?
This would often be unrecognizable to most socialists today, or even by Karl Marx who saw racial divides as a bourgeoisie tool to prevent unity among working classes. Yet extreme and violent racism was common with many socialist groups of Jack London’s era. For them, preserving a supposed racial purity and lifestyle was sometimes as important as gaining worker rights and a bigger slice of the economic pie. These ideas were sometimes intertwined in a world they saw as a zero sum game — economic gain for a non-white worker must have meant economic loss for a white worker.
We know Jack London for his stories, but as a literary figure his rough, crude style marked a drastic transition from the more flowery 19th century, and it inspired great 20th century authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Orwell. Despite those influences on 20th century literature his writing is barely known or appreciated by the general public today. Worse for Jack London is his life’s work of promoting a violent, racist, socialist revolution is utterly unknown. By the time he was 40 he was losing himself to alcohol and depression brought on by the failure to create his white only socialist America. He died of complications from a morphine overdose.
To feel comfortable reading Jack London requires ignoring who he really was. He and his work are reduced to a caricature of themes on wilderness and masculinity that is easily consumed, and it turns him into a minor literary icon that we can never fully embrace.
Sometimes it is impossible to ignore what a great historical figure believed. The German composer and conductor Richard Wagner was one of the greatest opera and symphonic writers in history. Leonard Bernstein called the opera “Tristan und Isolde” “the central work of all music history.” Wagner didn’t just write good music. He revolutionized the way it could be written. By writing music that purposely refused to resolve tensions created by dissonance in one chord to the next — not satisfying what our brain wants to hear — he showed future composers new ways to tell stories and excite listeners on an emotional level. The “Tristan Chord,” which used this technique is the most famous chord in musical history.
His influence on music and narrative was so profound that we hear it in movie soundtracks today. John Williams uses leitmotifs — recurring musical phrases associated with characters, places, and ideas — in movies like “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” When you hear Darth Vader’s theme you hear a leitmotif. Wagner popularized the leitmotif and showed how powerful they could be when used in works that involve a combination of narrative and music such as film, or opera in his own time.
He was also extremely antisemitic. In 1850 he wrote “Jewishness in Music,” an article where he attacked Jews as a people and their supposed negative influence on music. He claimed he wrote the article to:
explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.
He may have actually wrote the article to help his career by bringing popular antisemitic rhetoric against artistic rivals who happened to be Jewish and, at the time, more successful than him. His work was further tainted after his death. Hitler loved Wagner. He used the overture for the opera “Rienzi” as a theme for Nazi party rallies, and it was not just because he liked the way it sounded. Hitler actively promoted the mythic nationalist quality of Wagner’s operas, and, in the case of “Rienzi,” he personally identified with the protagonist.
In 1953 August Kubziek, a childhood friend of Hitler, wrote:
My friend, his hands thrust into his coat pockets, silent and withdrawn, strode through the streets and out of the city….Never before and never again have I heard Adolf Hitler speak as he did in that hour, and we stood there alone under the stars….It was a state of complete ecstasy and rapture, in which he transferred the character of Rienzi…with visionary power to the plan of his own ambitions.
Wagner’s beliefs, and Hitler’s use of his work have hurt him ever since. He may not be alive to realize it, but his influence and popularity will forever be stifled. He is a deeply controversial figure and many can’t bring themselves to enjoy his music because of its link to Hitler, and his own personal beliefs. British writer, actor, and comedian, Stephen Fry is Jewish and a lover of Wagner’s music. The tension in those two qualities drove him to do a documentary on his tense relationship with the man. At one point he describes how he wishes he could go back in time and tell Wagner that the person most hurt by his antisemitism was himself.
It is tragic when brilliant, globally influential people are tainted by beliefs that may have been common in their era but determined morally wrong later. In Wagner’s case it was made even worse by Nazi appropriation. It wasn’t just Wagner the man who was tainted by his beliefs. It was his entire body of work as well.
We should be aware that maybe future generations won’t look at us as kindly as we’d expect. One way to help yourself is to have a self-defined moral code. When you look back at Jack London and Richard Wagner’s racism and antisemitism you can see beliefs that would have no place in a clearly defined moral code that says something as simple as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That may be a Christian quote, but it’s a good moral tenet to have no matter what you believe. If you have to search and struggle and twist to find a way to avoid a conflict between that belief and another then maybe one is wrong. You’ll have to decide which it is for yourself.
You have to think about who you are and what the future might bring. It isn’t just your life that may be affected, it’s how you and what you do will be remembered.