Present as Past

In the American Television Miniseries Mrs. America, starring Cate Blanchett, we have two characters believing in outdated models of perceiving the world. In episode three, entitled “Shirley” after Shirley Chisolm’s presidential candidacy in 1972, each movement has to make conciliatory political moves in order to push their platform forward. In the counterargument to the women’s rights movement, “STOP ERA” has to create a national script so that Mary Frances, a delegate from Louisiana, does not give racially derogatory messages in public. For the ladies up North, it makes them uncomfortable.

Schlafly (Blanchett) at first gives some pushback to the idea of confronting Frances for her racist views, because Frances is popular and magnetizing. By the end of the episode, on both sides of the women’s rights issue, the stench of politics reeks on everything. Both the women’s movement and “STOP ERA” under Schlaffly made contentions about their campaigns that rendered their core agendas not as inherent to the rights of all humankind, but as coins to be transacted.

Before the end of the episode, a nuclear scare radio piece is overheard by Schlafly, which sends Phyllis downstairs to take deep meditative breaths…

…inside the nuclear fallout shelter.

It is a good episode in a well-written show for a variety of reasons. First of all it takes the devil’s advocate position of women’s rights using Schlafly, who as the political opposition was not even that interested in the issues to begin with, spending her time engaged in foreign policy. She stumbles in upon it when it becomes clearer that her fellow homemaker friends are worried about the possibility that their daughters could be drafted in some future war.

On the other side of the coin, the infighting of the ERA movement when coupled with the traditional party politics of Republican and Democrat, highlight the conundrums of women’s rights, which has always had, since Virginia Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own and before, some difficulty with the blending of class rights. The nonverbal truths to Schlafly lay outside her own understanding: she has a nanny caring for her six children, and so her wealth allows her to be of high intellectual standing. By even being able to organize and go against the ERA, Schlafly must be a strong and independent woman of her own, a rarity in 1972.

Historical fiction is so fun for the viewer because of the everpresent irony, of being able to confront the results of the present from the “choices” of the past. But this has limitations, as John Adams noted of the historical inaccuracies of the painting for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many were not even in the same room, giving credence to the painting as “bad history.” Still, it’s fun to recursively imagine the past and its role in the present.

But Schlafly’s bomb shelter and Mary Frances’s lines, while dating them to their time period, speak to our current predicament as well. Mary Frances was a part of our history, and should be understandably mocked. Was Schlafly crazy in building a bomb shelter? It may come off as a typical fear of the time (John F. Kennedy himself in 1961 wrote about bomb shelters), even when nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll likely informed top government entities of just how ruthless radiation was. And furthermore, once the radioactive particles entered higher levels of the atmosphere, there was no telling where it seemed to drop on the rest of the world. So random that they had to take baby teeth from each state for evidence of Strontium-90, realizing that nuclear testing in the Pacific had caused radioactive poisoning…in Idaho.

So, yes, Schlafly was on the one hand crazy. But with Toby Ord’s recent book, The Precipice, few people knew just how close we came to nuclear war, not by any deliberate attacks, but by accident.

By now you are probably seeing the nuance of the difficult decisions made by people in history, given their context. It is no different now. I have been taken to thinking about this moment as if it were the past. People 100 years from now will likely mock our social distancing measures, or will ridicule how little testing we had, or will deride our country for abandoning its poor to subpar medical care and for providing the basest of financial assets. It is not as if, by simply being the ones living now, we don’t also fall prey to the very same level of hindsight scrutinizing that Schlafly faces by us when we see her take her deep breaths.

Even now news is coming in about perhaps the coronavirus being in the United States for much longer than we realize, as people had died of it as far back as February 6th. We only make decisions based on the limited information we have. Future generations have bucket loads more, and books will be written about individual and systemic failures.

Instead, we must act with care and humility. As my hero Richard Feynman said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

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