Sunday, January 18, 2015

Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward 2000-1887. A utopian socialist novel, it envisioned a world in which social ills like poverty and illiteracy no longer existed because humankind had outgrown competition as a guiding principle.

By 1900 only Uncle Tom's Cabin had outsold Looking Backward among books published in the U.S. Folks so loved it as an alternative to the abuses of the Gilded Age that around the country 500 Nationalist Clubs sprang up to disseminate Bellamy's ideas.

Bellamy's father was a Baptist minister. His father-in-law was a Baptist minister who'd been forced out of his church for becoming a Freemason.

His cousin was Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892.

The Pledge was created to help the national magazine Youth's Companion sell subscriptions. The magazine gave away flags with new subscriptions, and Bellamy wrote the Pledge to help boost circulation.

But both the editor and Francis Bellamy were deeply patriotic. They also headed up the Flags for Schools Movement. They wanted every school in the country to have a flag out front. By September 1892, when the Pledge was published in the magazine to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, they'd sold tens of thousands of flags to schools.

Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister too.

Through 20th Century eyes, Edward's socialism and Francis's ministry and patriotism seem worlds apart.

But Francis was a Christian Socialist. He favored workers' rights and equal distribution of resources. He believed equality was inherent in Jesus's teachings. One of his popular lectures was “Jesus the Socialist.” On the other hand, he expressed doubts about letting “every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant” help govern us.

His concise Pledge was carefully worded. “Indivisible” was a shorthand reference to the Civil War, and “with liberty and justice for all” he cribbed from the slogan of the French Revolution.
Francis Bellamy also prescribed a very specific salute that accompanied the Pledge. Pledgers extended their right arms straight outward toward the flag. Around 1941 that particular salute didn't look so good, so it was replaced by putting one's right hand on the heart.

In 1954, as most folks know, President Eisenhower moved to add “under God” to the Pledge, to emphasize our national opposition to godless Communism.

But Francis was also what we'd now call a racist. (“Each alien of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. . . . There are races which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”) In fairness, one source says he omitted “equality” from the Pledge only as a compromise with school superintendents who didn't favor equality for women or African-Americans.

Each Age has its own contradictions. As we would now wonder how one could be a militant socialist and a Christian, or a socialist and a racist, later generations (if any) will wonder about us.
They'll know, for example, that in one huge political controversy, one side argued women should have free choice regarding their bodies and the other side wanted to prohibit abortion because all human life is sacred. When they realize there was also a controversy regarding the death penalty, they'll assume, logically, that the “Pro-Life” proponents must have opposed the death penalty. They might also assume “Pro-Lifers” looked askance at automatic weapons, while people favoring choice were more relaxed about guns.

(On a lighter note, future archeologists, as the old professor pointed out one day, will conclude that the human race grew smaller from the 1950's to the 1980's, because the cars got so much smaller. As have airline seats now.)

Strange creatures, we humans.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 18 January.]

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