‘Clicking Through History’

At Federal Hall, a panel evokes earlier times of upheaval to understand the current problems with our democracy

18 Jun 2020 | 11:10

In a virtual panel from Federal Hall, CNN senior political analyst John Avlon stated, “I was talking to someone in the environs of the White House who described this moment as being a combination of 1918, 1929 and 1968. There is the weight of history upon us.”

That statement represents the state of the United States at this very moment. As the country continues to deal with the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is struggling to recover all that it has lost over the past few months. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people all over the country are in a state of unrest over the recent spate of racially-triggered deaths and are protesting and voicing out their sentiments against the establishment. Like Avlon’s statement, it’s difficult to comprehend the state the nation is in when it’s dealing with three eras of historical upheaval in just one 2020.

That is the subject of “Debate Defends Democracy,” a three-part series of discussions presented by Wall Street’s Federal Hall, the site of the enactment of the Bill of Rights, regarding Constitutional rights and issues during this time of unrest and uncertainty. The first panel was titled “Democracy in a Time of Crisis” on June 16 and was moderated by Avlon. Tuning in from Federal Hall, Sam Roberts, frequent New York Times writer, introduced the discussion.

The panelists drew several parallels to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, and one of the leading experts on the comparisons was John Barry, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Great Influenza.” Barry said that the biggest lesson of the 1918 epidemic was the need to maintain transparency. “We both learned and failed to learn the same lesson,” he said. As someone who’s been one of the consultants on pandemic preparedness and response plans, Barry said that “In some states we’ve had that. At the national level, we have not had that, obviously, from the White House.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton’s department of African-American Studies, drew further comparisons between 1918 and 2020. He explained how the 1918 influenza spread was bookended by the Red Summer of 1919, which saw largely anti-black and white supremacist riots break out all across the country. “There is an echo, not only in terms of the pandemic, but it’s also an echo in terms of the racial violence that has, in some ways, haunted the country since its founding,” he said.

As the panel opened up to questions, Michael Waldman, president of NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, spoke about the trend of countries backsliding instead of advancing towards more democracy, with the examples of India, Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey. “And it has frequently been a product,” he explained, “of the unaddressed or even unacknowledged economic toll, of the great recession, of population flows in some places, and a general decades-long economic and social stagnation that you’ve seen in a lot of places.”

Mixed Messaging

The panel continued to delve into deeper discussions of civil rights and freedoms offered by our current government and even briefly waded into the ongoing debate surrounding the monuments and statues of Confederates and historical figures now tainted by our history. Glaude argued that changing the context of these histories and looking at them from different perspectives would make more of a difference than simply taking them down. “Princeton decided not to take down all the signage, all the recognition of Woodrow Wilson,” he added. “What they decided to do was to tell a complex story about Woodrow Wilson in our built environment.”

Barry also commented on the mixed messaging that was being delivered to the country, with the President constantly trying to minimize the threat level of the virus, as opposed to public health officials and state leaders trying to say the right thing. “The result of this mixed messaging is that people are dying, to put it bluntly,” he added. “If more people did stand six feet away from everybody else, if more people wore masks, if more people washed their hands, we would have a lot fewer people dying. The impact of mixed messaging is fatal.”

Avlon then closed the discussion with what he termed as “30 seconds of hope.” “Give folks who are watching this a reason to hope that democracies do weather crises and that we shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the present,” he said. While the other panelists ended on notes of optimism, Waldman brought out the larger scope of things. “If you look at the science of evolution, a lot of times change comes slowly and then all of a sudden it comes too fast,” he said. “And you don’t always know if you’re living through one of those times. You don’t always know if you’re living through history. I have a feeling we’re going to know that we’re clicking through history right now.”

You can tune in to the remaining two panel discussions by checking out this link.

“There is an echo, not only in terms of the pandemic, but it’s also an echo in terms of the racial violence that has, in some ways, haunted the country since its founding.” Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Princeton University