As I said at the outset of this series, I see many parallels between the tumultuous Victorian age and today. Rapid invention, medical improvement, and scientific breakthrough coupled with extreme poverty and protestant work ethic to create a world where anything seemed possible, even as they were plagued with troubles. How are the two eras alike? Let’s see.
Resentment between the rich and the poor as more people move to crowded cities looking for work? Check.
Odds of a good life largely dictated by race, gender, class, and region? Check.
Political and religious pressure on women to be homemakers, first and only? Check.
Religion in politics and legislation? Check.
Health fads and diets that promise to transform and purify? Check.
Underfunded, overburdened, and evangelical charity offerings? Check.
Prohibition of mind altering substances, and radical human rights advocates? Check.
Unfair labor practices and economic inequality between workers and owners? Check.
Respected people at elegant affairs calmly working to eradicate some types of people? Check.
The capacity to change the future? Check.
When looking at the past, we can either regret how little has changed, or celebrate what has. Chattel slavery is over. Child labor in the US is the exception now and not the rule. Women and people of color can often vote. Forced sterilization laws are mostly off the books. Building standards and workplace safety laws have saved untold lives. Communication and transportation technologies continue to build on the past, and I could conceivably take a holographic phone call while riding in a self-driving car in my lifetime. Things have changed.
For better or for worse, the Victorians shaped who we are today. And for better or worse, we will shape the generations that come after us. Will we make the mistakes of our grandparents and our great-great-grandparents, or will we learn from them? Will we recognize the signs of eugenist thought in our day, or will we laugh along at Idiocracy? Will we join movements together for common goals like the child welfare agencies, lady consumers leagues, and labor unions of the past did to get minimum age laws less than a century ago? Or will we pit our causes against each other, like poor ethnic American gangs in early New York?
We have the opportunity to change the world, to shape the future well beyond our own lives, and with potential consequences we can’t imagine. To look to the future, to strive for better, we must take lessons from history. We must see bigotry wrapped in beautiful or scientific words for what it is. We must temper our desire for reform with respect for individual liberty. In our haste, we must not let our better natures lead us to hell with their good intentions.