Things were always better back when….

Posted on December 2, 2018


We’ve heard old timers say frequently that things were always better long ago in their youth. Music, morality, mothers and just about any category you can think about are remembered fondly and with great longing for the past.

But, was it all that great? Well, some would say–definitely. Today we even have a word for it—retro—: “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past: fashionably nostalgic or old fashioned.” (Merriam Webster’s) Retro of course stands in contrast to new or modern.

I think the most satisfying combination is the best of the past and best of the present. I like my computer, but I also liked growing up in a neighborhood where I could ride my bike and feel safe and happy and free to roam and play without parents overseeing or bothering me.

There are of course much larger issues here at stake than one’s happiness and well-being. While we just had a big election, some of the “big” issues did not go away in the avalanche of promises from politicians of all stripes. If anything, our leaders—old and new—need a lot of prayer.

Retro got me to thinking, obviously, of the past. And since we just commemorated the centennial of the First World War, I traveled back in my time machine to 1918 and revisited the subject of immigration which produced a lot of hot rhetoric in the election.

As is usually the case, everyone is an expert on immigration. Some want to open the borders to the whole world, while others suggest building something like the Great Wall of China from California to Texas.

Let’s start with what the first settlers–the American Indians—have to say on immigration.

What do they think of open borders? Most will answer, “are you crazy? Look what happened to our people when you all came in?” Good point. The indigenous people almost disappeared in the avalanche of immigrants. So much for open borders.

The contrary argument, of course, is that we are a nation of immigrants and this is one of the great strengths of our country. And it is. Now it is even fashionable to claim some native American Indian heritage, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren (aka “Pocahontas”) of Massachusetts, even if her claim is patently and provably wrong.

What were the rules for immigration one hundred years ago? In February 1917 Congress passed a detailed bill on immigration, twenty-four pages long (single spaced, small font) published in the 64th Congressional record. Known as the Literacy Act, it was the most comprehensive immigration act passed in American history and was the first aimed at restricting as opposed to regulating immigrants.

The Act imposed literacy tests, created new categories of inadmissible people, and openly barred immigrants from the Asia-Pacific zone. When first presented to President Woodrow Wilson, he vetoed it December 14, 1916, but it was overwhelmingly passed in February overriding the President’s veto. Inadmissables were: “alcoholics”, “anarchists”, “contract laborers”, “criminals and convicts”, “epileptics”, “feebleminded persons”, “idiots”, “illiterates”, “imbeciles”, “insane persons”, “paupers”, “persons afflicted with contagious diseases”, “persons being mentally or physically defective”, “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority”, “political radicals”, “polygamists”, “prostitutes” and “vagrants.” All those over sixteen had to be literate, which was defined as one who could read 30-40 words in their own language.

That the act was racist is transparently clear. That it included all sorts of categories that one could apply to modern politicians is worth a chuckle, if for no other reason that modern leaders probably couldn’t pass the requirements and prohibitions for immigrants in 1917. I’ll let you readers make the connections between such labels as idiots and political radicals to who we just elected to office.

So, were things better back in the “old days?” The answer, as we suggested above, is both yes and no. Retro is good when we sometimes remember fondly of a certain morality, a high regard for truth, personal responsibility, a godly culture, and, of course, the rest of our culture, everything from big bad Chevys and Fords to Charlton Heston as Moses, Paul Newman in Exodus and Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot in just about anything.

No matter how wildly exclusive, on whatever basis—mental, political, medical, racial, etc.—the 1917 immigration act represented, it was a part of our history that we need to consider, honestly and judiciously, as we explain where we are, and what we aim for in the future.

Published as “Were things better in the “old days?” Yes and no,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 18 2018