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  • Writer's pictureAl DuPree

The Context of One Lifetime (Part 1 of 4)

You really need two lifetimes: one to learn how to live. The other to live what you've learned.

I can remember a world map from my sixth grade classroom in room 312 of Madison Elementary School in Pittsburgh PA. It was a topographical map that dominated one wall of the classroom that Mrs. Irene Marsh, who terrorized our little black selves for my last year of elementary school, presided over. My desk was next to that wall and sat just about even with the Ural mountains. So that meant that my view, when my daydreaming drifted away from the window and came to rest on the map, was dominated by the space designated as the USSR, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

At the time, I assumed that a map ... any map ... all maps, were, are and always would be the same. It was more than an assumption really. It was more like 'a given.' Like things in my life that simply ... were. With no active thought on my part.

Given the demise of the USSR (and Czechoslovakia and ...) and all of the changes elsewhere I now realize that's just not true. So ... I guess you could say I've learned a little bit since the sixth grade. And I also consider myself very fortunate to have lived through such a time. Because I am well aware that when I was born the place called Bosnia-Herzegovina did not exist. And the place called the USSR? It did. But it certainly doesn't any more.

But that assumption, about maps? That extends well beyond just maps (and grade school for that matter). We routinely assume that all the things around us were, are, and will be in large part unchanged. Of course when pressed we know it's not true.

But it's not how we live.

Regardless, it seems, of how we are educated, or how seriously we take our education. How ever much that education might encourage us to acknowledge that change has taken place in the past, we are unlikely to acknowledge it's possibility in the future. We most certainly know, for example, that life and living are significantly different between now and say ... 1896 (keep that year in mind as you read further). If pressed we could catalog the differences: from GPS to smartphones, automobiles to space travel. Yet, without some specific requirement to explicitly review the differences or the changes that have occurred? We more or less project what we are today; who we are today; how we go about being ourselves, individually and collectively, into whatever the space and time is in question.

Because the map was, is, and always will be the same. And what we are now is what we've always been, and will be for some time to come. Which more or less, puts everything within the context of our one lifetime. What we've seen, and what is while we're here, in large part shapes our expectations regarding what is to come and whether or not what comes is acceptable.

So when a Trump-McConnell packed Supreme Court signals its intention to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision which established a woman's constitutional right to choose to end a pregnancy? Well ... suddenly expectations of at least one faction of the country are significantly impacted. And within the faction of our country that supports Roe? Questions are frantically posed about how the court has come to be so influenced by politics and has strayed from strict interpretation of the constitution; how the court is being swayed by religious concerns; that the court is no longer respecting precedent; etc etc. And there is much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair within the pro Roe segment of the country. Commissions are established to discuss the possible expansion of the court. And the opposition launches accusations of court packing (of which they are already guilty ... but we'll leave that for another post).

But now suppose that we have the context of not one ... but two lifetimes? The experiences and information, knowledge and hopefully wisdom, accumulated over not 70 or 80 or 90 years; but perhaps 140 or 150 or even 160 years?

We'd likely see things a little differently.

And that brings me back to that date that I asked you to keep in mind: 1896. That was the year that the court decided the now famous case known as Plessy v Ferguson. In that decision the court held that segregation ... the doctrine known as "separate but equal" ... was perfectly constitutional and did not violate the 14th Amendment. And the ruling at 7 to 1, with Justice John Harlan the lone dissenter wasn't even close!

So ... now then, I've got these two lifetimes. So let's say then, I was born in or around 1880. I would therefore be 16 years old when Plessy was handed down. And I'd live through the horrors of a Plessy driven and organized world: Jim Crow segregation signs throughout the south; perhaps 3500 individuals lynched throughout the south and Midwest; job discrimination; housing discrimination ... hell, I would even be forbidden in some states to marry across racial lines. But I'd also be alive for the Brown v Board of Education of Topeka decision some 58 years later when the court partially reversed itself (Brown only applied to institutions of education) and decided that "separate but equal" wasn't so constitutional after all. Now, within the context of my two lifetimes, I'm just now entering 'middle age' at 74, and having lived through Plessy, I'd likely be scratching my head when Brown is handed down. Reconciling the two (even having read both opinions) would prove ... difficult. How could both decisions about a constitution otherwise not amended or modified be true?

Fast forwarding to 1973 when the court handed down Roe I am now, in my two lifetime world, firmly in middle age at 94. And I make note of the decision, but I make particular note of how contentious the decision is. The rancor and opposition remind me of the experience with Plessy and Brown. That is, opposition to Roe looks a lot like the opposition that was and to this day is, being organized and mounted against Brown.

Time traveling one final time to the present day I land in the Roberts court. Forty eight years have passed since Roe and the Roberts court (over the objections of the chief justice himself it seems) appears poised to reverse Roe. And while many around me are confounded by the direction the court seems to be heading, I have the advantage of having lived through several more decades than those around me. And I'm not under any illusions about he inviolate nature of the constitution or judicial precedence.

Because I know ... the lines on maps are revised all the time. And while the map might describe the same piece of land? There is absolutely nothing sacred or inviolate about how those borders are drawn.

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