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At Williamsburg, a reminder of what we’ve gained, and could yet lose

A plaque along the walking bridge at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. (Photo by John L. Micek)

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. An appropriately picturesque walking bridge connects the Visitors’ Center at Colonial Williamsburg to the meticulously recreated historic site about a mile away. And every step along it is a step backward into our tangled, jumbled, and often painful history as a nation.

At regularly spaced intervals, plaques set into the concrete remind you that, in the not-too-distant past, there was no television, long-distance travel was onerous and difficult, that, until 1920, women were denied the right to vote; that, until 1865, you knew someone who owned another human being, and that, in 1776, you were still subject to the whims of a king an ocean away.

The return trip across the bridge, as you might expect, is a voyage to where we are now: With religion becoming a matter of personal choice, rather than state mandate. The embryonic United States expanded westward, but at a terrible cost to the native peoples who already occupied the land. President Abraham Lincoln lifted the chains of bondage for millions, but so much work still remained. Public education became an option for all. By the 1930s, Social Security and other programs provided a safety net to those who needed it the most. In the 1950s, a woman named Rosa Parks stood up for what was right by sitting down.

As I walked that bridge for the first time a few days ago, I was struck by the notion that the simple poetry of those bronze plaques reflected the arc of the nation — always moving forward, even if sometimes bumptiously, expanding the rights of our fellow citizens, even if that progress was irregular and always long overdue. To come to Williamsburg is to be reminded of the optimism of the American experiment, and to remember that the work of creating a more perfect union is always ongoing.

And then as I walked some more along the bridge and into the historic area, it occurred to me that, for the first time in my lifetime, there are forces afoot, real and palpable, that are working to turn back the clock on all those hard-won gains, because, it seems, those behind it are afraid of the future, or they don’t wish to surrender their prerogatives to a country that is becoming ever more diverse and pluralistic.

That battle has unspooled in public school classrooms, waged by people who misguidedly want to preserve a very specific version of our national story, one that prioritizes white and privileged voices over those who have been marginalized for too long. But to do that is to defy the reality of history. It’s impossible to tell the full American story without including the voices of its native people, the enslaved and formerly enslaved, upon whose backs the country was painfully brought to life.

That battle has unspooled in our courtrooms, before a U.S. Supreme Court that, as now seems apparent, is perfectly ready to strip bodily autonomy from fully 50 percent of the population. And in the doing of it, turn back the clock a half-century, to a horrifying era where people who can get pregnant went to deadly lengths to assert control over their own futures.

As those brass plaques along the bridge make clear, we were once a nation that celebrated science. One particularly makes note of Thomas Edison helping to bring the nation out of darkness in 1879, by building his first light bulb. Nearly a century-and-a-half on, the president of the United State pleaded with the American people this week to follow basic science and get vaccinated against a virus that has so far killed more than 800,000 of their fellow citizens.

We see it in attacks on voting rights and the legitimacy of our elections.

In Washington, though he lacks the votes to change the filibuster, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he planned to take up a voting rights bill during the first week of January, the New York Times reported. Schumer also threatened rules changes if the chamber’s Republicans continued their resistance. But, as the Times noted, it’s hard to say how far Schumer might go given that two of his fellow Democrats, U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, remain opposed to such changes.

Meanwhile, the myth of the stolen election, and the rise of the far-right, which is extending its reach into local offices with oversight of elections, continues unabated. And a former president continues to spread the fiction that he won the 2020 election, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Worse, he’s been abetted by many of his fellow Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District.

The destructive effect of this sustained attack on the underpinnings of our republic isn’t academic. One expert in foreign civil wars is warning that the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” Indeed, things have deteriorated so badly over the last five years that the country no longer technically qualifies as a democracy, according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, citing research by University of California at San Diego political science professor Barbara F. Walter, who serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force.

Instead, the country is now an “anocracy,” which puts it somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state, according to Walter.

It sounds cliché to say it, but we’re at a tipping point as a nation. And as we head into a new year, with a contentious campaign season ahead, every choice we make as a country in the 12 months to come will reverberate into history.

There’s a final plaque set into the concrete on the return leg to the Visitors’ Center. The question it asks is as simple as it is towering in the challenge it poses: “What difference will you make?”

The answer has never been more important.

John L. Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

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At Williamsburg, a reminder of what we’ve gained, and could yet lose