HISTORICAL RESEARCH at times truly feels like a time warp.
For me, that’s been the case for almost five years, since I launched a thesis-level study of what at first seemed a small, never-fully-explained outbreak of arch-conservative political radicalism in a Northwest town (the Charles H. Fisher affair in Bellingham, at what’s now Western Washington University, during the Great Depression).
But the deeper I plunged, the clearer it became that the radical cabal that ousted that college president, on trumped-up “communist” charges, wasn’t actually that radical at all. The protagonists were conservative pillars of their community: a newspaper editor. A doctor. The town’s most-respected female civic leader. A minister. (OK, and one card-carrying Klansman. Still …)
The roots of their angst seemed deep — and disarmingly similar to emotions of the critical post-World War I period of 1919-20, when long-simmering xenophobic hatred burst to the surface in the Northwest and elsewhere, devouring numerous undeserving victims.
It wasn’t the first eruption; as present developments indicate, neither will it be the last. The bile produced by politics of fear has been there, all along. It remains. Suppressions are less occasions to celebrate than respites to gain strength for the next fight. This should be one of the lessons of our history.
But there are many others, and when time allows, I still work to absorb them, pecking away at additional archival research of the interwar period. The goal is a nonfiction book drawing parallels between hate-driven antics in a Northwestern town with the politics of today, eight decades down the road. Some are uncanny.
As mentioned in this week’s cover piece, that can be hazardous duty. I vacillate between being encouraged and depressed by the “rhyming” of history. But the one constant is a desire to learn more, and respond constructively by sharing context, of which we all seem to be short these days.
That’s the genesis, and motivation behind, today’s cover essay, which attempts to draw parallels between Northwesterners at the dawn of the highly eventful 1920s, and the 2020s that now lay before us. It follows up, somewhat intentionally, my colleague Jon Talton’s future-focused essay of a week ago.
We know where the ’20s of our forebears took us. Predicting where our own ’20s will lead is a fool’s errand. In fact, historical parallels based on arbitrary time periods, especially tidy chunks such as decades, can be a crutch of sorts for writers of both history and journalism.
But in this case, the parallels between two decades an even century apart happen to line up in unusually intriguing ways. So perhaps that crutch might help us limp to wherever we’re going with fewer crashes along the way than our great-grandparents racked up.