If you despair that our country won’t make it through any of our current crises, just remember, history is a fickle, messy thing. We were all taught it differently; it appears we only choose to remember those parts that suit our personal arguments best. Today, we are fighting a stubborn virus, one that is invisible and resists immunity. However, it is not COVID-19. It is instead our human propensity for believing only what is convenient, despite any evidence to the contrary, no matter whose foot we must stomp on to have it our way.
How contagious is our human capacity for demonstrating hatred? We pass it on down to our progeny, like grandma’s recipe for apple pie. Check our fevered brows to see which of us warms to the embrace of discrimination, inequity and injustice. So long as it’s not us, or one of our own kind who suffers from the incurable disease of opportunities denied, we feel just fine. Check our pulse. Seems many of us are suffering from a fatal cancer in our national psyche, one for which we’ve not yet discovered a cure.
We Americans have historically been complacent in the face of crises, although this complacency is arguably not just made-in-the U.S.A. As Americans, however, we pride ourselves on taking action. We know our rights backwards and frontwards–we relish the freedom to take to the streets en-masse, to kvetch on social media, to yell “foul” when things don’t suit us. We are free to assemble to protest against causes just, unjust and frivolous. We’re also free to fiddle while things burn to a crisp around us. We may not hold the World Cup for the blame game, but that’s not for lack of trying. We resist critical thinking when we get busy seeking high-fives from others within our tribes. Solidarity feels good, feels righteous! Although unity can be a strength, unified belief in the wrong ideas can erupt into dangerous, even deadly infernos.
We have also been historically lied to by our leaders, ill-treated, spoon-fed sugar-coated half-truths. It’s like we’re children who can’t be trusted to handle what’s really going on. Oh, I get it. Sometimes, classifying information is absolutely necessary. Loose lips and sinking ships and all that. At other times, however, governmental cover-ups spawn crazy conspiracy theories; they postpone our appropriate reactions to life’s painful realities.
Censorship is hardly new. National unpreparedness is not either, even in the face of crises to which we should have been paying more attention. Our country has often been caught with our proverbial pants down around our ankles. Current events like police shootings should not shock us, as much as they anger us. All sides are shouting “enough,” but enough means something different to all sides. We demand action that demonstrates tangible change, but we cannot agree on any action that is undertaken. We’ve always been willing to sacrifice the good for the perfect. Sadly, we cannot codify honest change in the hearts of people; we cannot force our fellow citizens to surrender their hatred, fears and delusions. What we can choose though, is to not surrender to them or accept their ugly consequences. We can choose not to tolerate injustice just because we’re gotten used to it. We have to constantly keeping picking at what makes us itch. We can choose to not live in fear that because we share something, somehow that’ll mean we have less.
Rioting, looting, hoarding—these actions are NOT new either, and certainly they are not behaviors that are indicative of any one race, ethnicity or creed. From the Boston Tea Party, to bloody labor-management strikes, to large-scale property destruction, to panicked runs on financial institutions, to looting goods on the shelves of stores, to the willful desecration of beloved institutions, to openly demonstrating hate for anyone who doesn’t “look like us,” we Americans should own up to our long history of behaving badly. Our yesterdays are drenched in bloodshed and tragedy, and most often, it’s the most innocent among us who suffer the most. Sometimes, these innocents are victims of the times, paying the ultimate price for actions over which they have little or no control. In WW II, it was Japanese-Americans who were locked up “for their own good” in internment camps. We even locked up the Nisei, those Japanese-Americans born here with the same rights as we all cherish under our US Constitution. Some caution during war time is certainly necessary, but outright cruelty and discrimination against “the other” often reaches hysterical and senseless proportions. Let’s be honest: In times past, we Americans have also been content to sit in the bleachers, allowing others to do our fighting for us, no matter who or what the enemy. The Front Line is comprised of many unwilling heroes and heroines, but thankfully, courage does manifest itself in beautiful, unexpected action.
Post-Pearl Harbor, African-Americans were shut out of unions, denied the right to even apply for good-paying defense jobs, and shunned by parts of the military. They were denied affordable housing close to defense jobs even as the country had to gear up quickly for war. An unapologetic activist, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was in the US House of Representatives as a Congressman from Harlem during this time. He often irritated his congressional colleagues, needling them with uneasy truths. He noted:
“The Negro people are not sold on this war. They are not sold on it because they remember the last war, to make the world safe for democracy.”
Powell challenged Americans to make America safe for democracy before “you go out and make the world safe for it.” He told a Boston audience in February 1942, that African-Americans had returned home from World War I to face the same old “pseudo-democracy” at home, as well as the “worse race riots the country has known.” Eighteen national African-American organizations, including the NAACP, agreed, reporting that their membership was not in favor of going to war. A poll of Harlem residents in 1942 even found about half of the respondents believed they would be treated better by the Japanese than by white Americans. These are interesting tidbits we never learned in History class, aren’t they?
Recently, someone said this to me:
“They don’t know their history.”
It was an ugly, ignorant comment, entrenched in hatred, racism and self-righteousness. There was no mistaking the virulent prejudice relative to the “they” in the statement. I cringed at the blatant ignorance; it appalled and sickened me. I had to respond:
“They don’t know history? None of us really do, do we?”
I knew this person supported the current administration’s cruelty and ignorance, so it was difficult to swallow the bile rising in my throat.
“If they’d only go out and get educated, educate their children and live decent lives instead of all this foolishness…” Oh yes, she started going down that road, but I had heard enough. Time to shut it down.
“You had a President for eight years who was educated, whose wife was educated and who was a decent family man. You hated him. You replaced him with a man who questioned his birth and religion. Believe me, you don’t wanna go there.”
You know why History must repeat itself? It speaks loudly–we hear it, yet we seldom listen to it. We interrupt it with our own half-baked notions. We ignore it even while it bangs us on the head, hoping to get through to us.
We did eventually prevail in WWII, but we did not do it by easy consensus-building, giving unquestionable support to every measure of preparedness, or joyfully agreeing to rationing tires, silk or sugar. We did not win because we believed everything we were told by anyone in leadership. We questioned. We fought. We hoarded. We looted. We rioted. We hated “the other.” We cringed in fear and whined incessantly. We also coped, supported our troops and eventually turned the tide against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Eventually, we found some areas of uneasy unity, coming together despite our differences. To do otherwise would have been to issue a death warrant to the world. That’s what we can do when we put aside differences and work toward the greater good.
By the Vietnam conflict, however, African-Americans were still feeling the sting of prejudice. Unjustly and disproportionately, young black men were drafted to fight for yet another country’s “freedom,” when they were still being shut out of opportunities for advancement, education and housing in their own country. Today, the issues are unjustly proportioned incarceration rates and a systemic police brutality in many cities and towns. It’s still a climate in which dog whistle politics thrives. Make no mistake: Jim Crow laws are still practiced by many, even though they have supposedly been “erased” from the law of the land.
As a friend recently wrote, we must remember that as countries go, we’re still only a puppy. We only have about three centuries, not millenniums behind this experiment we call democracy. Yes, we are messy, as we attempt to perfect this free will idea, this crazy notion that insists that ALL of us are created equals. History is going to have to rap us on the nose occasionally for piddling the floor, growling at each other and biting the hands that feed us. But hopefully, it won’t require us to wear a collective choke collar because we never could get trained better.
There are no guarantees that we will prevail in our attempts to remain a free country, living up to both the letter and spirit of our Constitution. It’s a Pyrrhic victory if only some get those rights while we continue to deny freedom to some of our neighbors. Still, History doesn’t ask us to despair or surrender hope, just our ignorance and immunity that resists facts. We should always assemble, debate, discuss, question, protest, and seek viable solutions. We should always look at the past for answers as we forge our future. But, unless we listen to the past, really listen, we cannot learn from it. What kind of freedom should we leave to future generations, no matter what the demographics look like? A better one. Always a new and improved one. If History is anything, it should be a catalyst for positive change.