Will We Learn From History, Or Repeat It?

Thursday, September 09, 2010 - 03:43 PM

"If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity."
John F. Kennedy 

As Americans, as humans, we seem to be incapable of learning from history.  Slavery is still a black mark on the history of our country that was founded as a place of liberty where all men are created equal.  We fought a war against each other to end slavery, we killed our brothers and fathers and husbands over an idea of freedom.  It was one of our finest and most tragic hours. We transformed our national shame into an example of ultimate sacrifice for principles.

But we followed it with the era of Jim Crow, of separate but equal, of Whites Only bathrooms and the bodies of children at the 16th Street Baptist Church.  And our racism and hatred became again a national shame.  Soviet Russia used our treatment of blacks as a tool for propaganda.  (Take a look at the poster called "Shame on America" that features a burning cross and hooded figures beside the Statue of Liberty.)  

Jim Crow was defeated by the determined and courageous efforts of average Americans who risked their own lives for the sake of civil liberty.  It was black washerwomen and hair stylists and maids and secretaries who walked for more than a year in support of the bus boycott.  Many of them lost their jobs, some endured beatings as they waited for rides, some lost their lives.  Martin Luther King, Jr. paid the ultimate price for the cause of fairness and tolerance.  The civil rights movement showed Americans at their best: courageous, principled, and fierce in their commitment to freedom.

In the years that followed, we as a nation realized that our racism was an embarrassment and a disgrace.  We feel the same about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  That was a cruel mistake.  We allowed the heightened emotions of the time to make us see some Americans as different, as enemies, as "other."  It was the violent events in Pearl Harbor that made Americans hate anyone with Japanese features, failing to distinguish between the people responsible for the attack and the innocent civilians who shared a heritage with Hirohito's soldiers.  Half a century later, President Reagan signed a bill that apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans.  It says the barbarous treatment of Americian citizens was motivated by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership".

Does this sound familiar to anyone?  I see strong parallels.  Many Americans are now using the attacks on 9/11 to stereotype and punish all members of the Muslim faith.  Some are finding reasons to justify restricting the rights of Muslims, and they're using arguments that are all too familiar.  These are the arguments used when we threw 110,000 Japanese-Americans in prison camps; these are the justifications used during Jim Crow.  It comes down to unreasonable hatred that we dress up in righteousness in order to add power and credibility.

Why can't we see our mistakes from the past and learn from them?  Hilary Clinton says we are in a "new American moment" and we asked what kind of moment this is.  I say this is a teachable moment.  This time, let's not make the same mistake we made before.  In 30 years, what will we think of the pastor that plans to burn the Koran in Florida?  What will we think of our righteous objection to allowing Muslims to build a house of worship in their own neighborhood, where their family members died on 9/11 just as did Christians, Jews, and Buddhists?

I'm hardly the most elegant writer and my opinions don't carry the weight of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.  So allow me to quote Jimmy Carter:  "We live in a time of transition, an uneasy era which is likely to endure for the rest of this century.  During the period we may be tempted to abandon some of the time-honored principles and commitments which have been proven during the difficult times of past generations.  We must never yield to this temptation  Our American values are not luxuries, but necessities - not the salt in our bread, but the bread itself."

Carter said that in 1980 during his farewell address.  30 years later, the words still have resonance because our national memory is short and we seem condemned to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.

We are yet again in a civil war, a culture war, a political war and make no mistake, the stakes are high.  Just as Lincoln said on the field at Gettysburg, "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."  And we are all on the battlefield; we will all have to choose sides.  What kind of country are we?  Can we shift through news reports to discard the hysterical and glean the reasonable?  Can we set aside our personal discomfort to stand by the ideals under which this country was founded.

I'm going to end with an extended passage from the movie "The American President."   Your opinion of Michael Douglas or the film may differ from mine, but perhaps we can agree that the screenwriter hit on something important during the title character's monologue toward the end of the movie.

"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms."

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