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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Taking the Context Out of History- The Sunday Collage

"For everything you know, there was a time when you didn't know it."

I remember my first commercial plane trip very well. I was pretty excited about it. It was uneventful as plane rides go. That trip in the early 70's had something not found on commercial airliners anymore.

The plane was full of cigarette smoke.

Everyone seemed to smoke back then. There was simply no point in complaining about it because you would be told to shut up by the smoking mob. That's how it was.

Today, nearly 50 years later, our culture has changed dramatically. The smokers are all dead or recovering. Smoking today is not only frowned upon and illegal in any number of venues- smoking in public may subject you to any number of verbal assaults and shitty looks. That type of obnoxious behavior never happened in the 70's. Some people feel entitled to engage others with that type of obnoxious behavior because now they stand with the new majority. I know that mentality well.

The point of this vignette is that our history is a shared experience. Human beings have been making mistakes for thousands of years and undoubtedly, we will continue to do so. We realize smoking is harmful and kills us now. The vast majority of us have learned that lesson, some of us the hard way, and most of us no longer smoke.

Our shared historical experience is full of mistakes. People generally don't make decisions thinking that they are bad decisions at the time or that their decisions will go horribly awry later on. That is the context of decision making- we take our best shot given the circumstances at that moment. We do the best we can and yet, our best decision making has spawned some remarkably bad mistakes with horrific consequences throughout history.

The truth is- we may not be that smart to begin with.

Owning slaves was considered normal back in the 17 and 1800's. Slaves were brought here and sold by other black "slavers" or traders. Slowly, covering some decades and perhaps a century, our collective conscience got the best of us. Treating people like property, like farm animals to be bought and sold at auction, was losing favor.

If you love irony, I have always loved this. A slave owner himself, Thomas Jefferson penned the famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal."

Can you imagine what might have happened if you had stood in front of the Second Continental Congress and asked, "Umm Tom, that "all men are created equal phrase" does that apply to slaves like the ones you own or did God just sort of exempt them according to your interpretation of God's intent?

Our collective history is full of mistakes. That's how we learn. That's not something to be ashamed of- that's something to hold sacred and not forget lest we keep making the same mistakes.

In 1862, we had the mass hanging of Indians in Mankato, Mn. Originally our government was going to hang over 300, but instead hanged just 38 at once. They were not tried or convicted of anything really, other than they were Sioux. It was all part of a war or uprising brought about by our own government- as is often the case. The great emancipator, Lincoln, settled on the number 39 and ordered the executions. (one Indian received a reprieve)

Who could forget the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee?

In 1917, mine owners in Arizona rounded up nearly 1300 striking miners, kidnapped them and forced them into rail cars, and dumped them in a desert 200 miles away. I can't even begin to list all of the laws that were broken and civil rights violations that took place. Not one person was ever prosecuted for the Bisbee deportation.

The 1942 illegal seizure, deportation, and false imprisonment of 130,000 Japanese- Americans. Our country ruined their lives, they lost most if not all of their property, and a few lost their lives.

I want you to remember that according to our Constitution in place at the time- all of these men were created equally and endowed with certain inalienable rights. They were also entitled to freedom from illegal search and seizure, due process, trial by jury, and all of the other protections in place and afforded to them by the Bill of Rights. Yet somehow, we simply ignored all of those inalienable rights as we deemed fit.

That is part of our history. Horrible mistakes made by our best and brightest leaders. Yet every one of those mistakes seemed justified at the moment we made our decisions. The context in which all of those mistakes were made can never be forgotten. They were all thought to be good decisions at the time. You cannot simply erase our collective history by tearing down statues or declaring certain individuals as racist. The time and the context are long gone.

History is our collective, cultural memory- attempting to erase our history will not change anything. The dead will not care. The history books will not change. Robert E Lee will still have come from a family of slave owners. So will Andrew Jackson, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, Sam Houston, John Hancock, James Madison, Zachary Taylor.

Are we going to declare all of them racist, remove all statues and documents tied to them, tear out pages of our history books?

I love history. Transcribed as accurately as possible by the winners, I try to understand what it must have been like to be a soldier out on the South Dakota prairie that winter at Wounded Knee. Or who were those people who had to physically round up Japanese Americans and take them away? I try to understand how they must have thought and felt- like they were doing the right thing. I find it all quite fascinating but the one thing I never want to forget is that at the time those things were done- those were the best choices and solutions available to us. History and the context in which it happens- are inseparable.

Like smoking on planes.

Once again I shall leave you with my all time favorite quote which sums up this piece quite nicely.

“Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.” 
― Isabel PatersonGod of the Machine