Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Dangers of America's Refusal to Admit Its Past

A piece in Salon looks at an issue that I believe is far more important than many want to concede: America's refusal to honestly look at and admit the ugly elements of its past, a past that includes slavery, Jim Crow, the mass extermination of Native Americans, the stealing of Hawaii, brutal child labor.  The list goes on and on.  Yet many, especially those on the far right, want to remember nothing of the ugly past and instead celebrate the myth of American exceptionalism.  Refusing to face and admit the failures and horrors of the past set the stage for the same horrors to be repeated in one form or another.  Look no farther than the anti-transgender campaign in Houston and its echo's of Nazi propaganda to see how the past continues to haunt us.  What I see as the most frightening is the right's effort to rewrite and sanitize America's ugly past.   Here are some excerpts from the column:
Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House one spring day in 1865, bringing an end to the noble Southern cause that his great adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, described as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” But despite appearances the Confederacy had not been defeated, and today’s Republican Party represents its values almost perfectly. For reasons that are both obvious and deeply perverse, people in small Northeastern towns celebrate the Rebel flag their own ancestors shed blood to defeat. Eight hundred thousand died in that war and slavery came to an end, at least as a legal institution under that name. But with the defeat of Reconstruction it was transformed into a long-term system of white supremacy whose persistent effects, and whose very existence, must be repeatedly denied or minimized or greeted with a puzzled shrug. 

Why are black people still overwhelmingly poor and poorly educated? Why are they far more likely to live in substandard housing in poorly served neighborhoods, far more likely to be victims of crime and to be shot by police? One of our two political parties, the one that has been increasingly dominated over the last three decades by the great-great-grandchildren of the Confederacy, is pretty much built on the premise that those problems can only be black people’s fault — or, in the more beneficent view, can be blamed on diabolical white liberals who led the innocent black folk astray with “free stuff.” They certainly can’t have anything to do with the fact that African-Americans were enslaved until 150 years ago, had few or no political rights until 50 years ago, and throughout their history on this continent have been redlined and ghettoized and marginalized and covenant-excluded and financially exploited by an endless array of swindlers and usurers and predatory lenders.

Those things, we are constantly and nervously assured by red-faced men on television as they project their own fears and anxieties onto Black Lives Matter protesters or Quentin Tarantino or whomever else, are in the past. In the discourse of the American right, the past can only be one of two things: A) a story of glorious patriotism and heroism, or B) something that did not happen or does not matter. We don’t need to summon Faulkner in order to observe that police brutality and the shootings of unarmed black men are not in the past, and neither is our society’s worsening economic inequality, which includes a shocking racial disparity. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, the median white household in 2011 held just over $111,000 in total wealth. For the median black household, that number was barely $7,000 – 16 times less, or 8 cents in black wealth for every white dollar.

What I was looking for was an acknowledgment of the facts. And I think the reason that I was looking for an acknowledgment of the facts is that I understand the failure to acknowledge the facts as, in some way, an apology for what happened. And from there it’s a thin line between apology and acceptance, between acceptance and complicity, between complicity and active engagement. I suppose it’s that sense that if we don’t recognize the facts for what they are, we make it possible, or more likely, that those kinds of facts may repeat themselves.  

[W]hat the difference is, in general terms, between that and what we see in the Ukraine [in the film] with a group of characters gathering, you know, in Nazi uniforms for a re-enactment, or a burial of Ukrainian and German war heroes? What is the difference between that and a re-enactment of the Civil War? It’s a desire for a particular community to find connection and legitimacy with the past. And in finding connection and legitimacy, the danger is that you reinforce the conditions that continue to work their unhappy consequences.

“And we have to understand, equally, that this is not just historical material. I’ve been very involved in the last years on the issue of torture, for example. And I think that the amnesia in the United States about engaging with the fact that the country turned to torture once again after September the 11th — I think it’s going to have enormous consequences going forward. Even though it may not be perceived as having consequences within the United States, outside of the United States it was a huge moment for those who hold the United States to a higher standard because it is the world leader on human rights. It becomes too bloody easy to wheel it out and say, ‘Look, if they can do torture, then I can do torture.’”

If the past is not really past – the past of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation,” the past of Auschwitz and the Krakow ghetto, the past of American slavery and its endless repercussions – then it is still with us, and still shaping our behavior. As Sands makes clear, willful historical amnesia can be found in all parts of the world, but America has developed it into a poisonous and intoxicating high art. Our powerful national identity is rooted in the mythological notion that we are different and exceptional, free of the depressing chains of the past that hold other nations back from greatness. At this point in our history that belief is literally driving us insane.

Sands talks sadly about his friend Horst, the child of Nazis who does not want to know what really happened, and who drifts ever closer to denying that it happened at all. “Things unsaid have long-term consequences,” says Sands. “You think by pushing things under the carpet that you sort them out and they go away. But you’re doing the opposite, and they only get worse.”

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