Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Danger of Forgetting the Lessons of History

One of the biggest failings of the American public education system is its failure to continue to teach civics - how government is supposed to work - and history/geography.  This failure plays into extremists and would be autocrats by allowing them to lie with impunity about the past - e.g., the Christofascist myth that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" - and set the stage for a repeat of some of the worst disasters visited on man kind during the 20th century.  WWI ad WWII both were the result of unrestrained nationalism and many millions civilians of died as a result. With WWII, we saw an even more dangerous phenomenon as the Nazis refined a method to overthrow democracy and utilize hate and demonizing minorities to gain power and fool citizens into acting against their own true interest,  Again, millions died as a result.  Now, with a would be dictator occupying the White House whose main message is one of hate and division and who has proven that morality and decency mean noting to him, America seems poised to repeat not only mistakes from the past in its own history but to also condone the ugliest aspects of the 1930's and 1940's. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are largely clueless as to the dangerous precedents being repeated.  Former Republican Michael Gerson laments the situation in a column.  Here are highlights:

ONE OF THE worst things about our awful political moment is its historical forgetfulness. Many Europeans seem to have forgotten where chauvinistic nationalism and the demonization of minorities can lead. Many Americans seem to have forgotten that a foreign policy of America First allowed international malignancies to grow that made war inevitable and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. And many in Western countries seem to have forgotten the difficult, desperate project of building a moral and legal structure around the principle of human dignity in the aftermath of World War II.
Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the U.S. are both atrocities and reminders. They ring with distant but unmistakable echoes of the nightmarish events of the 1930s and 1940s: the racial purity laws, the economic indignities, the despairing suicides, the liquidation of the disabled, the digging up of Jewish graves in cemeteries, the deportations, the ghettos, the shootings in batch after batch, the pits of corpses, the emptied orphanages, the terrified walk to the gas chamber.
It is worth trying to recall how shocking these events were to the conscience of the world. The institutions of the modern state — bureaucracy, propaganda, military power —had been harnessed to the purposes of sadism and mass murder. This indicted a highly sophisticated and educated European society — along with the very idea of sophistication and education as brakes on evil. It indicted other nations who did little, even after the crimes became obvious.
But the response was ultimately an idealistic one. The Allies would institute a new order of justice and human rights. The Tokyo tribunals and the Nuremberg trials were both legal and moral enterprises. The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said he would not seek convictions for "mere technical or incidental transgression of international conventions. We charge guilt … that involves moral as well as legal wrong. … It is their abnormal and inhuman conduct which brings them to this bar."
The moral response to World War II-era crimes found expression in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which speaks of "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights."
[T]he most urgent, comprehensive attack on the universality of human rights now comes from the nativist right. In places such as Hungary, Romania, Germany, Poland and the United States, politicians are attempting to define nationality based on the dehumanization of cultural outsiders — Muslims, migrants and refugees. This type of politics is dangerous wherever it is practiced. In the United States, it also requires the renunciation of responsibilities rooted in the post-war acceptance of human dignity as the basis of global order and peace.
This is the cost of historical amnesia — the cost of electing an American president who is both ignorant of and indifferent toward the lessons of the past century, or any century. A president who always turns, by feral instinct, to an organizing message of bigotry and exclusion. A president who is throwing away an inheritance he does not value and unleashing forces that can easily move beyond control.
Be very afraid.  History can repeat itself when the majority of the public forgets the lessons of the past and how horrors were allowed to happen.  America's mass amnesia is frightening.  The 2018 midterms may yet prove to have put a break on Trump's excesses, but much more needs to be done.

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