We now seem to be in a defining—or perhaps I should say redefining—moment regarding our nation’s past. Revisionism seems far too mild a word for the statue smashing, curriculum restructuring, hero denigrating frenzy that is now engulfing America. The short version of our nation’s history is that we are apparently a horrible nation with a horrible past that was founded by horrible people—and that’s that. End of discussion.
Too few in positions of power and authority seem willing to stand up to the tide of America bashing that is clawing at the very foundations of our founding events and ideologies, and woe to those who express the least reluctance to support the intellectual mob rule by radical academics, flame throwing commentators, and cable news social theorists who now gleefully inform us that we are all garbage living in a garbage country. Perhaps those Americans who get a strange thrill from flinging horrid insults, which they often prefer to call honesty, find the thrashing of America and Americans either cathartic or edifying. Others, which likely includes a great many who feel blessed to be living in our nation, are left to wonder what country or people meets with the approval of the feverishly disenchanted among us.
Except in those instances where injustices are obvious and readily remedied, there seems little to be gained by shredding American history. We should instead learn from mistakes of the past— which seems a good and justifiable reason to keep our nation’s history intact. However, unless a time machine can be invented, the past is carved in stone and cannot be altered, although our broad understanding of it certainly can. Tearing down what was once our daily reality is not a teachable moment for anyone, and we lose any opportunity for a brighter future if we deliberately render ourselves incapable of learning from our past.
The end game of today’s angry advocates of ignorance is, at best, both unclear and contradictory. Are we to erase America and replace it with some half-baked utopia, one where we can all spend our unpleasant lifetimes stomping on humanity because it is comprised of flawed and frail humans? It is an inescapable fact that people sometimes react out of fear, anger, or self-interest when asked to make choices that—as is so often the case—must be made quickly and with limited information. Excuse me if I think it is pointless to punish people for our common sin of being imperfect.
We are at a dangerous tipping point. Our castigating media and academic cultures, both of which seem to revel in every public burning, combines all too readily with craven government officials that want to avoid the condemnation of the Cancel Culture warriors, who are perpetually ready to ruin a reputation or career in their quest for moral purity.
Toxicity in either intent or outcome also tends to breed yet more of the same on all sides of the debates in which we are now embroiled. Productive and respectful dialogues are never facilitated by condemning entire groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, language,gender, age, education, or other characteristic used by the intellectually lazy or insufferably smug to label rather than illuminate.
The most dangerous people in the world are those who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might, in fact, be wrong in their understanding of a situation and the motivations of those involved. For any of us to presume we can draw accurate or useful conclusions about what is in the hearts and souls of others based on looking just a few skin cells deep into the surfaces of their bodies is both foolish and arrogant—and could signal a predisposition for extremism in thought and action. Watching what is happening today in too many American cities, schools, businesses, communities, and families, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that we need to judge less and listen more.
The day we lose the ability to see one another as individuals rather than amalgamations of surface attributes is the day we learn to hate. One final—and critically important reason—for embracing our flawing history rather than destroying it is that we can learn about horrible past instances of persecution and denigration of groups of Americans because they were no longer seen as individuals.
Cruelty comes all too easily when we forget our shared humanity, and ignorance of our past mistakes is the worst mistake of all.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) August 9, 2020