Learn from the past, act for the future

Sam Smith – Now that Donald Trump has extended his noisy ignorance to history, it’s worthwhile for the sane in this land to reflect on the useful role of the past in what we do today.

Being married to a historian, I’ve learned not to underrate the past, but also to differentiate it from where we are today and where we might be tomorrow. Unfortunately, we seem to be in a moment when the past is being melded into the present in a confusing fashion. While one can certainly argue for understanding of slavery in our history, and the repugnant nature of Confederate statues, dealing with these issues does not compare, say, with providing adequate income for the poor or ending police brutality. We can not create a decent future by merely condemning the past.
What is happening now reminds me of a dysfunctional family in which some of whose members obsess through adulthood over the wrongs they experienced when young. The good trick is not to deny these memories but to figure out ways to replace them. In other words to learn from the past, but act for the future.

And the past, if you look at it seriously, can often be much more complicated than one thought. For example, I have just finished Colin Woodward’s superb American Nations, a stunning examination of the complexities of creating a state that tries to call itself one nation, but which really isn’t.


For example, before the slave trade developed there were white indentured servants. Says Woodward: “Scholars estimate indentured servants comprised between 80 and 90 percent of the 150,000 Europeans who emigrated to Tidewater in the seventeenth century…. The mortality rate was as high as 30 percent a year…. Indentured servants – some of whom had been kidnapped in England – were bought, sold and treated like livestock.”


And is was not just in the south. Woodward notes that under the Puritans, “Dissenters were banished. Quakers were disfigured for easy identification, their nostrils slit, their ears cut off, or their faces branded with the letter H for ‘heretic.'” … One sea captain was put in the stocks because on returning home he kissed his wife at his doorstep, “lewd and unseemly behavior” in the eyes of the court.
What we can learn from this is that slavery was the most dramatic and disgusting result of what is sometimes called a culture of impunity in which the powerful are allowed to ignore laws and decency. But it was not alone. Even today, we have a president who, while not owning any slaves, regards himself as functioning with impunity, a status achieved in the same manner that created a southern political dominance for decades after slavery during which lower class whites were repeatedly convinced their problems stemmed from blacks rather than from the Trumpish type leadership that controlled the era.


To deal with this today one would really have to include post-reconstruction American politics as well as the slavery era. As it happened, this was the era that introduced me to national politics as a young Washington reporter, one in which it seemed at times that the whole Capitol had a southern accent. It certainly passed southern laws.


Unfortunately, we tend to treat history like food. We have our favorite dishes – e.g. slavery – but ignore other facts such as women not getting their constitutionally backed vote until five decades after black men.
I was blessed to have covered Washington when it was moving from one favorite dish to another. The southern dominance was under attack by a new civil rights movement and one of the things I learned was that history was past. The issue now was what you did about it.
We recognized that while we couldn’t rewrite the past we could create a new future. And, frankly, we didn’t have time to tear down Confederate statues back then. There was just too much more important stuff to do.
For example, what if Black Lives Matter began to matter even more by leading efforts to make lower income Americans matter on various issues, regardless of their ethnicity? What if blacks became real leaders instead of just perceived victims?


Martin Luther King’s Stride Towards Freedom was the most important book I read in college even though it wasn’t on any assignment list. Among other things it taught this graduate of a Quaker high school (who used to say that Quakers didn’t fight hard enough for what they believed), how to be both manly and peaceful. And starting the first jazz band my high school had, I was strongly guided by my admiration for and education from, various black musicians.
In other words, black lives came to matter to me, in part, not because of history but because what was happening in my own life.


And I came to realize that while history was instructive, what really mattered was what I did today and was going to do tomorrow. And it’s a truth that still works.

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