Sleeping Under Book

Some chapters in American history may be difficult to process, but they should be there for us to learn.

It was more than a year ago when one of my blogs posted on Facebook received an ominous “blacklisted” tag. It was only a couple of weeks after the insurgence at the Capitol. The word “fascism” was in the blog’s heading, and I thought maybe it was flagged for proliferating an unproven conspiracy or fueling anti-government sentiments. It was, in truth, a historical overview of how democracies, including Germany, Spain and Italy between the two world wars, had fallen under the spell of fascist dictatorships during economic crisis or social unrest.

I guess if I had been expounding on Democrats eating babies or aliens attacking Republicans with laser guns, it would have been okay. Turns out I was writing about something even more threatening to freedom of speech— history. Hey, a lot of bad things have become part of history, which, of course, is all that has come before. That includes just about everything that has ever happened, except if it is happening right now. And then, once observed and documented by credible sources, it becomes history.

If I go downstairs in my basement and set a personal high of two hours on my elliptical trainer, that is not necessarily history. That’s a memory and, if I happen to share it with someone else, the event itself is not necessarily history. Especially if I was making it up, and I don’t even have an elliptical. Or a basement, for that matter. Okay, I do have a basement and I even have an elliptical, but an hour —make it 45 minutes— is the max for me on that thing. You think I’m made of time? C’mon.

So the only history in all this is that I have just shared a theoretical example with you that probably will not be retained in either of our memories. That brings up the following question: If something happens and is forgotten, is it history? Probably not, because history is not the same as the past even though it can only be history if it happened in the past. You might be making history, but it’s not history until someone makes it and it is ultimately documented for posterity.

The history I’m talking about is a branch of knowledge comprised of recorded past events that can be analyzed to help us understand why people behave the way they do under divergent conditions. Because people have similar human responses, whether in 1922 or 2022, we can learn from both their successes and failures. Since it is well known that history often repeats itself, we have come to realize that it is often ignored. Ignore, after all, is the root of ignorance. Most wars turn out to be mistakes— for the side that loses at least— and then there are those losers who never seem to learn from their mistakes.

There is no better example than 20th Century Germany, which was the primary aggressor in both world wars, and has returned to a democracy with a parliamentary representative government and, like the United States, relying on legislative, executive and judicial branches. At the same time neo-Nazism has been making a comeback there, and we have no shortage of neo-fascists groups here. Witness the Proud Boys and others who played a huge role in the disgraceful acts of treason and sedition of January 6, 2021.

Democracy is increasingly difficult to sustain when it becomes a challenge for the average citizen to feed and clothe his family. The Nazi party in Germany, which was born from the embarrassment and disillusion of its leaders surrendering to end World War I when many Germans, mostly veterans, were convinced they were on the verge of winning. They blamed liberal and weak leaders for taking that victory away from them and subjecting them to worldwide humiliation due to costly penalties imposed against them by their former enemies, including the United States. Somehow the Jews became the ultimate villains blamed for destroying their beloved country from within— a unproven conspiracy that was at first rejected by an overwhelming majority of the citizenry. Things change as life gets tougher.

Crises Can Bring Out Best— and Worst— in Us

The Nazis, with Hitler as their leader, were that close to foundering and being relegated to just another lost cause when a crisis sustained them. The stock market in the United States crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, and the U.S. and other countries had to call in loans that were helping Germany, still recovering from postwar reparation, get back on its feet. Hitler had predicted, as he ranted and raved in his speeches in previous months, that they were headed toward an economic disaster driven by a Jewish conspiracy. He was suddenly seen as prescient, and therefore relevant. It was the beginning of the end for the German democracy which had evolved from the rules of Kaisers, capped by three decades of prosperity under Kaiser Wilhelm II over the three decades leading up to the controversial defeat in 1918.

The advent of fascist rule has almost always been preceded by a crisis, and crises are almost always fed by pointing the finger of blame at previously trusted institutions and stoking that disillusion through conspiracies.

I can’t say for sure if that blacklisting label came from Facebook or a hacker playing around. It also happened the next week when I was writing about similes, but I was subsequently un-blacklisted without explanation. So it goes.

It seems that history, or the teaching of it to our children, has itself been targeted for blacklisting as political campaigns heat up from the spring primary this year. I see political candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate taking issue with school curriculums plumbing too deeply into slavery and the systemic racism that has evolved from it. One of the candidates here in Pennsylvania proclaims it thusly: “Teach our children ALL THAT IS GREAT about America!” The argument is that teaching anything else is unpatriotic, even anti-American.

This is ignorant patriotism, because it excludes some valuable lessons from history, exposing us to heroes and villains alike. It is more in the realm of indoctrination, re-education and brainwashing that nurtures an attitude of innate superiority— an arrogant nationalism promoting ignorance of things we’d prefer not to know or accept. There is a lot great about America, but even as the best among us make mistakes and errors in judgment, we must learn from our personal histories to avoid repeating them.

I grew up, as did most Americans, knowing very little about slavery and racism in this country. I certainly didn’t learn about it growing up in a rural, mostly white environment. It wasn’t really addressed in depth in the approved public-school textbooks used through the country. The so-called antebellum era in the South was typically romanticized as genteel and cultured, populated by kindly slave owners, including most of our Founding Fathers and, unbelievably, a dozen of our presidents— among them Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious commanding general who paved the way for emancipation. (Note: Grant was the last of the twelve U.S. Presidents chronologically who personally owned slaves. In his case, it was one slave given to him by his father-in-law for a brief span prior to the Civil War.)

Crazy stuff.

History is like that, and it shouldn’t be regarded as threatening. It is what it is, and it should be presented accordingly. Give our children their years to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but we shouldn’t release them into the adult world viewing American history as a fairy tale without sometimes difficult lessons to digest. It is “our country, right or wrong,” as the slogan from the sixties insisted, but blindly accepting or ignoring what is wrong won’t allow us to be the best we can be.