History, The Stories We Tell and Public Policy



Statue of King George III brought down by New Yorkers in 1776


“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984

Analysis by Reporting San Diego

August 25, 2017 (San Diego) This piece might seem as alien and distant from public policy as you can get, but how we teach history, and chiefly what we teach history informs public policy. This is why the subject is fraught with deep political minefields. It is time to not just re-evaluate public monuments, it is also time to re evaluate what we teach children and the stories we tell ourselves. As a nation, this is critical if we are to engage in good public policy. This includes things like housing, mental health, military adventures and yes, healthcare. It also informs infrastructure and public services.

How? Well, let’s actually look at Germany for a second, and the Holocaust. The first point many people have raised is that none in Germany has named schools after Adolph Hitler, or erected statues to those soldiers who fought during the war. They were defending their country too. However, this is not completely true. There are memorials at cemeteries for the dead. Whether we agree they were part of a glorious cause, or not, is independent of a human need for closure. Having a memorial for the dead, where they are buried, is actually appropriate as long as you do not forget exactly what they fought for. Germans have not. Partly because occupation forces did not allow them to forget. Let’s face it, cemeteries are not a place where people will hold marches to honor lost causes. However, when national leaders do visit them and lay a reef, that is a problem. President Ronald Reagan did. This was hardly accidental, nor was that meant for Germans. It was meant for Americans who are enamored with the caste system we have created but never openly admitted to. It was a scandal at the time. In Germany Chancellor Helmut Kohl faced backlash over this, from young Germans who were not open to reconciliation. They were taught the horrors of the war. For Americans, this was a non-event in many ways.

It was the same reason President Donald Trump visited Andrew Jackson’s memorial.

It is critical to address the issue of Germany in more depth. This is part of the stories we do not tell each other. The Nuremberg Trials and the post war embracing of the past that included genocide was extremely rare in human history. What has happened in the United States fits a historic long standing pattern. We cannot face that past because we are not comfortable with that past. When genocides are committed, most of the perpetrators, and their descendants, never speak of this. This is worth highlighting from the stages of genocide we have linked to:

Denial, the final stage of genocide is best overcome by public trials and truth commissions, followed by years of education about the facts of the genocide, particularly for the children of the group or nation that committed the crime. The black hole of forgetting is the negative force that results in future genocides. When Adolf Hitler was asked if his planned invasion of Poland was a violation of international law, he scoffed, “Who ever heard of the extermination of the Armenians?” Impunity – literally getting away with murder — is the weakest link in the chains that restrain genocide. In Rwanda, Hutus were never arrested and brought to trial for massacres of Tutsis that began years before the April, 1994 genocide. In Burundi, Tutsi youth gangs have never been tried for killing Hutus. Burundi judges are nearly all Tutsis, as are the army and police. They seldom, if ever, convict their own.

(My bold)

Even today, go ask a Turk about the Armenian Genocide. You will find the same equivocation as you find in the United States over black slavery or the genocide of first Americans. In fact, the same denials that it was that bad are also used by official government spokespeople when they even are forced to address it. Oh and speaking of this in textbooks is not done. Ok, Armenia happened about a 100 years ago. Want something more modern? The multiple dirty wars in Latin America are fraught with the same excuses, and they were in our lifetimes. Kosovo has the same issue. The list is long.

So let’s spell this out. The Civil War was about slavery. It was about the cotton economy that the south, and in many ways the rest of the country, was dependent on. It was about cheap labor. This is, however, the story that we are not telling ourselves. Myself, I learned this in Mexico City from a government written and approved textbook in fifth grade. However, this matter was not even discussed in graduate level history classes in the United States when I went to college. I brought it up a few times, during my graduate training. It was met in hushed tones because it makes people very uneasy.

In the worst of cases, we have people who honestly believe slavery was good for blacks. They got free room and board, and they were taken care off. The slave owners were kindly men who took care of their slaves as if they were family. In many cases, it was old, matronly black women who also took care of the children of their white masters, because they wanted to. Slaves did not want the system to end because in some ways they benefited and took advantage of it. Yes, in some quarters this fantasy circulates. It is balderdash, but Texas (which produces a lot of textbooks for the rest of the country) is still telling itself that the war was not fought over property, that be human beings. They see this historic truth as… divisive.

It is in this toxic belief that public policy is ingrained. If you believe that slavery was good and that the slaves were taking advantage of the system, it is easy to transfer this to think that blacks who are using welfare are taking advantage of the system. Never mind that most people on welfare are white. This is an inconvenient fact.

The same goes for things like lower taxes. This is not about keeping more of your money. Lower taxes hurt communities at risks, such as Latinos and blacks, at a much higher rate. It is about racial resentment and keeping them down. Look back at Germany, where they do tax themselves at a higher rate, to keep social services going that help the whole country. This is also why the earned income tax credit is under threat. It benefits minorities.

Schools can be tricky. But at one time it was illegal to teach a slave how to read and write. They were property after all. These days the worst performing schools are also the worst funded schools, due to low property taxes, which are kept low through local control. This is not a coincidence, or accidental. We also have very high rates of segregation, Nor are students attending college. This is creating a cheap labor underclass. And to make things worst, people are policed at higher rates in these communities and fined at higher rates in these communities. This is leading to a crisis of legitimacy for police. It is part of a cycle to keep this population under judicial control. Remember, under the 14th amendment slavery is not legal unless you are in prison.

However, many of the troops we recruit to go serve abroad, come from these same communities. The promise is that service is a ticket out of those engineered conditions, due to things like the GI Bill. Let me make this clear. We need those programs, but the reason veteran services are under attack is that they serve people that are seen as part of an underclass. When the GI Bill was first created after the Second World War, the majority of those who benefited were white. These days at least one-third of those who serve are black and brown. The attacks on the services veterans earned and need, is an attack on well being. It is no coincidence that many of the veterans we have in the country end up in the streets. Nor is it a coincidence many are black and brown.

Will tearing the statues down fix all this? No. It will not. Let’s be honest about that. However, tearing these monuments down could be the catalyst to us having a very uncomfortable national conversation. What is history? What is our history? It is not the stories we tell ourselves in comfort of our living rooms, the movies that we watch. Ask older Germans, if you can find them, or Holocaust survivors, about the process of memory. How keeping the memory of a horrible event alive helps to prevent a repeat, we hope, and how rare that is.

For the record, Holocaust Denial is not just a cottage industry. It is part of the same pattern of denial that we have seen across history. The same pattern that we are experiencing in the United States over things like slavery and genocide.

Never again means also embracing history that will make you question who you are, and what you are. Once we teach history that is not nice, and embrace the past for what it was, not what we wish it was, we will start the process of healing. It will also make it easier to pursue a different path in our public policy. Yes, it will change the country in fundamental ways as well. I have deep empathy for those who are very scared that this change could hurt them. This is one reason they are lashing out. However, this country is not what they believe it is.

As a country we are at a historic fork. We can either chose Apartheid, with all that this means, or we can chose a different path.

Oh and tearing statues down is also a perennial process of deep change in a society. There is no statue of King George III anywhere in the country. The one in New York was torn down, and it became ammunition for independence. Does that mean you do not know who King George III was? If you do not, blame your history teachers. He was the King of England who lost the 13 colonies to the Empire.

However, and we have said this before. We need to preserve a few of these monuments, and give them the full context of what they are and what they are code for. They are code for white supremacy. Why they belong in a museum. As to Stone Mountain, finished in 1972, it either needs to be moved to a museum, or fully contextualized to the concept of white supremacy it represents on site. Yes, we have seen stone carvings moved to museums before. It is an engineering challenge, that is for sure. But none of these monuments can remain in place without full context.

As to the ones in cemeteries, they could have a plaque reminding visitors that the soldiers honored there, committed treason to the United States, and got their pardons from a government that they rose up in arms against. We might have to look at Germany again. They have provided a model, as to how to navigate this minefield.

The Department of Defense also has to change the names of 8 military posts. And while not easy, that is one thing we need to do, as part of a new memory project.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: