Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refugees, Internments, and History Lessons...

Today and tomorrow mark a week since the Lebanon and Paris attacks, respectively.

Syrian refugees have been fleeing their homeland for the better part of four years now though many people just recently started paying attention to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, and now that they are paying attention, the idiot ideas are flying.

One of the most atrocious ideas to be proposed is that we round up the Syrians and put them away in internment camps like we did Japanese-Americans during WII. The letter essentially suggests that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right when we did that.  I suppose this mayor of Roanoke, VA doesn't quite understand that pretty much everyone views that decision to lock up American citizens who happened to look like the same people who attacked Pearl Harbor as a reprehensible and overall bad idea. (Granted, the idea was supported at the time, but hindsight is 20/20.)

I guess he missed that day in History class.

I guess the mayor and others like him don't recall or remember that another bad decision by our illustrious FDR was to deny entrance to the 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis. FDR wasn't alone in this. No country they attempted to enter allowed them entry. More than 250 of them were later killed by the Nazis.

I guess they missed that day in History class too.

I guess the mayor and others like him also weren't paying attention back in 2007 and haven't been paying attention to the re-emergence of the news stories about the fact that Anne Frank and her family were denied asylum status in the U.S. A status that very likely would've spared their lives.

But I guess they missed that day in History and English classes too.

I guess the mayor and others like him haven't been paying attention to the historical parallels to what we're watching unfold before our eyes. Terrorist groups who would try to tear down societies we've built are happy to have us hating the people they've targeted. It works for ISIL's agenda for us to hate the people who are fleeing them. If we hate the Syrians, Muslims, or any "brown people" who might speak something that sorta sounds like it could be Arabic, or pretty much anyone who doesn't look and sound like apple-pie Americans, the enemy wins. Just like America's collective suspicions of Jewish people in the 1930s allowed FDR to deny the SS St. Louis without too much public outcry and in the same way the intensified suspicions of anyone looking Japanese after December 7, 1941 allowed the public to support the internment camps. Giving in to similar ideas as the groups we claim we are fighting, even if only to "protect ourselves" from the "unknown unknowns," allows them to win.

I guess they missed those days in History, Civics, and Humanities classes too.

I guess the mayor and others like them haven't been paying attention to history, news, or anything in their thinking that we can bomb away an ideology. We've been at war in this country more years than not. In fact, in our entire history, we've only NOT been at war for 21 years. Most recently, we've been at war against terror damn near since right after Sept. 11, 2001 happened. What terror ideas have we eradicated? What ideologies have we squashed in their infancy? Shoot truth be told, WWII didn't even entire eradicate Nazism, so tell me again how war stops ideology.

I guess they missed those days in History, Geography, Sociology, Psychology, Law... all the classes too.

But here's the thing...
They probably didn't miss those days in History class. Was any of this stuff even covered in any legitimate way? Was the information even presented from a factually, unbiased perspective so that they can learn the lessons of the pass so we don't repeat them in the future? Are students taught anything more than "American rocks!" Is this ugly side to our past even presented? Probably not.

Considering textbooks now would prefer if we call slaves "workers" and "immigrants" (by the way, the Syrians fleeing their homes are refugees, not immigrants!) and highlight the mythical "exceptionalism" of America and downplay the naughty bits, this horrifying response to the boat of Jewish refugees, the deplorably treatment of Japanese Americans, and a whole bunch of other evil shit likely wasn't covered. Were it not for a genuine interest in History that was sparked and encouraged by my parents and enhanced by the interesting but ugly bits taught by my teachers, I wouldn't now pursue this knowldge for myself. It was my own pursuit of this knowledge that led me to discover that Russia (well, Soviet Union as it was known then) lost more people and actually won WWII before Truman ever decided (arguably, unnecessarily) to use the A-bomb. I wouldn't have this passion if it wasn't nurtured.

Each semester, I'm more horrified by what my students don't know about history. And I'm sure they always look at me--the Composition/Prof. Writing teacher--with puzzlement, wondering, "why are you talking about history? That's not what this class is supposed to be."  But yes, it is. My job is to help you learn to analyze the world we live in and develop arguments for how to build the better world we want to live in. We can't do that if we ignore everything that has come before us. Just like a writer or debater has to join the conversation so they must know what ideas came before them to be able to add their two cents to the current conversation. We as global citizens MUST know what came before so we can properly situate ourselves in today and prepare ourselves for tomorrow.

And as I see now that the Texas Board of Ed is hellbent on making sure the students in that state are working with a different set of facts that aren't being fact-checked by experts, I don't know what will pass for "history" education in the future. We'll likely see another humanitarian crisis in the future, a future where people will likely be even more concerned about the potential baddie who looks and talks different. A future where we all walk around with bullet-proof vests and bury our heads in the sand.

But this is not the now or the future I want. I don't want to allow the actual evil people of the world to win because we're so blinded by fear of what may happen and haven't learned our lessons of the past. I demand better from our leaders, and you should too. But demanding better of our leaders means knowing who were good leaders in the past and being able to discern the difference between an actual good one today and one who just bloviates a lot of nonsense that sounds like good ideas. It means knowing that bad choices that seemed like good policy in the past should not be repeated as good policy today.  But that begins by KNOWING the past.

Knowledge is power. Cliché, yes. But this cannot be stressed enough. Knowing history is so much more important than schools and students treat it. It's not studying numbers, dates, and names of the distant pass--names, dates, and situations that seem to have to bearing on today. It cannot be just rote memorization. It has actual, tangible value in the here and now.  Knowledge of yesterday determines your knowledge and outcomes today.

Pay attention to the past and today.
Be informed.
Be kind.
Take care of those who need our help.

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