Learning How Not to Repeat the Past

Becky O'Malley
Friday July 12, 2019 - 01:02:00 PM

The ICE raids threatened for this weekend, coupled with the reports of children incarcerated in, yes, concentration camps, have produced a widespread feeling of powerlessness among people of goodwill. It might make you feel better, but hollering in front of Dianne Feinstein’s office will not stop the raids or re-unite any children with their families.

Why do we feel increasingly desperate? Those of us who have been around for a while can remember many slippery slopes where bad situations got much worse without anyone exactly noticing what was happening. Pete Seeger captured the trajectory during the Vietnam War: “waist deep in the Big Muddy”. 


Is this how “the good Germans” (and there were a lot of them, though not nearly enough) felt in the 1930s? What can we, Americans, do right now? 

What will help right now: 

  • Legal aid, both for potential deportees and imprisoned kids.
  • Providing self-protection information using all kinds of media including traditional journalism, social media and plain old printed handouts.
  • Hands-on relief work with detainees, including providing basic supplies like shoes and soap, neglected by their jailers.
  • Raising money to pay for all of the above.

What won’t work right now: 

  • Attacking Nancy Pelosi for sometimes being snarky to the cheeky young.
  • Disparaging said cheeky young for talking back to Pelosi.
  • Voting down border funding when unable to pass an alternative.
  • Impeaching Trump just in time to have him exonerated by the Senate.

What will help eventually: 

  • Regime change in Washington in 2020
  • Followed by prosecution of the current overlords for child abuse, human rights violations, defying court orders, etc.
It’s fashionable to deride some expressions of concern about the government by claiming, under the vague rubric of Godwin’s Law, that any reference to the Nazis or Hitler ends the discussion. But another stylish mantra is attributed to George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

The current administration’s increasing contempt for the rule of law frightens those of us who do remember history. It’s at a level not seen in my lifetime, and it gets worse daily. It’s becoming—to use another scary phrase—an actual constitutional crisis. 

There’s one more useful cliché, originally from Voltaire: le mieux est l'ennemi du bien: The best is the enemy of the good. This is often mistranslated in techy circles as “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, but that means something different. 

A better aphorism might be that “the perfect is the enemy of the best”. That’s the one which should be impressed on impeachment hawks. The emotional satisfaction of devoting the energies of the House of Representatives to a perfect takedown of Donald Trump by impeachment would provide quick gratification, but the best choice might be instead to devote the same amount of energy to securing the House and the Senate and the presidency in 2020. 

And while we’re on the subject of learning from history, how are those poor kids at San Francisco’s Washington High going to learn that they must take care of themselves and of this country in the future if their elders whitewash a mural which was supposed to teach them what was wrong in the past? 

In case you’ve been out of touch with the news lately, or focused on Washington, the SF School Board has voted to paint over a mural at their school, created by a New Deal era leftist artist, which depicts the Father of Our Country next to a prostrate Native American. It makes some of today’s students anxious to see it, as well it should.  

The value of the mural is precisely that it’s a warning to future voters that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Being anxious is appropriate.  

Bad things have happened before in this country, and they are happening again. It’s not much of a stretch to connect what’s happening in this picture to what is happening here this very day, probably to friends and relatives of some of the students at Washington High. 

The school board meeting which voted unanimously to obliterate the work was attended by historians and representatives of Native people urging the board to save it. One suggestion: it could be covered by a curtain which would only be opened in the context of explanatory lectures. That idea was summarily rejected by the board, as was adding an informative plaque or sign. 

How can these board members be entrusted with the education of our young people? Will they vote next to take all of the other bad news out of the history books? Or eliminate any mention of disease in biology classes? 

How did such idiots get elected to the school board? I’ve heard rumors of a back story which involves a charter school having designs on the Washington High School building, but I can’t confirm them. In any event, it’s time for San Francisco voters to look into the recall process.  

Meanwhile, if those of us who want to protest what’s happening in this country are looking for a good place to hold a rally or demonstration, how about at Washington High School, right in front of the mural? For the students there it would be, as educationese is fond of saying, a teachable moment.