Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Historian's Nightmare: "Those Who Cannot Remember the Past..."

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By Lauren Pinsker

George Santayana, a Spanish-American philosopher—an expat who spent the last half of his life in Rome—first recorded the immortal words: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and never in recent history has his apt proclamation/ condemnation of the human race seem more relevant than it does today.

As Americans, we may ask, what is our past?  And it is a relatively simple answer, one taught in our classrooms and reflected in our mirrors and heard in a thousand different languages being passed down from generation to generation: America is a Nation of Immigrants.  Think of the American Story, the Puritans that fled Europe seeking freedom—religious freedom—whose blood, sweat, tears, rough living conditions, and economic opportunities laid the foundation of America while beginning what would eventually become the largest systematic genocide in history: today only about 5.4 million US citizens are American Indians or Alaska Natives, less than 2% of the total population.  But I digress… As the new Americans freed themselves from their evil Monarchic British Empire roots a west coast was at the same time settled by Iberian Conquistadors, a few of whom were Conversos (Jews) fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, most of whom sought fame and fortune and a new world.  As time went on more and more immigrants flocked to America, most of them seeking better economic opportunities, some desperately fleeing war, some escaping persecution, some seeking political asylum in the Land of the Free, but all hoping to find better lives and a new place to call home, and all of them largely unwelcomed by those immigrants who had gotten there first and were now the “real” Americans.  But we ALL come from immigrants, and are usually proud of the fact, endlessly figuring out and reciting what percentage of our heritage comes from what Country, telling and retelling family stories of when so-and-so went through Ellis Island or Angel Island or crossed the country on the Oregon Trail.  Americans are what we have always been: a nation of immigrants.

“Those Who Cannot Remember The Past…”
I was deep in the middle of remembering an especially cherished piece of my own past history when the sudden realization that “History Endlessly Repeats Itself” hit me—if not for the first time—than for the first time at 38,000 feet.  Since beginning this amazing journey to Rome for the USF AGI Program, the plight of the refugees waiting to be recognized as our brothers and sisters has been constantly on my mind, proving difficult if not impossible to put aside.  As I am sure is typical of such an overwhelming, powerful, positive experience, I am still both trying to readjust to “normal” life and constantly thinking about what I’ve just learned and heard and seen and what connections continue from there.  My flight home was uncomfortable in many ways, physically, emotionally, and not even endless free Bond movies could calm my thoughts.  So I gave myself a treat: permission to finally read The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s bestselling account of how the University of Washington’s Men’s Varsity eight-oared Rowing team defeated Nazi Germany’s crew in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  I was somewhere between the Polar Circle and the US/Canadian Border and I was mesmerized: after all, I am [as we say] a recovering coxswain, and was elatedly reliving those two years of early morning wakeups, freezing mist on the water, workouts and races with my own boys in our boat, and the various highs and lows of my time as the 2nd coxswain and only woman (but not Californian) on Pennsylvania’s Men’s Crew.  Also as an American, a History Major, and a Jew, I obviously love any story that has to do with beating Hitler and the Nazis.  Either way, I was completely engrossed when the following excerpt snapped back my Rome AGI experience to the forefront of my mind once again:

“On April 14, [1935] the day after the Pacific Coast Regatta on the Oakland Estuary, the dust storms of the past several years were suddenly eclipsed by a single catastrophe that is still remembered in the Plains states as Black Sunday.  In only a few hours’ time, cold, dry winds howling out of the north scoured from dry fields more than two times the amount of soil that had been excavated from the Panama Canal and lifted it eight thousand feet into the sky.  Across much of five states, late afternoon sunlight gave way to utter darkness… The next day, Kansas City AP bureau chief Ed Stanley inserted the phrase “the dust bowl” into a wire service account of the devastation, and a new term entered the American lexicon.  Over the next few months, as the extent of the devastation settled in, the trickle of ragged refugees that [one] had witnessed heading west the previous summer became a torrent.  Within a few years, two and a half million Americans would pull up stakes and head west into an uncertain future—rootless, dispossessed, bereft of the simple comfort and dignity of having a place to call home.”[i]

It sounded cruelly and ironically familiar.  Our forefathers left their homelands for myriad reasons, economic opportunity being by far the most popular, but all for what we would now argue were good reasons.  And here I was, reading about how 2.5 million of them migrated again, becoming Internally Displaced Persons in the process.  The only differences between the migrants fleeing the Syrian Civil War—or indeed any and all people seeking asylum and refuse in the European Union or similar countries, be they from Central Africa, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia, or elsewhere—and the “Average Americans” who witness their daily struggle for existence on the news from the safety, warmth, and comfort of their homes are a few generations, the usual cultural misunderstandings that arise (at first!) when new immigrants arrive, and some basic semantics.

Historians believe that when it comes to immigration in America a clear pattern exists, each wave of asylum seekers, economic migrants, and political refugees as unwelcome and hostilely treated as the last, each wave sparking an outburst of xenophobia and anti-Internationalism that is notably harmful to the greater American purpose and sadly so often fatal to those refugees America has, shamefully, turned away.  Are we doomed to repeat our history, or have we finally learned enough to recognize that the people on our televisions, phones, and computer screens are our brothers and sisters?  We must welcome them, usher them to safety, help them reach what friends, relatives, and countries they may already have ties to, and be with them as they are forced to reexamine and restart their lives.  Or shall we, a nation of immigrants, condemn ourselves to repeat this inhumane, unethical, cross-purpose knee-jerk anti-immigration merry-go-round?

[i] Brown, Daniel James. (2013). The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Penguin Group: New York, New York, USA.