Each semester for many years now my husband and I have taken a course from the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Education. The offerings are are always exceptional, and, if I had endless funds, I would sign up for multiple classes during each session. Instead I focus on one topic at a time, generally choosing history over anything else. One of the the conclusions that I have reached is that while we humans have generally progressed in knowledge and technology, our natures remain somewhat the same. Throughout history people have tended to engage in recurring cycles of enlightenment followed by prohibition. It is as though we desire to evolve as societies, but also fear going too far in changing our ways. Much of the push and pull in the story of humankind has a discernible pattern. When we study our ancestors, we begin to realize that there is a tension caused by our conflicting beliefs in what constitutes a better world. This continual tug of war is a source of misunderstanding, conflict and even war.
In following the long threads of my family tree, I learned that the paternal side of my family traces its roots back to the Norsemen of old. Eventually my people found their way to Normandy and then to England. I am distantly related to Norman kings and later to Oliver Cromwell’s family, something that made me proudful until I learned more about those ancient relations in the history classes that I took. In particular, I realized that Oliver Cromwell may have advocated for freedoms, but only on his own terms. He was in fact consumed with a religious fervor that had little room for beliefs contrary to his own. He had a bad habit of sending his followers to formerly Catholic churches to destroy any icons of the Catholic faith. Freedom for him was far more restrictive than would be comfortable to me.
So it is in my own country of the United States of America today. We are a government founded on a revolution, but tempered by a tendency to change slowly. We speak often of our freedoms, which are many, but fill our law books with limits to what we allow the citizenry to do. The progressives are more often than not at odds with the conservatives, and while there is supposed to be a separation of church and state, religion has often insinuated itself into our democratic processes. While I am a firm believer in our democratic republic, I have learned too much about its weaknesses over time to but my head in the sand when it comes to our history. As with all societies, ours has been ordered by humans, which by definition means that there are imperfections. Good intentions are often mixed with flawed philosophies and beliefs. That is why I contend that it is always important to have a hearty mixture of voices in our politics, rather than a group of people walking in lockstep. We members of the electorate should applaud the disparate voices rather than condemning those who question thinking and suggest alternatives.
There are certain facts of history that demonstrate truths. We know that Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant mind helped to create a government with the potential to bring freedom more uniformly to people of all persuasions. We also know that when he spoke of certain unalienable rights, they did not apply to everyone at that time. His freedoms were limited to white males, excluding women and most notably, slaves. There is nothing innately wrong with critiquing Jefferson by praising his foundational principles while also noting his exceedingly contradictory flaws. Dissecting the truth, is not a sign of disloyalty to our country, but rather a healthy way of discussing the complexities of humans that create both good and bad situations in the same breath.
We can see very clearly that allowing slavery to exist side by side with our remarkable freedoms was intrinsically wrong, and ultimately a huge mistake that led to a civil war, and continues to haunt our society to this very day. Remaining ignorant of the horrific things that came before us does little to help us to create a pathway to a better. It is in viewing the missteps of the past that we have a greater chance of improving. It is not hateful to admit that those who came before us committed transgressions. It is simply a recitation of facts from which we might learn.
If I had the occasion to send a message in a bottle, it would be to encourage all people everywhere to temper their tendencies to adhere to a single way of thinking. It is only in opening our minds, exploring and learning from the past, and hearing the concerns of others that we will ever create a truly inclusive society. When fifty of our senators walk and think in tandem, we are in trouble. When we refuse the process of give and take in favor of doing nothing to preserve an ironclad wall of political beliefs, we are in trouble. If we do not break down the tribalism that has tainted all of history in favor of embracing our diversity, the conflicts and the wars will continue. Human suffering will be alive and well, just as it has been for centuries.
We should be encouraging all people everywhere to join in a quest for knowledge and truth. History should not be left only for those interested enough to do the research. It is healthy and beneficial to learn how human frailties and missteps led to horrific situations that need not have occurred had societies understood how to watch for problems. Courage and patriotism are most evident when John McCain gives a thumbs down or Liz Cheney voices her beliefs or Bernie Saunders challenges us to consider new ways of thinking. We all benefit most when truth is allowed to flourish and diversity of thought is encouraged.
Do not be afraid to parse the past. Learn and understand just how complex we humans are. See the patterns. Share the facts. It is an exercise in democracy in it finest form.