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Elementary, my dear: When we fail our history lessons…

By Sydney Stevens

Observer columnist

Published on March 6, 2018 1:04PM

History books of all sizes, shapes and subjects inform about the past and illuminate the future.


History books of all sizes, shapes and subjects inform about the past and illuminate the future.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately — or trying to — about the lessons we’ve learned from history. I keep coming up blank and, instead, running smack dab into George Santayana. He was a poet, a novelist, an essayist and a philosopher. He lived from 1863 to 1952 — almost a contemporary! Santayana was the one who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We apparently don’t remember much about past wars. Or, perhaps more to the point, we don’t remember much about how to live peacefully with one another. During my lifetime, we have sung “When the lights come on again all over the world…” And we have asked, “Where have all the young men gone?” Surely, we should have learned that war and peace lesson a long time ago. Maybe it should have become clear back in the mid-400s when Attila the Hun was roaring around the countryside earning himself a reputation as “the scourge of all lands.”

But, so far that “Peace Not War” lesson has gone right by us. Why doesn’t it surprise me to learn that of the 162 countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s latest study, just 11 were not involved in conflict of one kind or another? Eleven countries out of 162! It will amaze no one that our nation was not one of the eleven. Clearly, how to keep peace is not yet a history lesson we have learned.

And, how about this whole immigration issue? What is it about us that blanks out the mistakes we made in the past? Like when we gathered up all of our Japanese citizens and “relocated” them to internment camps during World War II. The justification for the evacuation was “to thwart espionage and sabotage.” Even so, newborn babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents, were not exempt from removal. All that was needed: that they be 1/16 Japanese and live on the West Coast.

‘Never again!’

We seem to have amnesia about that blot on our history. Yet, for a half century and more, books have been written, lectures given, museum exhibits mounted and we wondered sagely how that horrible injustice could have happened. We say, “Never again!” And, scarcely 50 years later, here we are once again. Now, it’s our Hispanic neighbors who are being arrested. The targets aren’t said to be “spies” this time around. Instead, they are called “criminals.” We beat our breasts, try to change bad laws, hope for legislative action or, at the very least, we look for compassion and justice somewhere in a system run amok. As the ripple effects of our policies reach ever farther it is hard not to wonder about the logic of it all.

Why is it, again, that there is a visa system in place for some sorts of workers and not for others, even though employers plead that there is a great need? Why is it that we continue to espouse family values for some of our residents, but not for all? Why do we lament the federal debt, yet plan to build a $70 billion-dollar wall that even the Department of Homeland Security people say will not be effective? The mind boggles.

Undoubtedly, besides our seemingly terminal inability to remember our ancient, or even recent, history, somewhere along the way we have also lost our good sense. It’s not George Santayana I run into when I ponder that problem; this time it’s French author, historian, satirist, and philosopher, Voltaire. “Common sense is not so common,” he wrote back in 1764 in his book, “Dictionnaire philosophique portatif” (Portable Philosophical Dictionary).

In our crazed hurtle toward protecting the rights of the individuals in our society, we have apparently taken leave of our senses — common or otherwise. No matter which side of the ever-escalating debate on gun laws we find ourselves, there can’t possibly be many of us who agree that blind people have the right to be licensed to carry handguns. Yet, a few days ago Iowa was in the news — and not for the first time — concerning their convoluted thinking regarding gun laws.

Blind justice?

According to USA Today: “Private gun ownership — even hunting — by visually impaired Iowans is nothing new. But the practice of visually impaired residents legally carrying firearms in public became widely possible thanks to gun permit changes that took effect in Iowa in 2011.” The article went on: “Polk County officials say they’ve issued weapons permits to at least three people who can’t legally drive and were unable to read the application forms or had difficulty doing so because of visual impairments.”

Most amazing to me: this was not new news! That particular article was written in 2013. Apparently, proponents of Disability Rights backed the bill — right up there with the usual gun lobby folks. “…Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, who says blocking visually impaired people from the right to obtain weapon permits would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal law generally prohibits different treatment based on disabilities.” And, I hasten to point out, that Iowa is not the only state that issues handgun permits to the blind.

But, that wasn’t the headline news of the day. This was: “Never too young: Iowa house passes bill to let children of all ages handle guns.” Well… I guess that will end any controversy about teachers packin’ in the schools of Iowa! Soon, the kids can do it. Even the blind kids.

Sometimes there is simply no more to say…


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