Alan Zendell, October 27, 2021
As a kid trying to absorb the sanitized fantasy that my public schools called American History, I wondered how the world continually got itself into situations in which there was suddenly no alternative to war or political revolution. Even lacking the nuances of an unbiased reading of our actual history, it seemed obvious that if people had only paid attention to warning signs and been willing to act instead of looking aside, much of that could have been avoided.
I asked my teachers, my parents, and other adults who had lived through the tumultuous 1920s and 30s how they could have sat by and let what was plainly approaching overtake them. Sometimes I got blank stares, sometimes a refusal to talk about it, and sometimes I was told that history was too complex for my naive mind to grasp. If my grandchildren put those questions to me today, I’ll have a much better answer.
Retrospect was always 20-20 before it became fashionable to replace responsible reporting and recording of history with fake news, lies, and political ideologies. Looking back, hardly anyone in my generation could dispute the litany of errors that led to World War 2. If that war feels like ancient history, let me remind you that it took the lives of fifteen million combatants and forty-five million civilians, and injured another twenty-five million (surely an understated number.)
The vindictive Treaty of Versailles, the devastation left by the first war, irresponsible financial practices of the 1920s, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and totalitarianism, and our refusal to confront them all made the second war inevitable. Without television, the internet, or social media, it’s understandable that people were pre-occupied with personal problems. Japan’s brutal occupation of China and the Nazis’ clear intent to take vengeance on the rest of Europe and commit genocide were happening oceans away. All that was someone else’s problem until our Pacific Fleet disappeared one morning in 1941.
After the war, Americans were either indifferent to Soviet and Chinese Communist Expansion or terrorized by the “Red Scare” mentality of the 1950s. We remained so unengaged, that unless they lived on either the East or West Coasts or knew someone involved in the fighting, many Americans were barely even aware of the Korean conflict. We weren’t any smarter when we made a national decision to side with Sunni Arabs over their Shia cousins, backing Iraq in its war against Iran and granting blanket immunity to Saudi Arabia, even after Saudi money and radicalized terrorists, mostly Saudi nationals helped September 11th replace December 7th as the worst day in our calendar.
What will I tell my grandchildren when they ask? I’ll warn them that our democracy, even the survival of our country depends on them awakening to the dangers. The attempts by right-wing extremists to undo the social progress of the last century and to redefine America as a white nation in which everyone else is secondary, if not enslaved, is not someone else’s problem, it’s theirs. The longer they wait to become engaged, the greater peril they’ll be in. The determination by most wealthy Americans to do whatever it takes to protect their fortunes from taxes and avoid the massive transfer of resources that would be required to level the playing field for the rest of us is not just a series of media events – it’s their future.
I’d remind them that indifference is a choice to do nothing and allow their lives to be controlled by others. I’d explain that hyper-partisanship is our most dangerous enemy because it rots us from within, that the only thing worse than a two-party system destroyed by unmanageable gridlock is the near certainty that it will be followed by a one-party system, aka an autocracy in which our hard-earned individual rights no longer exist.
Democracy is under attack everywhere. It doesn’t exist in China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran, and it’s losing ground in Brazil, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Hungary, where one-party systems led by would-be dictators are most obvious. Wake up, kids – it’s also being eroded away here at home. If Americans don’t act now to overcome radical minority opposition to a national voting rights law, our constitutional republic will soon be a slowly rotting corpse. If we continue to run up trillion-dollar deficits to assure that the wealthy are even richer, but not to make necessary improvements to the lives of average Americans, our experiment in self-government will fail. It can happen here, as Sinclair Lewis reminded us in 1935, but it doesn’t have to.
We’ve had BLM marches and women’s rights protests. We’ve had the right-wing occupation of Charlottesville, VA and the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Those were all the result of groups of people getting angry enough to speak out. If we lose our freedom to choose, legitimate protests will become American re-enactments of Tienanmen Square. I’d tell the kids to get angry enough to fight for our future now, not after they’ve lost it.