I had another confrontation with the reality of history today. It is always disturbing to find that as much as I would like history, especially American history, to be a steady refinement of lofty ideals moving the human race toward becoming worthy of its gifts of intelligence and compassion, history remains the bumblings of people having lives.
In some cases this can actually be reassuring. In the face of today's impeachment tempest in a partisan teapot, it's comforting to know that such sound and fury have occasionally occupied Congress since its inception. Americans are people, and when times are easy, they will squabble; when times are hard they pull together. Times are largely easy now, so internecine fighting erupts.
What is infuriating is to see the important lessons of our history ignored. Citizens of this country have repeatedly singled out groups of people for subhuman treatment. Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and Blacks again have been treated beyond abominably. You'd think the bloody lessons of the Civil War, American concentration camps, and the civil rights battles of the 1960s wouldn't need to be repeated with each generation and each nationality.
Is there a long term cure? Is there some attribute of people that we can foster that will prevent this cycle for continuing indefinitely? Education doesn't seem sufficient: some of the most educated lawmakers follow agendas of bias. And conversely, some of the least educated people are the most tolerant. The average American is enormously more educated now than when the Civil War started, and prejudice still lingers on. Prejudicial attitudes also seem independent of raw intelligence. While it's disheartening that the intelligent don't always apply their intellect to their conduct, it's hard to increase human beings' innate intelligence. It seems to me that the only quality that can keep racial favoritism at bay is courage.
The courage we need is not the ability to face mortal danger, but to face moral danger. Questioning the ideals of authority is not for the faint of heart. Few people are brave enough to admit that their lifelong beliefs are wrong. Even once that leap is made, following ones convictions from idea to actions is trying. Sadly, acting on one's moral convictions does not free one from the consequences of those actions. The folks running the Underground Railroad risked death and worse.
Courage is hard to foster in this relentless world. It has little monetary worth and the authorities have a vested interest in discouraging it. You will never hear a policeman advising people to disobey an unjust law. Like electrons, human minds tend to follow the path of least resistance.
Perhaps the real miracle of history is that that kind of pure courage shows up at all.