Our country has reached a crisis and teachable moment concerning the president and our history. The events in Charlottesville and Trump’s response force us to question the nation we are, the country we were and the people we want to be.
Horrifyingly, the president implicitly condoned the behavior of American Nazis and white supremacists. By morally equating those promoting virulent racism and anti-Semitism with people who were protesting such bigotry, Trump earned praise from the David Dukes among us while he shocked and embarrassed the rest of us.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so amazed when we remember that, besides numerous other racist-tinged pronouncements — his scapegoating of Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants — for five long years our amoral commander-in-chief attempted to delegitimize our first black president by shamelessly promulgating the baseless rumor of his Kenyan birth.
By ethically equating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the president again demonstrated his profound ignorance of history. There will be no mass movement to remove the innumerable tributes — the statues, public schools and parks — named after our Founding Fathers. Despite the fact that several owned slaves, they helped create our nation and deserve honor. But what about the statues, parks and public schools honoring “heroes” of the Confederacy and the red and blue battle flags so popular in our Southern states, where only about one in 10 whites voted for President Obama?
To answer that question, the dilemma facing Southern citizens today, an analogy might help clarify things. What would we think if, throughout Southern Germany today, the Nazi swastika could be seen proudly waving above public buildings, on back windows and bumpers of countless vehicles, and beside statues honoring Adolf Hitler and General Rommel? Were the enslavement, whipping and rape of millions of African-Americans less morally repugnant than the crimes of the Third Reich?
The German comparison can also enlighten us on the positive path we should take. Every German youth learns in school and from public monuments the truth about its Nazi nightmare, and Germany has become a nation deserving high admiration for its nonviolence and racial tolerance.
Similarly, Americans young and old should learn the painful truths of our history, the nightmares of slavery and our genocidal treatment of Native Americans — truths that can help transform us. We should be disgusted and awakened by the hundreds of fierce-looking white nationalist warriors who marched ominously with torches through the University of Virginia Aug. 11 chanting racial slurs and “Jews will not replace us!”
The election of our first black president multiplied the numbers of these heavily armed hate groups. Contrary to President Trump’s claims, they are not “very fine people.” These intimidating racists and latent terrorists have been emboldened by Trump, and their leaders have publicly thanked him for his Charlottesville comments.
The president’s moral and historical blindness has ignited a strong reaction. More statues honoring treasonous Confederate “heroes” are coming down. Hopefully, many parks, public schools and future statues in the South and elsewhere will honor more deserving citizens like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Medgar Evers.
We shape our future by the way we learn about our past. Facing our racist history more honestly will lead us toward the goal of human equality — our highest purpose and guiding creed. Individually, and as nations, we all make grave mistakes — only stubborn, arrogant fools fail to admit them.
— Ron Hertz lives in Ashland.