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A history lesson we must remember

August 12, 2015

Certain statements embody truths so universal that they become clichés as a result of continual repetition. One of these universal clichés, attributed to philosopher George Santayana, is this:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An anonymous cartoonist/philosopher finished the thought by saying that “[t]hose who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” Today, I find myself often screaming into the wind (this is a family publication) because I can remember the past and yet I am helpless in the face of the feckless repetition of avoidable idiocies.


As George Bernard Shaw said, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” So it seems we are no different from our foolish forebears, yet, because of the greater dangers presented by technological advances in weapons development, the stakes grow higher with each passing day. This is the great tragedy of our age.


History is replete with wars, massacres and myriad stories of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man. Recent history includes the Holocaust — which has itself become a cliché because of the persistent repetition of its horrors — from which the world has seemingly learned nothing. How else to explain the news of atrocities that are being committed with increasing frequency by terrorists claiming to act in the name of a merciless god whom they call Allah? Only 70 years ago, six million Jews were murdered for no other reason that they were Jews. Did we learn a lesson? It seems not.


At this very moment, uncounted men, women and children are being murdered in the Middle East and Africa for no other reason than that they are Christians living under Muslim control. Meanwhile, the world stands by impassively, with few exceptions. One exception, who has learned from his past, is British peer Lord Weidenfeld, a Jew who escaped the Nazis. He has been spending his own funds and expending huge efforts to rescue, at last count, 2,000 Christians from Syria and Iraq. Why? Because he remembers his own past, when some Christians rescued him from the depths of the Hell that was Nazi Austria.


But how many Lord Weidenfelds are there? How many Christians are standing by doing nothing while their brothers and sisters in faith are being slaughtered? It seems that Shaw was correct. We have learned nothing from history.


A few years ago, my wife and I found ourselves at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (do yourself a favor and go there. It’s wonderful). As we were browsing the collection of art created by the quintessential American artist, my eyes fell on a painting entitled “The Problem We All Live With.” Many of you may have seen it years ago when it appeared on the cover of LOOK magazine. It depicts a little black girl, immaculately dressed in white, being escorted by four very large men wearing badges identifying them as United States Marshals. She was being escorted to her first day at a newly integrated school. It is an intensely powerful image and it truly depicts the anomalies of that terrible time in our nation’s history.


As I was studying that picture (and remembering that era), I became conscious of two little boys who were looking at that picture without understanding what it represented. They turned to their mother and asked why the men were with the little girl. She began to tell them about segregation and about court orders and about little girls who were spat on because they dared to go to school where they had every right to be, but where some didn’t want them. The children were incredulous that such a thing could have happened, a mere 50 years before. Times had changed. But they were learning the poignant lesson that Norman Rockwell taught so eloquently with his brush. It was a lesson that I am sure those children carried away with them.


I don’t know of anyone who wants to eliminate that painting from public view; it is not only a spectacular work of art, it is a valuable tool for teaching history. We keep it even though it might be offensive to some who experienced segregation and do not want to remember that part of their past. We keep it even though it might be a painful reminder to those who today are ashamed of their part in the violent struggle for desegregation. But we need to be reminded of the ugly parts of our history as well as the beautiful stories that make us feel proud.


There are those who want to tear down statues of important figures in our history because they find them offensive, or to disinter the bodies of a Confederate general and his wife. But Nathan Bedford Forrest, for all the evil he did, was an important part of our history. By digging up his remains and attempting to erase all memory of him, we are attempting to erase our past just to make some people, both white and black, feel better. That is a foolish endeavor. We need to constantly be reminded of our past, lest we repeat it. Otherwise, we will learn nothing other than that some officials of some city governments are capable of ghoulish behavior in return for empty rewards.


Most recently, we witnessed another example of consummate obtuse absurdity when the president sent his secretary of state to “negotiate” with Iran, a country that is currently waging war against the U.S. (even though Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge that unavoidable fact). The result has been that the Iranians negotiated the custom-tailored striped pants right off the haplessly overmatched Mr. Kerry. In watching Obama and Kerry celebrate the “victory,” it was impossible not to remember Neville Chamberlain’s return from his negotiations with “Herr” Hitler, waving the piece of paper that would bring “peace in our time.” Churchill put it best when he said after Chamberlain returned:  “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”


However, the comparisons between Obama and Chamberlain are not totally precise. Churchill himself said that, although Chamberlain was horribly wrong, he was a man of honor who loved his country. Following a long string of outrageous actions, culminated by this disgusting capitulation to the maniacs who control Iran, I find it impossible to say either that Mr. Obama is a man of honor, or that he loves the country that foolishly chose him to lead it. It is my firm opinion that the worst enemy that we have ever faced is ensconced in the Oval Office. That is the tragic lesson that history is teaching us today.


 I will close with one more quotation from Winston Churchill that teaches a lesson that we refuse to learn at our mortal peril:  “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”


Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.





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