I promised God, as you recall, after I got a second chance to be alive, that I would write the things I most feared to write. This essay is in that category.
We are in a time — a manufactured time, I would argue – in which it has become taboo to talk about, let alone explore, ethnic, religious, racial or national heritages. This is a change from the recent past.
When I was growing up in deeply multicultural, multi-ethnic California and attending a richly integrated public school system, the legacies left to us of the impact of Native American tribes, of Mexico and its long history of colonizing, and then of Mexican-Americans leading and influencing, our state; the histories of waves of Chinese, Jewish, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino and African-American immigrants, all of whom shaped California’s economy, literature, music, schools, and other institutions; were studied formally from K through 12 and into college, and these legacies and histories often were celebrated.
We celebrated Chinese New Year; we learned about the Mexican Day of the Dead; we read testimonies from the founders of the Missions, and records of the enslavement of the Indians by the Spanish. We learned about the Ohlones and the Coast Miwoks, who settled San Francisco Bay. We read the letters of Jewish tradesmen who came to California in the Gold Rush, and we learned about escaped African-American men and women, formerly enslaved, who made their way to California then too, to establish new lives and communities. We saw photographs of the conditions of the Chinese immigrants who had come as indentured workers to build the railroads, facing great danger. We learned about the Japanese and Portuguese fishermen’s communities along the coastline, and about the internment camps in World War Two. We learned the tragic story of Ishi, the last of his tribe, the Yahi Indians.
We had wonderful days, too, when we would all bring food from home, from our respective different cultures, to share with our classmates.
When we studied the histories and legacies of these different cultures, it was not a divisive experience, though no doubt looking back one could surely locate some pedagogical flaws. We grappled, as a student body, with learning about painful histories of slavery and oppression, of systematic discrimination. But as public school students, we were positioned then as a unified community in studying these histories; we were not at that time asked to see ourselves as inhabiting a fatally and hopelessly divided set of racial, national-origin, religious and ethnic subcultures that could never ever meet, or ever even be in positive connection.
We felt that studying these different cultures and histories made us more American rather than less; more unified as citizens, as a national family. We felt that studying these cultures and histories helped us to understand one another a bit better, and that by exploring all of these beautiful ideas, achievements, holidays, and cuisines, as well as the histories of painful overcoming, the histories of surviving cruelties and of building nonetheless — we were all culturally wealthier than we would have been if we had lived in a society in which everyone looked the same and in which everyone’s story was the same.
Well, those days are sadly gone. I won’t rehearse here the well-known story of how a discourse of antagonism, dread, and cancellation has chilled any such speech or exploration of different histories and legacies, no matter how positively intended, in schools and universities.
Racism is real. Systemic racism, anti-Semitism, and other injustices, are all too real. I am not disputing that here. An anti-racist revision in pedagogy was indeed long overdue — but this effort, I feel, has been hijacked and made over by the same outside influences who hope that Americans will never be united, or even be able to talk productively to one another, again.
I don’t believe that the organic grassroots anti-racist revolution in pedagogy intended the outcome we have now, in which everyone is now scared to death to ask honest and respectful questions of everyone else, if there are racial, ethnic, religious or national-origin differences involved in the conversations. I don’t believe that a new orthodoxy in which admiring another culture, or being curious about another historical experience than one’s own ancestors’, would be damned as “cultural imperialism” or as a form of “micro-aggression,” was the original organic goal of reformers.
But I can certainly see that, in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural America, a new norm, or a new social etiquette, in which it has become absolutely terrifying to have any kind of discussion about different histories and legacies, would be fantastic at re-making our formerly robust, and, (even acknowledging its many systemic shortcomings), usually inclusively-aiming society, into a society that is fragile, brittle, isolating, rigid and easily fractured.
Having provided that anxious preamble, this is what I want to say:
The fact that we have survived the past three years, in which a small group of people have targeted us all with their genocidal and depopulation-oriented intentions, is disproportionately due to the alerts brought forward to the rest of us by leaders whose ancestors have actually experienced genocides, or have experienced systemic, sadistic forms of control of populations by elites.
The fact that a number of leaders whose ancestors have experienced different forms of state-organized sadism, meant that, whether these memories were consciously informing their freedom movement work or not — these leaders were somehow able to understand what was happening before the rest of us could, and thus were able to help to save us.
In the freedom movement, I’ve noticed, though leaders come from all heritages and all walks of life, there is a disproportionate number of leaders whose ancestors are likely to have endured genocides, or state sadism aimed at the control of populations on a massive scale.
I am going to suggest a timespan I call “ancestral memory.” I will say this is made up of six generations. A grandparent can tell a grandchild stories, or can be part of conversations with other adults that the grandchild hears or overhears; then when that child becomes in turn a grandparent, those stories, or at least that awareness — that sometimes terrible things can happen to a whole society — survive, to be transmitted to that grandchild. I have noticed that many of the leaders of the freedom movement have ancestors who have experienced genocides, or sadistic population control, within that timespan.
Many of the leaders in the freedom movement, for instance, are of Irish descent. The Irish people, in “ancestral memory,” experienced a systemic form of oppression and sadism that is a superb foreshadowing of what we are experiencing now. The English in the mid-19th century systematically attacked, via government policy, the starving Irish people’s food supply. (In other policies, the English elites attacked the language, culture and self-determination of the Irish.)
Though the starvation of the Irish between 1845 and 1851 has been ascribed to a series of blighted potato harvests, in fact the famine was worsened by sadistic and deliberate policies of the British Parliament. First, Britain created a two-tier society, which prepared conditions for the catastrophe: Irish Catholics could not enter the professions or even own land.
During the potato famine, food grown by the Irish was exported under military escort, and in 1846, British government food relief efforts were deliberately curtailed, even as another potato harvest showed signs of blight:
“[Charles] Trevelyan [Assistant Secretary to the Treasury], and Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had decided that in the second failure there was to be no government importation of food from abroad and no interference whatsoever with the laws of supply and demand ; whatever might be done by starting public works and paying wages, the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders. […]”
Another account explains how British government policy drove millions to starve to death:
“More than 1 million people died between 1846 and 1851 as a result of the Potato Famine. Many of these died from starvation. Many more died from diseases that preyed on people weakened by loss of food. By 1847, the scourges of “famine fever,” dysentery, and diarrhea began to wreak havoc. People streamed into towns, begging for food and crowding the workhouses and soup kitchens. The beggars and vagrants who took to the roads were infected with lice, which transmit both typhus and “relapsing fever.” Once fever took hold, people became more susceptible to other infections including dysentery.
Little, if any, medical care was available for the sick. Many of those who tried to help died too. […]