by Barry Edelson
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A Prison is Also a Refuge


"He wondered what they would do if they didn't have black and white problems to talk about. Who would they be if they couldn't describe the insults, the violence, and oppression that their lives (and the television news) were made up of? If they didn't have Kennedy or Elijah to quarrel about? They excused themselves for everything. Every job of work undone, every bill unpaid, every illness, every death was The Man's fault."
– Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon



We are inclined to judge the events of our own time as monumental, and of a character fundamentally different from the events that defined the days of our forebears. However stubbornly we insist that our fate is in our own hands, we are all children of history, and confined to its trajectory. Our shortsightedness dooms us again and again to see inexorable progress in trivial gestures and inescapable tragedy in minor acts, merely because they unfold before our eyes.

And so we are asked to believe that American's centuries-long tragedy of race has reached an "inflection point" in the events of 2020. It would indeed be encouraging if large numbers of our citizens actually believed this, and, more important, if they thought that such a dramatic change were in fact desirable. But the young's impatience for change and the old's weariness with suffering have no bearing on this long history of horrors, a history that should have taught us most of all that change is neither inevitable nor, once achieved, necessarily sustainable.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously remarked that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." This oft-repeated quote has been a source of inspiration since the high mark of the civil rights movement, but where is the evidence for it? Idealism by itself is not a strategy. The very provenance of the quotation undermines its power: the 19th century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker used a similar phrase in the 1850s, more than a century before King returned these words, in a more concise form, to the consciousness of the world. And how definitively did racial attitudes change in the hundred years between Parker and King, a century of lynchings and Jim Crow and a million daily indignities? And how have they improved in the half-century since King's murder, an era of steady or even widening inequality among the races in income, education, housing, health, the administration of injustice, and nearly every other measure we can quantify?

Optimists will argue that there has indeed been racial progress. They will point to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Brown vs. Board of Education — notwithstanding subsequent Supreme Court rulings that continually dilute the effectiveness of all of them. They will point to the success and acceptance of many black Americans in many fields of endeavor, even while having to acknowledge the unending and pervasive mistreatment of our fellow citizens, sometimes including even these very same successful ones, at the hands of the police and of society at large. When we ask why these and other measures of progress, if they have truly been dispositive, have not led to greater changes in the lives of most black people, and why the ugly visage of white supremacy is so easily aroused by the demagogue of the moment, we are told, once more, that the tide is turning. The young are less prejudiced in general than their parents, so that we may expect an eventual diminution in hostile attitudes over time as the "bad" generation that promulgates racial and other stereotypes, knowingly or otherwise, gradually dies off. That is the truism of the day.

In truth, the history of race in America is not so much an unsteady march towards moral justice as a charnel house of inflection points.



What does it mean to say that someone is on the "wrong side of history"? Since history itself is incapable of taking sides, and the expression is most commonly employed to disparage a political opponent or national enemy, is this not just another way of saying, "I'm right and you're wrong"? The mere concept of history as an impartial discipline rooted in verifiable facts is itself under increasing attack. Historians, like journalists, make choices about which stories they tell, and which information to include. An account of an historical episode, era or individual may therefore be entirely factual but still not truthful. It is theoretically possible, for example, for a Holocaust denier to write an unimpeachably factual history of the Third Reich without mentioning mass murder at all, just as a historian of the Civil War may mention the abolition of slavery as a mere footnote, if at all. It would be intellectually dishonest and betray the author's prejudices, but it would not technically be wrong. This is where the tide of human decency crashes upon the rocks of free speech. But even a thoroughly conscientious and respectable historian, who does not intend to advance any particular agenda, may nonetheless leave out contradictory information which does not seem pertinent because of an unconscious bias.

A good illustration of the limits of historical knowledge is Patrick Radden Keefe's book Say Nothing about the Troubles in Northern Island. More than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, during which Ulster has now enjoyed a long respite from violence and the consequent dividends of peace, disagreements about what actually happened beginning in the late 1960s, and who is to blame for thousands of unresolved killings, rage on to the present day. The political classes may have moved on, but many of the combatants on both sides still harbor such mutual enmity that a return to all-out war is always a gnawing concern. Breakaway factions of the Irish Republican Army and their counterparts among the unionists do in fact still commit the occasional atrocity. Brexit may prove to be an existential calamity for the fragile truce, as the fate of the border between the Republic of Ireland the the counties of the north remains a source of deep disagreement. There has never been a true reconciliation, no kind of truth commission in which to air grievances, just the occasional criminal investigation of a decades-old murder, which invariably prompts the two sides to retreat instinctively to the seething bitterness of their respective hostility.

We cannot let go of the past
because the past cannot let go of us.

Keefe documents in unflinching terms how Gerry Adams, the long-time leader of the Sinn Fein political party, was a top IRA commander during the Troubles and personally ordered numerous bombings of civilian targets, killings of British soldiers and loyalist paramilitaries, and executions of suspected informants. And yet, since the peace talks began some 30 years ago, Adams has adamantly insisted that he was never even a member of the IRA. Many have argued that this lie was critical to the peace process, as it enabled the British to maintain the fiction that they never negotiated with terrorists. But it has left any number of IRA members feeling utterly betrayed. Some of them, who claim to have taken orders directly from Adams, spent years in prison and went on lengthy hunger strikes to advance their cause. The justification for the killings they perpetrated and the suffering they endured, in their view, has been snatched from them. Adams has been lauded as a great peacemaker and welcomed as a statesman around the world, while the Republicans have yet to achieve the objective of a united Ireland for which they sacrificed their youth, their health, and in many cases, their lives.

How can history claim any degree of authority in such a scenario? When passions have barely cooled, no one who has been remotely involved in the conflict can read his or her own story with any degree of objectivity. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting application of Faulkner's observation, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Persecuted peoples have this in common, whether they be Catholics in Belfast or the descendants of slaves in Mississippi: centuries of struggle leave both the oppressed and the oppressor permanently scarred, and incapable of living a "normal" life together. Time becomes compressed, so that every death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police or self-appointed vigilantes is automatically swept into a 400-year continuum of torment and death. After so long a struggle, how can there ever come a day without recrimination? We cannot let go of the past because the past cannot let go of us.



We are constantly told that democracy is fragile, and can withstand only so much internal division before splitting into pieces. But all systems of government are fragile. There are no dictatorships in the world older than the oldest democracies. In fact, one may plausibly assert that democracies are more resilient than autocracies, perhaps because the habit of self-determination, once ingrained in the culture, is more difficult to dislodge than the habit of submission. All people, nominally, prefer to be free, even if their behavior and attitudes often suggest a predilection to be led. Demagogues have their day, and do their damage, but how many among their subjects pine for the chains that bound them?

America experienced a brutal civil war and came out the other side a democracy still. (The Confederacy, too, enshrined many obviously American principles of democracy in its short-lived constitution.) The trauma of war was too great for the country to go back to the way it was before. Things had to change, and continue to change, as a result of the conflict. The nation has always proved itself to be stronger than its divisions, but this is cold comfort to the many who have been systematically denied full access to its bounty.

In the present moment of contention, we are faced again with the paradox of sameness: we can be certain that history cannot be undone and that there is no going back, but we can be equally certain that human nature will never change and that humanity will always be more or less the same. Like the ocean, human nature produces its own undertow. Without our constant attention, even the most hard-won progress will be quickly eroded. We may attempt, with great violence, to fight against the current, but the effort will only prove its futility. There is neither a prelapsarian utopia in our past, nor an inevitable reckoning of justice in our future. The attempt to move in any direction will alter our course, though who is to say where history might have gone otherwise, or even, after the fact, what our history actually is.

In generations hence, when the events of our time are studied, historians will remark that they bear a striking resemblance to the circumstances of their own. As Mark Twain allegedly said, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme.


August 17, 2020
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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.