The Same Only Different?

May 10, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

I’m something of an amateur historian.  I find most rewarding research that shows how someone–an individual, a community, a movement–got to where they ended up.  It’s the most instructive part of studying history, because you can begin to see how things relate, how one incident, taken in isolation, may make no sense at all, but in the context of history, while it still may make no sense, at least becomes common.

Growing up, I had an attitude–spoon fed to me by my parents, teachers, the culture around me–that “in this day and age” we are smarter than we were.  Being an American, this was easy to believe when I was a child.  It did seem as though we had reached a point where we understood what had gone wrong in the past and had made the conscious decision not to do things those ways anymore.  One never heard anything back then to contradict that viewpoint and from my perspective as a child it looked to be true.

Well.  Imagine my surprise–my ongoing and continual surprise–as I grew and saw that this was wishful thinking at best.  It is true that we understand things better than we may once have–at least we seem better able to explain certain things.  We know what caused the Great Depression and seem able to understand how to prevent it.  We know what causes disease and spreads it and in many instances we know how to prevent it.  We know that race-based metrics on intelligence and moral worth are meaningless holdovers from an era of fear and prejudice and we know how to–

Wait.  Do we know how to prevent it?

I have been watching the dissolution of Iraq since the war began.  Americans may scratch their heads (when we’re not frothing with polemical fury) and wonder at “how those people can kill each other over the dumbest things.”  We do this largely without paying the least attention to our own history.

Recently, I reread some material on the run-up to our own Civil War–particularly about Kansas.  Bleeding Kansas, as it was called in 1856.  Here you have a territory inhabited by Christians.  They all professed to worship the same God, they spoke the same language, pledged fealty to the same country, dressed, worked, and ate largely the same ways.  Yet by 1856 there were in fact two separate and distinct governments in the state–one pro slave, the other abolitionist–each claiming to represent Kansas legitimately.  Outside agitators had been pouring into the state on either side of the slavery issue, bringing money and weapons to support their separate sides of the debate.  Neighbors soon came to butchering each other.  Kansas produced John Brown, who hacked his first victims to death with a sword.  Women and children were slain in an attempt to force Kansas to adopt an ideology.

Never mind for the moment which ideology was “correct.”  The fact I am stressing is that these were Americans–all of them–who disagreed over an issue so intrinsic to their natures that they could find no common ground.  And many had come to the conclusion that the only way to eliminate an opposing idea was the kill the people holding it.

Look at Iraq.  How is it different?

In some issues, there actually is a “correct” answer.  We now scratch our heads at our ancestors and wonder that any of them could be so benighted as to think slavery was “right”.   But it wasn’t that long ago that the driving belief in racial superiority on the part of whites kept blacks from full participation in American life.  1965?  Forty years.  That’s not very long.  During the very years I thought–because I was told–that we had gotten over all that silliness of our less enlightened past, the authority of government was used in places throughout this country to prevent certain people, because of skin color, from being considered citizens, from being considered equal, from being free.

We’re gearing up for another round of this debate–couched in different terms, certainly–over immigration.

The only way that we have “gotten over” this divisiveness is to reach a place where we can see that the stated reasons for the divisions in the first place are bogus, fraudulent, and without meaning.

These issues had meaning in the first place, though, because they were tied to the way we wanted to live.  They were tied to tradition.  They were tied to communal continuity, to the belief that to change would be to lose an identity.

We have heard time and again that radical, fundamentalist Islam is not, in many instances, representative of mainstream Islam.  That the subjugation of women is not born out by the Quran, that the mindless slaughter of innocents is an offense to Islam, that the internecine violence is a perversion of the faith.

Look at Kansas.  Perhaps it is true that Christianity does not support slavery, that it certainly does not condone murder.  Yet look at what, often (certainly in the case of John Brown) Christian doctrine was used to justify–exactly those things.

To leave behind the ugliness that can arise from doctrinal intransigence, the only remedy is to get to a place where much of that doctrine simply doesn’t matter anymore.  But we also must be prepared to separate out the cultural holdovers from the doctrine such beliefs use to justify themselves.  During the hatefilled days of Bleeding Kansas, people quoted the Bible back and forth to each other to support their position, positions based really on cultural differences that had little to do with their religion.  White people in the south (and in many other places) simply could not accept that black people were their equals.  Rather than be logically argued out of it, they found in Scripture what they thought supported that viewpoint.  Even the Abolitionists were hard put to accept Negro Equality, but thought, paternalistically, that this meant white people should take care of them, not enslave them. 

Which left the property and compensation issue to fight over.

We might well ask ourselves what difference it makes who was Mohammed’s successor (which is what the principle difference between Sunni and Shiia amounts to), but to them it is fundamental to the way they live their lives.  The only way to ultimately take the sword away from those who are willing to kill over it is to eventually render the question irrelevant and move on to what really matters–which is, how are we going to treat each other today?

This is a question that ought to bind us all, because we all have to ask this question, ever day, every year, sometimes over the same things again, even after we think we’ve figured it out and solved a particular problem.  Before we try to solve other people’s problems, maybe we should ask ourselves what Ideas we’re willing to kill for–and why–and why we “got over” those ideas we once went to war over and now consider…silly.

Bleeding Kansas…Bleeding Iraq.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Iraq, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Marlene says:

    History is always doomed to repeat by those who do not learn it.

    Thank you for making this credible association.

    Once major thing I have noticed through my education of world history is that some of the bloodiest brutalist wars in humanity have always been carried out with the firmest most faithful peoples toward their belief, more often that not in the name of 'God'.

    Take the Medeival Crusades for instance.

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