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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Times That Try Mens' Souls

My husband and I have been watching a series on Netflix called "Into the West." I highly recommend it, but it can be pretty depressing. It covers the expansion of white people from the east to the west throughout the nineteenth century. It focuses on the conflict between the whites and Native Americans as the inexorable tsunami of wagons crossed the plains. Indian wars, broken treaties, the near extinction of the buffalo, stolen lands . . . For the whites, the 1800's were a time of prosperity and gain. Inventions made life easier, the railroad brought the coasts together, while gold mines, industry, banking made some people millionaires. Huge cattle ranches and drives were the stuff of legend. Literature, politics, education, entertainment, journalism . . . There was nothing withheld from the irrepressible, enterprising whites of eighteenth century America.

For the Indians, it was a time, with a few exceptions, of humiliation and loss. They fought bravely for what they felt was theirs, but it was a lost cause from the start. Radical change for them was coming, no matter what they said or did. It is heartbreaking to see how they were treated, but the alien, white culture invaded their space in such overwhelming numbers that it was a matter of join them or perish. As I watch the series, my heart breaks and I'm ashamed, but the series is careful to end each segment with the point that the westward movement changed and challenged everyone. We brutally murdered plenty of Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, and other minorities in our greed and prejudice, but the West chewed up plenty of Caucasian lives and spit them out as well.

Later it dawned on me that the challenge to change or be exploited forever was not just a Native American problem. Women fought long and hard for an entire generation to gain the right to be educated and to vote. Then it took WW II to push us into the job market where we learned what we could really do. Black citizens were emancipated after the Civil War, but the Jim Crow laws weren't far behind, and the non-violent Civil Rights movement fomented a holocaust of hatred that stuns me every time I see the documentaries on TV. The Jews weren't just hated in Germany. At the beginning of WW II there were parks, careers, and clubs in America that Jews could not enter. Catholics and Protestants anathematized each other in their theology. Poles, Hungarians, Armenians, etc., each ethnic group has a story of persecution almost to the point of extinction.

Once the Nazi madness was crushed, a new political beast arose from the masses. It was called Communism. It's zealots caused trouble all over the globe for decades. In the late eighties, Communism imploded. One day, the iron curtain fell, as did the Berlin Wall, and Germans walked from East to West to embrace their relatives. However, dictators have continued to rape and pillage their nations. One day a really frustrated, thwarted, abused merchant in Tunisia decided he couldn't live life under the caprice of a selfish, useless, exploitative government. He set himself on fire, and there has been chaos in the Middle East ever since. Could it be that the era of unresponsive, self-serving, nepotistic dictators is coming to an end? Could it be that people are tired of being abused and they know they deserve a better life? I pray that it is so.

There is a key to maintaining freedom and equality once it is gained. One has to then offer it to all others. If the pursuit of happiness and self-realization is not available to all, it will profit no one for long. As for nurturing vengeance and hatred against the groups that exploited us in the past, we should let that go and see that era of our history as a time of testing to strengthen us and force us to grow. After all, the other key to freedom and equality is that it has to be earned.