“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” That was originally said by Edmund Burke in the 18th Century, and paraphrased by Santayana and later by Churchill. Unfortunately, most people, including our leaders, are not interested in history. This was brought home to me last month, on the anniversary of 9/11. Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist wrote about what he was doing that day, and over 300 readers commented. A very large number of them said that 9/11 was “the day we lost our innocence.”
What innocence? I was shocked, but shouldn’t have been. Many Americans’ knowledge of history—even that of supposedly well-educated Times readers—seems to begin and end with last night’s news.
The attack on 9/11/2001 was committed by a handful of jihadis, mostly Saudi citizens. Among their grievances (you can find a list on Wikipedia) were the U.S. sanctions against Iraq. These sanctions were imposed in 1990 in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—not for any crimes committed against the U.S. The sanctions caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths from lack of food and medicine. We don’t know the actual number, but in 1996 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the reported deaths of 500,000 children. Her response: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” Would she think the price was worth it if it were her children and grandchildren that were sacrificed for oil?
By contrast, approximately 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11.
What innocence? In 2002-2003, millions of people all over the world marched in protest against our impending invasion of Iraq. I was one of them. A man walked up behind our group and shouted, “You want to pay $25 a gallon?” He made it clear what the Iraq invasion was really about. He was willing to walk over as many Arab bodies as necessary to fill his vehicle with cheap gas. Our government invaded anyway. Estimated Iraqi deaths as a result range from 100,000 to over 1 million.
Ignorance of history isn’t confined to Americans. Every individual, every nation, every ethnic group remembers forever the harm done to them by others, and willfully forgets the crimes they themselves have committed.
I first began my more serious study of history—outside the official accounts I’d been forced to consume as a student—in 1969, during the Gay Liberation Front days. An older friend, Marion Youers, would meet me for lunch in midtown Manhattan and recommend reading for me. Later, while living in a kind of self-imposed exile in a tiny town in northern California, I began the historical research that led to my writing the Jezebel trilogy. I’ll tell that story in Part II.
But before I sign off, remember my last blog post? The one about why you should buy books on paper rather than the digital versions? Coincidentally—or perhaps not—today’s NY Times has an article about book bannings and burnings going on today, in authoritarian regimes all over the world. See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/03/opinion/books-censorship.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage. This is a must read. Share it with your friends. I’m going to print it out and save it in hard copy.