Category Archives: history

The Threat of Not Caring

For those of you who can look at a swastika or a confederate flag and say “Why can’t people just let it be?” I have been thinking: maybe you haven’t had the experiences I have had. Maybe you don’t know the things I know. Here is why we can’t “let it be.”

The Nazis imagined a purified society ruled by what they thought to be a master race. They tortured, mutilated, stole from and murdered millions of people. Not as part of some other plan. The genocide was the plan. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe you didn’t read the Diary of Anne Frank when you were twelve years old. Maybe you didn’t identify with the young Jewish girl hiding with her family during World War II. Maybe you didn’t read the epilogue, horrified to learn that she died in a concentration camp. That her father found her diary afterwards, read what she wrote about how she still believed people were good, and decided to publish her private thoughts so people all over the world could understand what we lost when Anne was murdered. Maybe you didn’t have that experience.

Maybe you didn’t grow up as a non-theist, being told several times that you were going to burn in hell, as I did. The first time it happened I was six years old. I heard the threat implied by those words: you’re not in the in-group, you’re not good, you’re not worthy. It’s not quite “I’m going to kill you” but more “If someone else killed you, I wouldn’t mind.” I mean, after all, if my soul is damned, why should anyone bother to protect my corporeal form? This is why a belief in the supernatural is so dangerous – it allows people to believe and do terrible things. Every time I meet a new person, I wonder: if they knew I didn’t believe in any supernatural beings, would they see me as less human? Would they care if someone murdered me for it? I am constantly reminded, by the passive assumption that Christian=good – or, at least, that religious=good – that I am seen as less human than other people. Maybe you haven’t had that experience.

I am not a person of color, so I don’t know what that’s like. But here is what I imagine. Seeing a confederate flag in a public place says to me: you are not wanted here, you are not in the in-group. It’s not quite the threat of “I’m going to kill you” but rather “if the police shoot you, I won’t mind.” The flag is not an offense. It’s a message. And the message is: white=good. White is best. All others are less than. Not quite human.

Being reminded that you are seen as not quite human is terrifying. As a human, I rely on other humans to support the environment I survive in. If they reject me, I will die. If they ignore me, I will suffer. If they exclude me, I will not thrive. And any monster may come to take me. A Nazi. A white supremacist. A fundamentalist Christian. A frightened cop. An angry young man who defines his self worth by sexual conquest. Poverty. Disease. Starvation. Any of these monsters could take me, and people won’t mind.

That is why we can’t be quiet. Why we can’t brush aside cruel remarks, or fascist symbols, or racist flags. It has to be called out. In my case, I’m asking: “Will you care if someone kills me? Am I human to you?”

Things you can do if you don’t understand:

  • Read the Diary of Anne Frank, a murdered Jewish girl whose spirit survives.
  • Watch the film Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.
  • Listen to a talk given by a holocaust survivor.
  • Read a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Consider that people were born into slavery under our system. Families were forcibly separated. For generations.
  • Read the books 1493 and 1491.
  • Read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Ask a Jewish friend if they have ever received death threats. They have.
  • Read about Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and murdered for offending a white woman.
  • Read about Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay.

It matters what people think. It matters what people say. It matters what ideas we promote or condone. It matters that public figures are equating a movement explicitly devoted to kicking non-whites out of the country with a movement devoted to highlighting the inhumane treatment of people of color. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are not simply competing theories or opinions, like a disagreement between environmental protection and resource extraction. One is about dehumanizing people, and the other is about re-humanizing them.

BLM might well have called themselves “Black Lives Matter, right? Right? Right….?” Either way the answer has been a deafening silence.

The Nazis gassed people in chambers. It took a while to die. People tried to claw their way out. Their fingernails broke off and stuck in the walls. Sometimes, the Nazis threw emaciated people into mass pits, before they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People.

People did this to people. Ordinary people did this. And not that long ago. And in a culture not far different from our own.

American soldiers took German civilians afterwards into the camps and confronted them. The American soldiers were horrified. Adult men weighing 70 pounds – walking skeletons. Mass graves. Murdered children. The Germans acted like they didn’t know. But it was worse than not knowing.

They just didn’t care.

What Happens When You Google “Cowboy Hats”

Last night I asked my husband to give me a writing prompt and he offered: “cowboy hats and waterfalls”

I didn’t really find a satisfactory way to connect those two ideas, but I spent about an hour and a half on Wikipedia learning more about the 1800’s than I ever did in high school history class. I used to hate history; now I think it’s about the most intriguing thing of all. It’s the story of the humans who came before us, and how they set the stage for our lives today. What could be more important?

Anyway, an hour and a half on Wikipedia showed me that I am: a) a really terrible American, because I should have already known this stuff, and b) that the history of the U.S. is really fascinating. Every scoundrel, every do-gooder, every inventor, every prophet, every mother and every dirty politician – I love them all.

Cowboy Hats and Waterfalls?

The morning of November 18, 1890, in the New York naval shipyard, 12-year-old Alice Tracy Wilmerding – granddaughter of the then-secretary of the navy – christened the USS Maine in a well-attended ritual marking the launching of this ill-fated ship.

History doesn’t make much mention of Alice after that, but we know she later married and that one of her two sons – Frederic – served 5 terms as a New York congressman. She died in 1962, having experienced all the significant changes of the modern world over her lifetime. I think you could say, just based on that, that she did well.

The same cannot be said about the USS Maine. It was originally ordered in 1886, in response to concerns about Brazil’s then superior fleet. (Navy leaders at the time claimed that if the entire US fleet went up against the Brazilian ship Riachuelo, they wouldn’t stand a chance.) But due to supply issues and union strikes, the Maine was not completed until 1890, and not commissioned – under the command of Captain Arent S. Crowninshield – until 1895. She took so long to build that she was already obsolete when her hull touched the water.

Just three years later, the Maine was sent to Havana to “protect American interests” in the Cuban revolt from Spain. We were friends with Cuba then.

In the evening of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in the Havana harbor, killing almost everyone aboard. The most likely cause seems to have been a combination of a design flaw with a build-up of highly flammable gases from the bituminous coal used to power the ship.

Although not officially the cause of the Spanish-American war later that same year, the USS Maine became a hot topic in the so-called “yellow press” (a.k.a. unmitigated bullshit) of the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who whipped Americans into a fury over the event. The catchphrase became “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”

But that’s not what I came to tell you. What I want to tell you is this: one of the men aboard the Maine owned a Stetson, the hat that came to be known as “the boss of the plains” – a hat that became synonymous with the culture of the West.

The hat was invented by John B. Stetson, whose father was also a hat-maker. As a young man, Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis (that common killer of so many famous people once upon a time), and given a grim prognosis. Stetson traveled to the West, fearing he wouldn’t get to see it before he died. While there, he noticed all the hats everyone had brought with them from their previous lives were terribly ill-suited to life in the West. So, he came home and invented a hat so good that it became the mainstay of an entire cultural movement and has not changed in design since.

Inspired by traditional hats of Northern Mexico, made from beaver felt, and designed by a New Jersey boy who fell in love with the West, the Stetson could not be more quintessentially American.

The hat was so good, in fact, that when the US government pulled up the Maine in 1912, at the request of the Cuban government who did not appreciate a shipwreck clogging their harbour – they found a Stetson onboard, cleaned it up, and reported it undamaged. Fourteen years under water, covered with sludge, and it looked just fine. That’s a damn fine hat.

Another man who was both captivated by and then shaped the West was John Muir, who immigrated from Scotland and later moved to California. On seeing the Yosemite valley, he had a near-religious conversion and became our country’s greatest advocate for the preservation of wild places.

In 1890, the same year Wilmerding christened the Maine, Muir successfully petitioned the US government to pass the National Park bill, paving the way for federal protection of places such as Yosemite.

Muir was a cowboy renaissance man: a naturalist, engineer, geologist, philanthropist, and botanist. He founded the Sierra Club. He theorized that Yosemite had been formed by glaciation (not earthquakes, as the prevailing theory had it at the time), and he even discovered an active glacier there. He spent many days climbing mountains and visiting waterfalls. And he wore a Stetson.

Ribbon Fall in Yosemite park is the highest single drop waterfall in North America at 1,612 feet, on the West side of El Capitan. There is a picture from 1903 of Teddy Rosevelt and John Muir in front of Ribbon Fall, both wearing Stetsons.

The history of America is one of inspiration and transformation. Of people moving and mixing, designing and building, trying and failing and trying again. And like the seasonal water at Ribbon Fall, we keep coming back to provide new inspiration for future generations of ship-builders and hat-makers, scientists and philosophers, mothers and politicians.

So put on your Stetson, and get out there and do something great.

Me and my Dad, circa 1980.

Me and my Dad, circa 1980.