If you think Haddam Selectman Melissa Schlag’s recent decision to kneel at town meetings during the Pledge of Allegiance was controversial, just imagine if she had decided to give the flag a Nazi salute.
Truth is, that’s exactly how the Pledge’s author, Francis Bellamy, told students to salute the flag in 1892: “right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it.” This daily ritual was practiced in classrooms until the 1930s when European fascism fostered “the rise of a salute used by supporters of a charismatic politician named Adolf Hitler.”
Predictably, Americans quickly “abandoned the gesture that had been a symbol of national unity for 50 years.”
Schlag, of course, chose the more reverent act of kneeling, but here’s the point: How many Americans know about the similarity between the original Pledge and the Nazi salute? Or, how many know the Pledge was written in the interest of selling American flags to schools recognizing the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America?
History, in other words, is often at odds with Americans’ contemporary beliefs, potentially resulting in a misinterpretation of current issues. The problem goes much deeper than the Pledge of Allegiance — like when a president demonstrates both a lack of historical knowledge and a lack of curiosity about it.
“The problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that,” writes George Will about Donald Trump. “Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.”
In many ways, Trump is just a product of the times. Rather than looking backward or forward, he lives in the “now” — a phenomenon called “present shock.”
“Most simply, ‘present shock’ is the human response to living in a world that’s always on real time and simultaneous,” explains author Douglas Rushkoff. “You know, in some ways it’s the impact of living in a digital environment, and in other ways it’s just really what happens when you stop leaning so forward to the millennium and you finally arrive there.”
So here we are — two decades into the new millennium, inundated with Facebook posts, Instagram memes, and Twitter fodder that make the present seem oh-so-important. Until tomorrow’s round of social-media messages. The casualty of this present shock is history.
“It is tempting to feel superior to the past,” writes Jon Meacham in his current bestseller The Soul of America. “[But] when we condemn posterity for slavery, or for Native American removal, or for denying women their full role in the life of the nation, we ought to pause and think: What injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us? One of the points of reflecting on the past is to prepare us for action in the present.”
Meacham offers multiple stories from history that could teach us much about events today, but the one American story that stands out is that of racism.
“What good will it do,” asked Georgia Governor Clifford Walker in 1924, “to train and develop the minds and hearts and bodies of our boys and girls, what good will it do if we build a bridge across their chasm and at the end of the highway of youth … there is a darkened and a poisoned and a decadent nation for them to live in?”
Walker’s response: “I would build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of democracy in their lives.”
The event was the “Second Imperial Klonvokation,” a three-day Ku Klux Klan rally in Kansas City that followed that year’s Democratic National Convention where 343 Klansmen attended as delegates. A year later, 30,000 KKK members marched on the National Mall in Washington. The decade following World War I, plainly, was time of “economic and technological anxiety” that caused many to “demand a return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized average citizens of old stock,” according to Hiram Wesley Evans, KKK imperial wizard.
Sound even more familiar?
As Meacham writes in his book, “Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own.” But, he adds, “To know what has come before is to be armed against despair.”
So just as the “better angels” in America employed “arguments, facts, and logic” to substantially curtail the KKK’s influence by the 1930s, Americans today can use facts and truth to subdue the current tide of extremism and nativism.
“The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle,” concludes Meacham. “And the only way to come to that understanding is by knowing the history that’s shaped us.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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