History Has its Eyes on Us

Who do we want to be?

This is a crucial time in US history, indeed, in the history of the world. It’s an ugly time, unpredictable, dangerous. In fifty years, a hundred years, historians and sociologists and plain old ordinary people will be looking back at us, asking, “How did this happen? And when it did happen—what did people do?”

As humanists, as members of humanist communities and organizations, or simply as human beings, who do we want to be? How do we want to be remembered? There’s another way to look at this question: When we look at similar periods in history, who do we admire?

We often quote George Santayana, who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Of course, there’s also the cartoon by Tom Toro, which adds, “Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”) This doesn’t just apply to the big movers and shakers. It applies to all of us: to the people who protest or don’t, who vote or don’t, who organize or don’t, who speak out or don’t. We all have the eyes of the world upon us, and the eyes of the future. Who do we want to be?

It’s very common to compare the time we live in now to the rise of Nazi Germany. Those of us who oppose the Donald Trump regime and the hateful bigots supporting it are even calling ourselves “the resistance.” And for once, the comparison isn’t exaggerated: historians who study fascism say that, yes, we’re in the early stages of it. So when we think about the rise of fascism in Germany, who do we admire? The people who stood on the sidelines? Who collaborated with Nazis because it was easy and convenient? Who thought the Nazis were a joke, said they should be ignored, and refused to take them seriously until it was too late? Who turned the other way and later insisted they didn’t know? Or do we admire the people who spoke, who fought, who gave shelter, who fled, and then spoke and fought and sheltered from their new homes?

Comparisons to Nazi Germany are hard for many people to hear. They’re easy to dismiss as hyperbole; they can be so upsetting that people shut them out. Or both. So let’s use some other examples. When we look back at the Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins, and civil rights marches of the 1960s, do we admire the 60 percent of people who disapproved? Who said the protesters’ tactics would hurt their cause rather than help? Who said that after hundreds of years of brutal oppression, black people were asking for too much, too fast? Who spent ten hours decrying the protesters’ tactics for every ten minutes they spent decrying racism? Or do we admire the people who put their bodies on the line? Who persisted in the face of humiliation and contempt and brutality, to stand up for their right and other people’s right to be seen as human? Who didn’t put their own bodies on the line, but spent money and time, risked jobs and families and friendships to support the people who did?

When we reflect on the struggle for women’s right to vote, do we admire the people who tut-tutted about how it would tear families apart? Who said suffrage advocates were a loud, obnoxious minority and the silent majority of women didn’t want to vote? Who said doubling voter rolls would be too expensive, and the possible social disruption would be too risky? Who said it was a slippery slope, and if women voted they’d demand to be jurors and judges and firefighters? Or do we admire the people who took what little power they had, and leveraged it? Who stood up to family members and even cut ties with them? Who engaged in civil disobedience, endured illegal arrest and force-feeding, striving for a right that should never have been denied them?

Do I need to continue?

Who do we want to be?

It’s easy to admire resistance from a distance. Resistance in the past seems romantic, heroic. The trauma, the loss, the fear, the physical pain, they all get blurred with the glow of nostalgia and fantasy. And we have decades of perspective to help us decide who was right. Resistance in the present is messy. It demands that we take real risks, make difficult decisions, work with people we don’t like, cut ties with people we can’t trust. And it demands that we do all this without knowing the outcome. It’s easy to imagine ourselves heroically battling Nazis in 1944. It’s harder to act when there are Nazis rallying a mile from our home.

So, if it makes it easier, look in the mirror. Set aside for a moment your anxiety, your desire for comfort, your aversion to conflict, your wishful thinking, your fear of making mistakes, your entirely human and understandable desire to be liked by other people. (You’ll get to pick them up again in a minute.) And think of this line from Hamilton: “History has its eyes on you.” History has its eyes on all of us.

Who do you want history to see?

When we look at the history of oppression, especially severe oppression, we don’t admire the people who sided with oppressors and parroted their talking points. We don’t admire the people who refused to take oppression seriously and mocked the people who did. We don’t admire the people who ignored oppression because taking action was too upsetting and disruptive. We don’t admire the people who complained more about the tactics of resisters than about their oppression. We don’t admire the people who victim-blamed; who told people their oppression only happened because they resisted it, and if they ignored it, it would go away. We don’t admire the people who told oppressed people their problems were a distraction. We don’t admire the people who beat their breasts about how sad the divisiveness was, treating the conflict over oppression as worse than the oppression itself. We don’t admire the people who said both sides were equally bad.

We admire the people who resisted oppression with their bodies and minds, their reputations and bank accounts, their creativity and love, their homes, their time, their livelihoods, their lives.

Let’s be the people we admire. Let’s make history proud of us.