Apr/May 2012 Salon

A Nation of Ignorants

by Thomas J. Hubschman

I recently read there are plaques, brass plates, embedded in the sidewalks of Berlin, that contain the names of people who were removed from those addresses and taken to Nazi concentration camps. This got me to wondering what our own cities would look like if we commemorated in a similar fashion the human beings America has systematically killed or enslaved. I live in a part of a large American city that was once home to a tribe of the Delaware Indians and is currently home to almost a million descendents of American slaves. Most of those slaves would have lived in the South, but New York had its own slave population, and New York banks worked hand-in-hand with Southern plantations and shipping companies and prospered with them.

What would it be like if, when I went out to buy some apples at the local Korean greengrocer, I had to step over a metal plaque that stated, "At this site in 17__, So-and-So and their family and close relatives were slaughtered by Dutch/English settlers because they refused to move off this land"?

Or, "At this site on July 6, 17__ John ____, an African slave, along with his wife and ten-year-old daughter were sold separately to three different purchasers by the names of Such-and-such, Such-and-such and Such-and-such"?

Would I have become by this point inured to such memorials of our own genocides ("genocide" under International law having a definition a good deal wider than outright slaughter)? Even if I had become oblivious to such reminders of our more shameful history, my children and grandchildren would be curious about those metal inscriptions, and I would have to answer their questions. There are, in fact, brass plates embedded around trees outside a local church commemorating donors, just as there are similar plates attached to the backs of benches in Prospect Park, keeping alive, in one case, the memory of a young man, an Arab American as it happens, who was killed there a few years back. So, the idea is not exactly foreign to us.

The last time I checked, we had no official national memorial in the nation's capital or elsewhere either to the Indians or the African-American genocides, though a museum dedicated to "African-American history" is in progress. Could it be we are willing, even happy, to commemorate atrocities that have occurred in other parts of the world, but we are unwilling to face up to those we are responsible for on our own soil? If the Germans or Rwandans or Cambodians took that attitude, what would we say about them? The Turks still officially refuse to acknowledge the slaughter of one million Armenians in 1919, and they catch all kinds of grief as a result. Do we as Americans enjoy some kind of immunity from responsibility even for acknowledging our sins, while at the same time we voluntarily place ourselves under an obligation to commemorate other peoples'?

But we don't just avoid responsibility by neglecting to put up monuments or build museums to the victims of our history. We continue to marginalize and oppress the descendents of the slaves and native peoples we committed outright atrocities against, and we do it in the name of one of the most cherished American values.

Even the most ardent proponent of a wall to keep out illegal Mexican immigrants and legislation to deport the illegal immigrants already in the country will insist we are "a nation of immigrants"—by which they usually mean their own ancestors and the ancestors of people like themselves. Their more liberal counterparts agree, even as they deplore the idea of building a wall or engaging in mass deportations. But what they both also agree on, though tacitly and with scarcely any conscious thought, is that immigrants—"good" immigrants, the kind who come here with advanced degrees and/or a strong work ethic—are welcome because without them it would be impossible to maintain a society as technologically sophisticated as our own. Where would we get all those engineers and other highly skilled people? Surely not from our American-born population—at least not from that large segment of it that is chronically under- and badly-educated, produces more than its fair share of the criminal class, and seems to prefer remaining culturally and socially marginalized and dependent on the largess of hard-working Americans like ourselves for their own, perhaps atavistic, reasons.

New York's elite high schools, the ones that typically send their graduates on to the best colleges and afterward to high-profile positions in the top echelons of American society, are full of immigrants and the children of immigrants. We celebrate their rigorous, even neurotic pursuit of academic excellence, inadvertently contrasting it with the chronic failure of our native-borns, with sometimes a sad shrug and, for some of us, a twinge of guilt. After all, New York City is more than 50 percent immigrant. Why shouldn't they and their children take advantage of all the society has to offer, especially since they will one day repay it with long, fruitful, professional careers?

The unspoken but inherent assumption behind this way of thinking is that relying on immigrants to fill the gap between our need for university-educated workers and our underperforming indigenous supply is free. The immigrant engineers and doctors come here of their own accord, already educated at someone else's expense, and are happy to work hard and raise children with the same exemplary values as themselves. To gain these thousands of skilled workers we may have to put up with many more thousands of less educated, even uneducated immigrants, illegals and, possibly, even a few would-be terrorists. But it's still a lot cheaper to rely on immigration to fill our needs than to engage in the kind of publicly-funded initiatives that made Headstart such an asset to preparing disadvantaged children for success in school.

But it's not just or even really about money. If we had to fall back on the tens of millions (not all of them brown- or black-skinned) of our fellow citizens whom we currently write off as fit only for so-called service jobs in order to maintain our current levels of expertise, we would, if only inadvertently, also have to acknowledge centuries of neglect and worse that have put them in the position they're in. And we then would have to confront and overcome the consequences of that oppression and neglect, and not just in East New York and East Los Angeles but in Appalachia and El Paso. We would have to engage in a national education program—for us, the beneficiaries of privilege—that would rival what Germany was obliged to do after the second world war, and we would have to do it without the "benefit" of being forced to do so by a total breakdown of our society through its defeat and subjugation by a foreign power.

The only possible cause for such an initiative in our foreseeable future would be the drying up of the supply of immigrants who make up for the lack of university-educated Americans we need. That could actually happen if our current influx of immigrants ceased. But the likelihood is that places like India, Brazil, Africa, and the Arab nations will not be able to offer their own professional class the kind of opportunity and environment they can find here, at least not for another generation. And that will allow us to continue doing business as usual, ignoring that large segment of our population whose present condition and history are subjects we'd rather not think about anyway.


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