I had dinner this week with a remarkable 85 year-old. We were talking about lots of different things, but at one point in our conversation we tapped into something that has really resonated with me. Although we are almost twenty years apart in age, we had both experienced fall-out from a point in America’s history that brought shame and great pain and suffering for many – the McCarthy Era.
I shared a memory with her about how, as a 14 year-old, I had “discovered” information about the abuse of power and incredible damage done by a duly-elected Senator from the state of Wisconsin during the 1950’s. I put “discovered” in quotes here because as a young person, not only was I ignorant of this piece of history, but I was unaware of how directly this episode had impacted how I was taught, what I was being taught, and who was allowed to teach me.
I remember finding a book (the title of which I can no longer recall) in the public library about McCarthy that revealed how the fear of communism after World War II had turned into a witch hunt. I shared my memory of the Army-McCarthy Hearings and finding out just how harmful government could be when left unchecked in the hands of a fanatical, alcoholic member of Congress. I was inspired to learn more about this because of being shown a movie in my American History class where Edward R. Murrow had demonstrated the power of journalism in providing a check and balance to the flagrant abuse of power.
I remember my feeling righteous in the face of such invasive bullying by Senator McCarthy who was supposed to represent the best and highest ideals of democracy. My indictment of him and my idealism about how government should be was further fueled by the civil rights and anti-war movements that were prevalent in the late 1960s.
My understanding of the political process, of how democracy was molded, and the need for citizens to be informed and active, came from the interactions of the beliefs and values of my family, the lessons I was learning in school, and the times I was living in. This triad (family, education, and current events) creates a powerful context that continues to influence us over our lifespan.
My friend’s experience of these times was, naturally, quite different. Such were the times that the fear of communism was so rampant that informers were everywhere and citizens were encouraged to turn in other citizens suspected of being communists. As a young elementary school teacher, she had been called into her principal’s office and told she was going to be interrogated by the local school board after being accused of espousing communist ideas in her fifth-grade classroom.
In my friend’s case, this “someone” was anonymous, and my friend had no recourse but to undergo this process. As far as she could figure out, one of her students must have gone home and told his or her parents that “teacher wants us to share and share alike and for everyone to have an equal opportunity to do things.” If made today, this statement would reflect the current philosophy of “be kind to all”, but in 1954 it was considered subversive.
My friend relayed her experience of being called before the School Board, and half a century later, the impact of this intimidation remained frightening for both of us. It ultimately was without consequence for her, as less politically reactive heads prevailed, and my friend went on to have a full teaching career, positively touching many lives over the years.
This is where history intersects. Such were the times that before someone could become a teacher they had to sign a loyalty oath. One remnant of these times continues. I shared a memory of completing my paperwork as adjunct faculty for Santa Rosa Junior College. I was shocked to find that I needed to sign a loyalty oath, assuming that such a requirement had been terminated long ago. But no, to this day teachers are still required to sign such an oath before they can teach in California public institutions.
We are currently in an historic eddy. We are re-experiencing the decline of social structures, seeing the rise of fascism, and experiencing increasing distrust with our elected officials and with our government systems.
There are those among us who have experienced this first hand. Like my friend, they found ways to adapt to the challenges, to manage the anxiety and fear, and to come to terms with having to be at the mercy of events instead of in control of their lives. These are essential skills for survival.
Perhaps it is not so much that we both individually and collectively have forgotten our history, as that we have not had a need to remember it. It has remained dormant, taken out only when used for making a point or for adding to a lesson plan. It hasn’t had to provide us with a road map until now.
Some of us, however, have lived through times where our very lives were at stake. Where taking a stand resulted in horrible consequences including being separated from our families, being put in cages, being charged with crimes just because of the color of our skin, being slaughtered, being labeled based on who we worshiped, who we did business with, and which flag we vowed our allegiance to.
Others of us have only read of these things and are not aware of the true cost these events, behaviors, and belief systems exact from a society.
I invite all of us to find that friend, family member, neighbor, or resident in a nursing home who has experienced these events before and start a conversation. This will help us not to forget our own histories.