|Today might well be a day to commemorate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in 1882, because the dime in his memory was first issued in 1946 and Dore Schary's play about the younger FDR, "Sunrise at Campobello," premiered on this day in 1958 - and for that I have a personal connection, as my parents took my sister and me to see it about 2 months later.
In 1965, Britain held the official state funeral of FDR's great contemporary Sir Winston Churchill, who after all is also an American citizen, not merely because of his American mother, but because the Congress of the United States chose to so honor him as they had done earlier with Lafayette.
IN 1948 Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated - a man who served as a model for Martin Luther King Jr, and for many who sought non-violent means of changing the inequities of the world in which we live.
But this is also a day in which the malevolent presence of Adolph Hitler looms large. In 1933 he was sworn in as Chancellor. And in 1939 he called for the extermination of the Jews - it was not that the world did not know his intent, because major newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, had that information in their stories the following day (although for some reason the list of events the NY Times offers for this date includes no mention of Hitler).
Perhaps one interested in Woman's history would note several of the births on this date - eminent historian Barbara Tuchman in 1912; Congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm in 1920; and feminist leader Eleanor Smeal in 1939.
Two people whose politics were very different were also born this day, actress and radical activist Vanessa Redgrave in 1937, Dick Cheney in 1940.
There are deaths of importance. Perhaps we can remember that 1972 was Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, when British troops opened fire killing 13. Or the shame of our own nation, as Seminole leader Osceola died in Jail in 1838.
Perhaps appropriately, Bob Herbert's New York Times column today is on the late Howard Zinn, who reminded us of how selectively we are in our recall and teaching of our own history. In A Radical Treasure Herbert, who recently had a meal with Zinn, offers this:
Mr. Zinn was often taken to task for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long. When writing about Andrew Jackson in his most famous book, "A People's History of the United States," published in 1980, Mr. Zinn said:
"If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people - not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians."
Zinn called himself a radical. I suppose I would similarly describe myself, although in doing so I make no attempt to elevate myself to Zinn's level. It IS radical to insist upon an accurate portrayal of history, with all of its warts as well as its triumphs. Just as it is radical to parse the language of modern day politics and policy to see what it really says. That is, getting to the root of things is radical from the Latin radix - I was always fascinated by etymology - and it is radical because we are rarely willing to be so honest about ourselves and our own history, to examine the flaws as well as the achievements of our heroes.
We often miss what we can learn from taking the time to remember the past. For example, another date today is from 1781, when Maryland - the state in which I teach - became the 13th state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. The Congress had adopted the document in 1777, but it required unanimity to go into effect. Thus the Revolution was largely fought on behalf of a nation that lacked an approved governing document. Yes, Yorktown was still in the future, thus the war was ongoing. But might it not be beneficial to reexamine the Revolutionary period to recognize how unique the cooperation of the 13 states was given no document defining how a central government should operate?
I do not claim to be an historian, even though I have taught a variety of history courses over the years. I have also researched topics that interested me, sometimes in conjunction with work in college and graduate schools, sometimes independently of any ongoing academic endeavor. My perspective on historical matters is personal, shaped by my own experience and the limits of my knowledge, yet also informed by my curiosity. The idea of each day reminding myself of what has happened on that date in the past serves to connect me to something greater than the length of my own life, to see my own experience in a broader and richer context. It can challenge me to rethink my attitudes, to deepen and reshape my perspectives and interpretations.
Today would be a very difficult day for me to choose one of the events of this date as a sole focus. Thus I find myself reflecting on the nature of history, of what - and of whom - we remember.
As a teacher of American Government, were today a school day I would probably find occasion to point the students both at FDR and Maryland's ratification of the Articles of Confederation.
But it is a Saturday. And on Saturdays part of my personal pattern is to turn to the words of certain men whose columns appear that day, one of whom is Bob Herbert. As I reflect over the history, I turn again to Herbert's words about Howard Zinn, particularly these
I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?
who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it - words that challenge me to examine how I lead my own life, what lessons I impart by words and actions to the students for whom I am responsible
that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet? - are those interests even included in much of the history we teach? Why should it have been so radical for Zinn to insist upon our focusing on them in his People's History? Do we avail ourselves of the kind of material he pioneered, and someone like Joy Hakim (A History of US) also offered?
History.... births ... deaths ... anniversaries .... memories of all sorts.
On any day the are so many things to which we can turn to remind ourselves of how we arrived where we now find ourselves. And as I write those words I find I am reminded of other - poetic - words, from T. S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I am also chastened and remind myself that while it is good to remember that which has gone before, we should not be so consumed that we fail to notice what is happening now, around us, in which we are a part. We are participating in the creation of new history by what we do - or don't do, by what we say - or how we remain silent when perhaps we should speak out in protest.
As I write that last phrase, additional words come to mind, those attributed to Edmund Burke:
All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. . . . to do nothing in the presence of recognizable wrong is to acquiesce in the damage that it does.
Remembering those words, and those from Eliot's "Little Gidding," I return again to the various events of this day. I look at Bloody Sunday, at the deaths of Gandhi and Osceola, and most of all at the 1939 pronouncement of Hitler. There is a lesson, at least for me, one that outweighs notable births such as that of FDR. It is the requirement to speak out against injustice, as Howard Zinn did throughout his life. It is the challenge to live in opposition to tyranny and oppression, as Gandhi demonstrated. It is to be willing to risk oneself on behalf of others, as Osceola demonstrated.
And most of all, it is to never remain silent or fail to take seriously the radical statements offered by those in or aspiring to positions of power. Adolph Hitler should have taught us that.
On this day ... on any day ... there are lessons we can learn from the past. There are also present challenges to meet.
Present challenges: health care, economic suffering, political conflict at home, armed strife around the world, . . .
Most of all, there are the challenges of ordinary living, taking the time to acknowledge those who are a regular part of our existence, being willing to open our hearts to others even in the smallest of ways.
Which reminds me of still other words, from the Gospel of Matthew: "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"
Not all things are within our power to change. We cannot use that as an excuse to turn inward, to avert our eyes. Yes, we are entitled to live our own lives, to celebrate our personal joys, such as the birthday yesterday of my spouse. Yet there is something more we are called to do - to remember, to allow memory to help us open our hearts as a flower opens to the sun, rather than to close it off in a clenched fist.
That is true on this day ... on any day ...