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The Tyranny of Ignorance

It is a scandal that Americans do not know their history, and do not know how to relate current events to the past. This is true as a general principle, but I am writing today in response to an incident that happened recently in one of my US history classes.

The assignment was to find a media article referring to a current event, and describe how our knowledge of history helps us to understand the present. As the riots in Baltimore are recent and sensational, many of the students wanted to talk about that incident. One in particular found an article that quoted a representative of the police union in Baltimore comparing the rioters to a lynch mob. The student was visibly upset by the accusation and described a recorded lynching as an example of how the rioters were nothing like a lynch mob.

The major difference between the rioters and the lynch mob was that the rioters didn’t lynch the six officers being investigated. But the difference ends there because in my mind there is little doubt that had the rioters possessed the means and opportunity, they would have lynched the officers. Because in the minds of too many and encouraged by social media and an irresponsible mainstream media, these men have already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.

This is one of the most disturbing features of our mass culture: that large numbers of people make judgments based on skewed and incomplete information to conclude innocence or guilt. But our system of justice, as flawed as it may be, demands due process, the weighing of evidence, and the right to face one’s accusers and defend oneself. Riots, and irresponsible calls for “justice” (i.e., revenge, or retribution for social sins) based on hearsay and emotion, are as far from justice as one can imagine. It is demonstrably true that there have been and continue to be perversions of the justice system, and it is undeniable that certain groups have suffered more from those perversions than others. But the remedy for the flaws and faults and all of the injustice of the past cannot be abandonment of due process.

One area of our history that we should know but are woefully ignorant about is the revolutionary era. We have mythologized the era to the point that it has become little more than a childish fairy-tale provided to motivate an unthinking devotion to the nation. But if we were to look at the events objectively we could see a number of similarities between what happened then and current events such as the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.

Let’s consider the Boston Massacre. In 1770 a group of Boston colonists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty harassed British guards at the customs house on King Street. The Sons of Liberty were a loosely defined group of people active throughout the Colonies opposed to the imposition of taxes by Parliament. They coined the cry, “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” In the years leading up to the Revolution this group was responsible for a number of mob actions such as the event now called the Boston Massacre, as well as destroying British merchant vessels, burning the Governor of Massachusetts in effigy, destroying his house, and stealing his dishes.

In the case of the Boston Massacre the gathered crowd was taunting a British guard and pelting him with snow covered rocks. Later propaganda would characterize the incident as a snowball fight that turned deadly because of British tyranny. As is true in most highly charged cases there is no way to be completely sure of the facts, but we do know that British soldiers fired into the crowd and five people were killed.

Is it not interesting that the chief instigator of the outcry that followed was a printer: Samuel Adams (no relation to the beer maker)? His published response was an eighteenth-century version of the media circus we are continually subjected to whenever “newsworthy” events occur: incomplete, speculative, skewed information designed to generate outrage.

The outrage among the people of Boston focused on the soldiers who had fired into the crowd. There were immediate and vocal calls for the death penalty. In fact, the popular understanding of the time was that if a soldier fired upon civilians without Royal command it was a capital offense. The people expected no less.

However, the soldiers were entitled to due process. They were entitled to a hearing in court and legal defense. And their lawyer John Adams, the patriot, the man who stood against crown tyranny and pushed for the Declaration of Independence, defended them well. He won acquittal for most of them, based on the evidence. This fact outraged the people of Boston, but Adams himself would later write:

The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.[1]

Some will no doubt be annoyed that I compare the patriots of Boston in 1770 to the rioters in our cities today. But an objective look at the actions of both prove their tactics to be more similar than different. The difference is that one group we have unthinkingly come to cherish, and the other we have unthinkingly come to condemn.

The riots in Baltimore were triggered by the death of Freddie Gray, but its cause was much deeper. The riots in Ferguson were triggered by the death of Michael Brown and subsequent events, but not caused by them. The cause is much deeper.

Now, I’m not going to take the time to repeat the mountain of evidence that racial segregation remains widespread in the United States. Because, until rudely awakened by the riots in Ferguson, most Americans had lulled themselves into a comfortable snooze wherein they dreamed that the Civil Rights Movement had solved the race problem. How can you say we’re racist, when we have a black President?

But if we were not racist, the color of the President’s skin would not be something we would think to mention. And again, it is easy to demonstrate statistically that what we call “racial” minorities suffer from the ills of society: drug addiction, gangs, poverty, inequality, incarceration, recidivism, etc., at rates disproportionate to the overall “racial” demographics. It is obvious that there is a problem of equity, and that minorities are on the losing end. But as long as we can point to the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement, and our black President, we can throw our hands in the air and say, “what else can we do? We’re not racist.”

In fact this attitude gives voice to a racism that is much more pernicious than Jim Crow. Jim Crow was codified into law, and it could be defeated by changing the law. Racism in the heart doesn’t leave a visible stain. You can’t point to it and excise it. In fact, you can even deny that it exists. And so it is much more difficult to overcome. But it can and must be overcome if we are to survive as a free nation.

I think the first step in coming to a solution is to stop thinking about the problem in terms of race. In typical American bureaucratic fashion we try to eliminate racism by counting up and categorizing people according to race. But the problems are not endemic to race, rather economic condition. Essentially, all people who live in poverty suffer the same inhuman conditions and resort to the same self-defeating solutions. Dividing them by race only serves to distract from the real problem of poverty. It gives some a false sense of privilege and superiority while fomenting a simmering anger in others.

So to re-imagine the problem as one of economics and not race would be a start. But in the meantime we have to admit that there is a problem of perception on the part of people of all “races” that continues to divide. And that division leads to racist attitudes and responses.

Historians deal with facts. We must deal with events that did occur. It can be interesting and tempting to consider what might have happened, but these inquiries must end in speculation. The revolution did happen, we can only guess what might have occurred had the Parliament been more responsive to the complaints of the colonists. Yet as a historian I have often been presented with the popular notion that history repeats itself, as if there were some mysterious force or rule of history that guides events to similar outcomes.

It is true that the study of history reveals people continue to commit the same blunders given a similar set of conditions. But this is not repetition. It is more appropriately described by a different notion of history, stated by Hegel, that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. And unless ignorance is a mysterious force, there is nothing mysterious about why we learn nothing from history. It is because we do not know it.

In 1770 the American colonists had what they believed were legitimate grievances against the British Parliament. The British and American loyalists dismissed the protests of the Americans as insignificant and unwarranted mob actions: terrorism. Few could have imagined that these unaddressed grievances would eventually lead to a war of revolution and the breakup of the British Empire, but they did. Shall we sit idly by as history “repeats itself?” Or can we gather from history that it would be to everyone’s benefit to learn to listen to each other?

[1] John Adams, L.H. Butterfield, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 2., (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962), 79.

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