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Recognize unpleasant history

| Wednesday, December 9, 2015

During President Obama’s address to the nation Sunday evening, he said, “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission [to defeat ISIL] because we are on the right side of history.”

He then noted that the United States was “founded upon a belief in human dignity – that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.”

While the primary purpose of Obama’s speech was to discuss the ever-present threat of terrorism, his belief that the founding fathers considered human dignity in their creation of our country puts him on the wrong side of history, and cannot be overlooked.

Human dignity as we understand it today was certainly not a concern of our country’s founders. In fact, the phrase did not appear in any U.S. law or reports until 1946. If we are to consider human dignity one of their central beliefs, we then overlook the oppression, discrimination and other injustices of our past, which they knowingly enabled. President Obama’s statement simply is not true. Unfortunately, he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to revise history in order to make it more convenient for an argument.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” also effectively simplifies and glosses over unpleasant details of our nation’s past. What period in American history was so great that we are looking to repeat it? One in which we refused to consider women to be citizens by denying them the right to vote? Or perhaps when government officials largely ignored public lynching of blacks? To suggest that a return to the past is best for our country is to push aside progress and hard-fought victories for the marginalized and oppressed.

Some assumption of moral authority is necessary in order to make a good argument, of course. It is emboldening to hear people claim that we are on the right side of history, that the United States is the best country on the face of the earth or that our success as a nation empowers us to be a leader for other countries around the globe. But history shows us that these claims are false and distorted. Moral authority cannot be established if we choose to remain ignorant of our own country’s transgressions.

Clearly not every aspect of our history is dark and horrible. We have come a long way from the time of the American Revolution. However, that does not mean that we should blatantly ignore the unpleasant details of our country’s past and pretend that America has always been a gleaming beacon of hope that upholds the principle of human dignity for all.

Not only does the oversimplification of history push aside the struggle of progress and take away from the efforts of all those who have fought to end injustices in our society, but it also prevents us from learning from previous mistakes.

Refusal to acknowledge our past wrongdoings does not accomplish any good. This lack of historical consideration is evident in recent headlines, as we are in the midst of what is essentially the same debate on immigration we have always had as a country. Not long ago, we shunned immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Cuba, in addition to many other countries. To suggest that one day these groups would not be considered second-class citizens was laughable.

Yet we see ourselves continuing to discriminate against immigrants from regions such as Central America and the Middle East today. We have somehow allowed ourselves to forget that we are a nation of immigrants, and it is this kind of historical ignorance that enables the discrimination and injustice that persists in our nation today. This is just one example of how many in our country refuse to learn from history, but one does not need to look far to find many more.

It is essential that we consider where we came from and let that inform our opinions and actions as we move forward. We will never be able to forge a better future if we ignore the lessons that history has to teach us. As unpleasant as it may be at times, we must face the ugly truth if we are to learn from it and continue to make progress towards ensuring the protection of human dignity for all.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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