Learn from History, Don’t Destroy It

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The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to relive it.”

In fact, life and history themselves are a continuous process of the learning from past mistakes in order to not repeat them.

But when we try to destroy our history – no matter how ominous it may be – we erase any hope of using it as a text for teaching others what not to do or reminding ourselves what we did wrong.

Those fanatics who want to annihilate U.S. history by tearing down the statues of the men and women – great and otherwise – who shaped it should take a long, hard look at how survivors of the Holocaust reflect on their own tragic history – a history that, by the way, was much more recent and far more gruesome than slavery could ever be.

Rather than abolish the remnants of the Nazi concentration camps, and all the horror they entailed, Jews around the world have turned to them as an example of man’s most heinous acts against humanity.

Not only have Jews not asked for the camps to be torn down, but they have encouraged them to be transformed into international museums so that the world will never forget what happened during the Second World War.

And Jews have even gone a step further, helping to create Holocaust museums around the globe — including in Israel and here in Mexico – to help convey a universal message of the dangers of hatred and intolerance and to instill that ubiquitous motto into the heart and mindset of every Jew who lost a friend or relative to the camps and in those of their descendants: “Never again.”

If the message of the Black Lives Matter movement is that slavery was an absolute evil – which it was – then why not use the artifacts of that era – including the statues of those who fought for and against its abolition – as the show-and-tell monuments of how a nation that was built on the concept of individual freedoms and rights went so far astray?

History, for any country and from any period, is by its very nature a messy affair, marred by greed and violence, but also glorified by acts of bravery and great humanity, on all sides.

The men and women who fought for the Confederacy were not inherently evil, any more than those who defended the Union were totally pure.

They were normal Americans who, because of economic interests, family commitments and even geographic coincidence, took up a side that would – rightfully so – eventually be defeated.

But at the core, both those who fought for the North and those who fought for the South were Americans.

And their acts were the acts – right or wrong – of Americans.

They were the quintessential, living, breathing elements of American history.

The U.S. Civil War was gruesome and bloody, with more than 620,000 lives lost in battle (as a point of reference, that is higher than the current covid-19 death toll in the United States).

All those who fought were humans, with human flaws and frailties, as well as superhuman traits of grandeur.

The relics of that terrible war, no matter how visceral or offensive they may seem to some, are the tools with which we today can look back and try to understand what happened and why.

We may not like our history, but it cannot be obliterated simply by denying it or discarding its vestiges.

Instead of tearing down these historic monuments, we should re-evaluate their significance in the context of a new era, perhaps in a different setting, removed from their pedestals and with ledgers of clarifications.

But destroying sculptures and erasing their memory closes forever the book on whatever lessons they may hold.

To destroy the very symbols of the past, those physical testimonies of a nation’s history, serves only to deny the chronicles of who we are and where we came from, and to nullify any chance we have of rectifying our errors.

Indeed, as Santayana said, we must learn from our mistakes so as not to repeat them.

…July 1, 2020

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