The Learning Curve… Flatlines?

Photograph by John-Paul Himka of the Lviv pogrom on or around 1 July 1941 in Lviv, German-occupied Poland (now Ukraine).

Photograph by John-Paul Himka of the Lviv pogrom on or around 1 July 1941 in Lviv, German-occupied Poland (now Ukraine).

The photograph I chose to accompany this post makes my blood boil. It’s a decade older than I am, yet I can see today that the antisemitism spawning the horror shown has not abated.

What angers me almost as much as the disgusting event itself (and its modern inheritance) is that I had long believed that we–especially we Americans–were learning, that we were moving toward overcoming our national antisemitism and racism. I am furious that I can now imagine this happening here, happening again.

I thought we had grown better than that.

My ancestors (the most recent arrivals to the United States came a decade before the Civil War) were undoubtedly racist and antisemitic. That began to change during my grandparents’ generation (they were all born in the 1890s) and accelerated through my parents’ (children of the Roaring Twenties) toward what I long had hoped was the finish line of the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

My grandparents were undoubtedly racist and probably started their lives never even thinking about the antisemitism of their country. The tenor of their racism changed over their lives, acceptance of African Americans as people deserving of full treatment and rights as fellow Americans growing over the decades, though I don’t think their racism ever completely disappeared. As they got to know Jews, their antisemitism also dissipated. This probably began during World War I. I know it did for one grandfather, for I still have this 1925 clipping about him:

LIEUT. BARLOW WINS APPLAUSE

By Bold Stand Against the Ku Klux Klan at Legion Meeting at Toledo

Special to The Times, When a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan as unAmerican was presented to the convention of the Ohio Department of the American Legion last Tuesday in Toledo, a debate lasting an hour ensued in which the Lafayette Post No. 27 came into the lime light through its delegate, Alfred M. Barlow, one of Gallia County’s war heroes. Barlow’s speech, which was a feature of the meeting, was spoken of by the Toledo News-Bee in a front page story as follows: Alfred M. Barlow of Lafayette Post 27 of Gallipolis, formerly a first lieutenant, made a speech opposing the klan because of discrimination against creeds. He said there is no place in this country for such things and referred to the company which he commanded in which there were many Jewish soldiers. Barlow argued that private vengeance and outrages can be committed under the guise of the klan, even tho its members do not commit the outrages, and referred to the Texas instances where robed riders beat people and the klan denied responsibility. “You can’t get around the fact that the klan does discriminate,” declared Barlow. “How do you know? How do you know?” came the calls from the floor. “I know,” continued Barlow calmly, “because I can read and write the English language, and their very application blanks that state that their members must be white gentiles is discrimination.” Cheers followed Barlow’s reply. “If the courts can’t enforce the laws then it’s time to repeal the constitution. We, the American Legion, carry on Americanism, but we do it in the open American way–not thru fear. We do it thru education.” When Barlow finished there was a clamor to be heard. E. H. Huber of the Cleveland Post gained the floor. He said his ancestors had been members of the klan up until 1871, when lawless people secured control of the organization. He said that he is opposed to the klan.

Exposure to people of differing background goes a long way toward changing them. My parents and aunts and uncle have never shown any antisemitism that I have been aware of, accepting that Jews were a part of their community without question, that they as much an equal part of America as anyone. They also moved further than their parents concerning race. One aunt married a Mexican and, as far as I know, there were no familial problems connected.

My generation includes Jews, Mexicans, Filipinos, Thais and others within the family, and quite a few of us have had romantic relationships with African Americans. The old animosities may not be completely dead within us, but I had hoped (and still believe–for my family, at least) they were dying.

I also believed that my family was not so different from any other American family–of any race, religion or other background. I thought the learning curve my family was experiencing was general to my country.

Until, of course, the election of Donald Trump blew my complacency to shreds. There’s no way around it: He was elected through an appeal to clannishness and racism.

The surge in antisemitism, Jews in Trump’s own family notwithstanding, is tied to the racism he foments–just as the two were tied together 95 years ago when my grandfather helped stop the expansion of the Klan.

All of the pain, all of the work in my family and in the country over the past century toward building a better, more inclusive future for our country now seems for naught.

It is going to be up to real Americans, real patriots to change that. To people who care about each other as part of their commitment to the nation. We have to stop hate wherever we see it, even in political allies, even in ourselves. Though I sometimes dearly want to, I can’t even hate Trump supporters–and be a real American.

I can’t argue with the people I see destroying my country anymore. Doing so only proves to me more clearly that the progress we thought we had made was illusory, that the shining vision of the United States is dead. I don’t want to believe that.

There is another way, I am learning. The path to resurrection lies through love and peace, no matter how naive that may sound. I hope I, and a growing group of fellow Americans, can try it.

Maybe we can bring our country back from the dead and move that horrible picture away from today.