Monday, February 15, 2010

Past as Prologue

             It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy,
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution.
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning.…
—T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Today is the halfway mark of African American History Month. Last February, there was spirited debate among many Americans, some of whom — in the wake of the Barack Obama’s election as president — questioned the need for continuing an annual four-week Black History observance.
Most of the discussion, though entertaining, was silly, as if the perfect convergence of circumstances resulting in Obama’s victory proved that we had entered a post-racial era in America.
We Americans tend to be spectacularly ahistoric. This trait has worked to our advantage as the nation was built. We focused on the practical as our nation was built. We explored, we cleared, we built, we invented, our eyes focused always on the possibilities of the present or the promise of the future.
The country had no history to study at first. We were once the world’s newest nation, in a hurry to achieve our manifest destiny in the most bountiful and expansive land known to civilized man. History was what Americans left behind in Europe, where folks were mired in a past of religious, royal and feudal castles and tunnels. We had frontiers to tame.
Our most energetic tamers were often people who disdained tradition. They blazed new paths. When they encountered failure, they shrugged it off, moved west, and started anew.
Having subdued much of the continent until there was no more west, we moved overseas, proselytizing, conquering, annexing. The first President Roosevelt established and pursued an expansionist policy with a clear eye. We became an imperial nation as a matter of presumed birthright, though our national fable of exceptionalism still blinds most contemporary Americans to that reality. But you could look it up.
We are not casting blame or pointing fingers here. Readers of this column have probably already supplied some missing pieces in our two-paragraph condensation of U. S. foreign and domestic policy: the all but complete eradication of Native Americans; the dispatch of Mexican Americans back to earlier points of origin; and the theft of Africans from their original homelands, cultures, languages, families, and histories.
Whether we understand it or not, our past catches up with us. As the Eliot passage suggests, if we look back at where we have been and what we have done, we often see a pattern different from what we thought we were doing at the time.

[Real Deal Confession: I wouldn’t know any other T.S. Eliot passage from a hieroglyphic. I know this one as a frontispiece to the memoirs of former Under Secretary of State George W. Ball.]
Acting locally, if we understand the pattern of our past as a community, it can help us make better decisions moving forward. It can help us to make sense of otherwise incomprehensible situations, such as the current plan of Cleveland schools ceo Eugene Sanders to close nearly a score of schools, many of which had recently received hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovation and repair expenditures, or last year’s near-unanimous opposition of black political leaders to the new form of county government.

We have a tendency here in Cuyahoga to reduce all discourse on public policy issues to personality-driven motivations. But while it is true that for many public officials, as for most people in general, where they stand depends upon where they sit, it is also true that human motivation is seldom linear, and that governing is complex. It may be helpful to keep this in mind as we begin to assess chief executive and council candidates for our new county government.

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