Which side of history in 2006?

Fran Quigley

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

Burning of George Bush effigy at an anti-war protest on Monument Circle.

Happy New Year 2056! Mom and Dad say hi. I hope Grandpa's blood pressure is not creeping up again, and that Grandma's hip is mending well.

I am writing because I have been assigned to write a paper for my history class, and it is based on a question for you:

What did you stand for in 2006?

We are supposed to write the paper about how history can prove some very common attitudes of the past to be horribly wrong.

I've learned that, in the mid 19th century, 350,000 otherwise moral, God-fearing Americans owned other human beings. To them, and to the many more who supported them, this was perfectly acceptable behavior, since they saw African-Americans as inferior creatures, savage enough and intellectually dim enough to deserve their chains.

I know that view was already morally repugnant in 2006. But that year, did you try to undo the economic and educational chains that were still worn by slaves' descendants? Did you work to gain justice for those African-Americans who bore the legacy of slavery in their underpaid jobs, their poorly funded schools, their substandard housing?

In 2006, did you follow the lead of those who in the 1960s supported a dishonest war, or ineffectually mumbled their misgivings about it? I know that the Vietnam War was discredited by 2006, but in that critical year did you provide the same quiet acceptance of needless deaths in Iraq?

Not too long before you were born, in the mid 20th century, elected officials and self-proclaimed people of God quoted Bible verses and invoked visions of bestiality to oppose marriages between African-Americans and whites. Did you follow the same playbook in 2006, when similar demagogues singled out a minority of homosexuals and tried to say that God wanted to deny them the right to legal marriages recognizing the loving families they had already built?

In 2006, did you demand that your community progress beyond the era where the mentally ill were thrown into asylums like criminals, and moral weakness was assigned as the cause for their troubles? In your own time, there were three times as many men and women with mental illness in U.S. prisons as in mental health hospitals. Did you do anything to help those prisoners suffering from bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia who were punished even more because their untreated illnesses prevented them from towing the line?

I know that many Americans saw the "Jewish problem" in 1930s Germany as someone else's quarrel, and the U.S. refused to admit most of the refugees fleeing the Holocaust. And for most of the era of apartheid, Americans didn't want to get involved in South Africa's "internal" conflicts, either.

But it is still a surprise to me that most Americans in 2006 were not too concerned with the brutal AIDS pandemic in Africa, or the 11 million children dying each year from hunger-related illnesses in a world of plenty. But please tell me you weren't one of those who didn't care. Tell me you didn't buy $150 shoes, or spend your extra cash on nights of drinking, when so many others were dying for lack of a dollar a day in food or medicine.

I bet it wasn't easy standing up for justice in 2006. I have learned in class that abolitionists were a ridiculed minority for many decades before slavery was finally stopped. I know that those who dared oppose the Vietnam War were cursed as unpatriotic. Americans who begged for help for German Jews in 1936 and South African blacks in 1976 were dismissed as hysterical and naïve.

But my history book shows that, in 2006, there were some people who stood out in the cold protesting the war. Others trudged to the Statehouse demanding relief for the mentally ill and fair treatment for those who suffered from discrimination. I have learned that there were some who sacrificed a lot to give charity for the world's starving and sick, and insisted that the world's wealthiest country do the same.

Just like the abolitionists and the civil rights heroes of your ancestors' day, those 2006 activists look very good in my history books.

So please tell me, Grandma and Grandpa, what did you stand for in 2006?


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