A couple of weeks ago I listened to an interview with John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp, and a hostof other well-received novels. Irving published Garp forty years ago, and he reflected in this CBC interview about the importance of the book, and upon how well he thought the book still held up.
The most stable character in the story, Irving said, was Roberta, the transgendered former football player. It was a new thing, Irving contended, to write a transgendered character in the 1970s.
Irving mentioned the Trump Administration’s hostility towards the transgendered community. If you want to measure the justice and the goodness of a society, Irving said, look to its weakest and its smallest minority. Watch the treatment they receive, and you will learn a lot about what your community holds dear, and the depth of its commitment to compassion, mercy, and basic human decency.
I mentioned the Irving interview to the students in my Western Humanities course. Some of them had heard of Irving. None of them had read Garp. A few, I think, said that they had seen the movie with Robin Williams.
All of them, however, understood what he was getting at. They understood his point in the light of all that they had read to that point in the semester: the ancient Greeks’ warning that a yawning gap separates law and justice in a tyranny; the Bible’s call to treat the immigrants and the refugees with generosity and compassion, and its call to seek out injustice and correct oppression.
I read as well a couple of weeks back about the AHA report by Benjamin Schmidt that the number of history majors nationwide isfalling. I wondered why our experience at Geneseo is so different, where we have seen steady increases in each of the past three years. Why are we bucking this disturbing national trend?
I am not sure, but I have a few hunches. We have a department filled with fine teachers to be sure. For a department with a heavy teaching load, we are productive and well-connected scholars. I think my colleagues, as well,have done a nice job of fostering an intellectual community in the department,and we provide our students with a lot of support. Our best teachers, moreover, do a lot of their teaching in general education and core courses, where we reach non-history majors and undecided students early in their academic careers. We have “converted” more than a few students to our program through engaged and creative teaching. And, finally, while millions of Americans cheer on our Bronze Creon while uncritically slouching towards despotism, we at Geneseo engage with the present.
Think about the justifications you have heard for studying history. Likely the old chestnut from George Santayana that those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it will come to mind. By studying the past, we have often been told, we can avoid making the same mistakes again, and again. If these statements are even partially true,how can we historians not engage with the present? How can we not talk about current events? How can we not speak truth to power? Doing so rests at the heart of our profession, or it ought to.
I find it difficult to keep up with all of the insanity emerging from the executive branch. Over this past week, the President said that the military would build his much-discussed border wall if Congress—literally the representatives of the American people—did not appropriate the funds. Before I could decide whether this was an example of the President’s contempt for democracy or an example of his ignorance of American constitutionalism, or both, or neither, and before I could write an op-ed about the long-established precedent that the military does not involve itself in civilian politics, President Trump made the spurious argument that a border wall will prevent terrorism and he threatened to deport from the United States those who had immigrated to this country from Vietnam. It is insane, and this president, and his feckless Republican allies, have overseen a government unprecedented for its mendacity, cruelty, and avarice.
So we look at the weakest and the smallest minorities in the country, as John Irving suggests. As a nation, we are not doing well. This president will hold on to power and rally his base, not by appealing to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” but to fear, derision, spite and tribal animosities. We historians have seen this before in tyrants throughout history. Perhaps one way to erase that downward slide in enrollments in history is to actively engage with the present, to do so creatively and with energy, and to demonstrate that what we see around us flies in the face of thousands of years of wisdom.
After all, this past weekend a child died of dehydration. She had crossed the border, been taken into custody, and died before receiving appropriate medical attention. The Right Wing pundit class collectively said, “Shit Happens.” You don’t want kids to die crossing the border? Don’t cross it, then. The Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the death was “a very sad example of the dangers” migrants face. Unaware that if earlier generations of would-be immigrants acted on this logic, there would be nobody in America named “Kirstjen,” Nielsen showed an utter lack of human compassion. As Father James Martin wrote in reply, “what a disgraceful comment. Literally:without grace. Why not try understanding what forces families to flee their homes. The Secretary also knows that seeking asylum is a universal human right.This is instead a ‘very sad example of the dangers’ of not welcoming the stranger.”
We who study the past, who examine the evidence critically, are well-suited to understand the complexities of these issues, to seek out answers to the difficult questions they raise, and hold those in power to account.