23 December 2016

Jane Addams and Donald Trump

For my students the cliché “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it” remains true. Actually I think Santayana’s idea varies slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Every semester I collect and read final papers concerning at least educational history that espouse the sentiment expressed in the cliché in the hope that in their study they will avoid in their classrooms the repetitions of the mistakes and errors of the past. My students reject Stephen Daedalus’ plaint that “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Neither will they hold to the idea that, in fact, though human culture continues to develop, it does not necessarily learn, and our gross misunderstandings, pathological narcissisms, prejudices and over-prideful natures (to name only several unfavorable characteristics that come immediately to a mind up too early and ready to travel) do not cease to troublingly trouble our lives.
            In the chapter “Echoes of the Russian Revolution,” in her wonderful book Twenty Years at Hull-House (wonderful because her work reminds me that there are very, very good people in the world doing good work) she writes of the repercussions that troubled her community and all of Chicago from the fear aroused by the activities of Communists and anarchists associated with that event and the revolutionary activities then roiling Russia. Not that there hadn’t been trouble in Chicago before, but Hull-House begins (1889-90) two years or so after the Haymarket Riot. The public reaction to anarchism is exacerbated by the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo, New York by a professed anarchist, and Hull House is implicated because of its connection to its sympathetic relations with several prominent communists and anarchists. She had welcomed the representatives of these movements whose efforts did not conflict with those those of Hull-House though their methods might have differed. Addams writes, “Certain it is, as the distinguished revolutionists have come to Chicago they have impressed me , as no one else ever has done, as belonging to that noble company of martyrs who have ever and again poured forth blood that human progress might be advanced.” Addams own effort at Hull-House attempted to improve the state of the human condition by advocating for those without power and status in American society.
            Accused of collaboration with anarchists and communists, Addams received vilification, threat and hate mail from an ignorant press and public. She writes that the public response to the presence of the anarchists merely proved their argument: “. . . that this moment of panic revealed the truth of their theory of government; that the custodians of law and order have become the government itself quite as the armed men hired by the medieval guilds to protect them in the peaceful pursuit of their avocations through sheer possession of arms finally made themselves rulers of the city.” Might makes not right but asserts power and it derives from money.
            So here we are during the potential fascist reign of Donald Trump who campaigned on the vilification of an immigrant population, sowing fear and suspicion amidst an already uncertain public, and who then threatened to rid America of the ‘evil’ element represented by that immigrant population and particularly those of Muslim background. Exclude them! Throw them out! I read in The New York Times that “On Wednesday, [Trump] appeared to say that recent terror attacks in Europe had vindicated his campaign pledge to bar Muslims from entering the United States. Aides later said he was merely restating his promise to implement strict vetting and suspend the admission of people from countries associated with terrorism.” In either case, we are in for a very ugly time.
         And to this Addams has a response. Acknowledging that the assassination represented a horrible and senseless act, she writes, “I was firmly convinced that the public could only be be convicted of the blindness of its source, when a body of people with a hundredfold of the moral energy possessed by a Settlement group should make clear that there is no method by which any community can be guarded against sporadic efforts on the part of half-crazed, discouraged men, save by a sense of mutual right and securities which will include the veriest outcast.”  Only by actively living by our ideals and actively advocating for them will be secure our safety and our future. These words and sentiments seem completely foreign to the developing Trump administration and to the public that supports him. There is precedent: the Weimar Republic and the rise of the National Socialist Movement under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the development of the concurrent fascist regimes of Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini.


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