November 2017

Line in the Sand: “WHEN NOW IS HISTORY, WILL OUR KIDS BE PROUD?”

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufamn

Before we begin, special thanks to Matt Jording for saving Courtney and me a ton of work this month by inadvertently inspiring our topic. I applaud any and all readers who enable my laziness, and doubly so those who make a mean burger, as Matt does.

Back in September, Matt posted on his Facebook page a question that’s been burning a hole in the more flammable parts of my brain for a while now: When now is history, will our kids be proud?

It’s a good question—one without any easy answers. In fact, I followed a similar thread when Courtney and I debated the Casino’s Law commercial waaay back in 2014. If I may quote myself and thus get paid twice for the same words: “When historians of the future look back on twenty-first century America, they’re not going to know what the hell to make of us…. You have a culture that rallied against government intrusion, all while posting every scrap of personal information they had on Facebook. This culture—no, let’s take ownership of this thing—WE landed an intelligent robot on Mars, and in the same breath, we made Honey Boo Boo a star.”

But that was back in 2014, when making references to Honey Boo Boo was still considered timely. In 2017, we can only dream of such a cultural zenith. I’m fairly certain Mama June now holds a cabinet position. That’s how far we’ve fallen. It’s possible once again to make a timely Honey Boo Boo reference.

But despite the circus of horrors we have placed ourselves in (and make no mistake, we did this to ourselves), I feel like the history books will ultimately be kind to us. I feel like, when they look back on 2017, our kids will be proud of us.

After all, these are kids who happily color pictures of Christopher Columbus every October. Even if you sit these kids down and tell them in your kindest, Ward Cleaver-est voice, “Sweetheart, that nice man you’re coloring? He came to the new world looking for gold. When he didn’t find it, 250,000 Haitians died,” two things will happen. You’ll be asked to leave daycare by the closest grownup (particularly if this is not your child you’re speaking to), and that child will shrug and keep on coloring.

The fact is, history books are written by whomever holds the pen (or in this case, crayon). And no matter how dumb we allow ourselves to be as a civilization (remember that just last year we had a legitimate national clown panic), the second editions of the history books are amended by whoever holds the Wite-Out.

Take the Dutch, for example. I know that was a hard-left turn, but stay with me. The Dutch seem like reasonable people, don’t they? They have rich artistic and cultural traditions, beautiful architecture and a very nice airport. When you think back on Dutch history, what comes to mind? Wooden shoes, windmills, that sort of thing, right? You probably don’t think about how they instantly crushed their own economy in 1637 by betting on tulip futures, do you? Well, you will now, I’ll bet.

You see, back then, the concept of futures markets was just being developed. The Dutch were laying down big money betting on next year’s bumper crop of tulips. At the peak of what I swear to you is legitimately called “Tulip Mania” in history books, a single tulip bulb was being traded for more than 10 times the annual income of your average wooden shoemaker. Some bulbs were being traded 10 times in a single day.

And then, what do you know? People suddenly woke up and said to themselves (in Dutch) “Wait, what? We’ve been betting our entire village’s GDP on tulips? Oh man, we probably shouldn’t have legalized so many drugs.”

And thus came the great tulip crash of 1637, bringing down the entire Dutch economy because the flowers didn’t bloom 10 times more than they were supposed to. Who could have possibly predicted that, right?

So, yeah, right now we’re in kind of a dumb place, culturally. But we haven’t (as of this writing) gone bankrupt over flowers. So, if there’s hope for Christopher Columbus and the Dutch, maybe there’s hope for us too.

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Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson

Earlier this year, I attended an event for a local public service organization. And from the podium, where 150 sets of eyes and ears were trained, one high-ranking official made a racist remark. I was sitting only a few tables from the podium, and I heard his comment clear as day. Everyone at my table looked around in disbelief, “Did he really just say that?” we asked. I’m told that, as the words were uttered, the head of this organization looked at the utterer in disbelief. If I had to estimate, I would guess that half of the 150 people in attendance heard the comment. I wonder how many of us said something?

I didn’t. I wanted to.

I drafted a letter to the head of the organization, but I never sent it. I didn’t want the person I attended the event with to receive any backlash from the top brass—something he considered a possibility. I broached the subject a couple times with other members, including a leader who was the same “rank” as the racist offender. He didn’t have much to say on the topic, perhaps (and hopefully) because it had been handled?

Even now, I have the power of the pen and the freedom of the press, and I am hesitant to reveal the organization and the name of the leader, who is a blatant racist, who chuckled as he spewed venom as if to suggest it should be taken as a joke. I didn’t hear anyone laugh—certainly not the African American, new to the job, to whom he was referring. And that African American man now goes to work every day with the racist words of a “leader” echoing in his head.

I hope dozens of people went to the top and complained. I hope the offender was reprimanded. I’d love to see his name on the front page of the newspaper, and him stripped of his position, if not his job altogether, but perhaps that doesn’t solve anything.

History repeats itself because not enough people raise their hands and try to change it. So, when Barry asked, “When today is history, what will the generations that come after us think?” my answer is quite simple. They won’t think anything, because not enough people tried to change it.

Three years ago, almost to the day, my Great-Uncle Al penned a letter to his nine great-grandchildren, and it eventually made its way to his nieces and nephews, too. The 17-page letter is full of stories of his growing up in New Jersey during the Great Depression and the lengths his parents went to for him and his siblings. He wrote about his time in the military during World War II—nothing about the horrors of war, but about the places he saw, the people he met, the lack of toilet paper, and how he kept his socks dry. He wrote about how he met his wife, my Aunt Madeleine, when he crashed her sister’s (my grandmother’s) wedding, and how he watched her slip away from Alzheimer’s disease. He wrote about the loss of his son Steven at an early age and yet couldn’t find the words to describe the devastation of burying his own child. He wrote about his work (including his résumé as an addendum, which still tickles me), and how he and Aunt Madeleine (and their children) never wanted for anything, but were thrifty so that they could enjoy their retirement.

Save for one brief mention of President Truman—“President Truman used the atomic bomb and saved hundreds of thousands of American soldiers’ lives, probably mine included. Nowadays they are condemning him for doing it. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. I do not know if I could have lived through another war, and none of you children would have been born.”—the remaining 8,798 words were about his life, his choices.

He signed off by offering his nine great-grandchildren, and by extension his dozens of nieces and nephews this advice: “Always remember this. Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and you should never give up hope.”

And then, in typical Uncle Al fashion, he added a postscript: “I just thought of something else I want to leave you with to think over. Winston Churchill was the leader of England all through World War II and delivered great speeches to his countrymen and all the world’s free people to keep their spirits up and to inspire them throughout six years of war. Years later, he was invited back to a school he had attended as a young person to receive an honorary degree and was asked to make a short speech to the pupils. He got up to the podium and made the shortest speech he had ever made in his life, and one of his greatest. In it he said:

‘Never ever give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.’”

We could spend our time worrying about and complaining about the current state of our country, and believe me, it scares me; it stuns me. Or, we could choose hope and to never give in and to believe in the idea that every time someone stands at a podium they will use their voice to inspire, to educate, and to make people better.

Uncle Al is 93 years old. He hasn’t given up yet, and hope seems to have worked just fine for him.

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