“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This quote is attributed to George Santayana. As I see the bile and vitriol that comes across my computer screen on a daily basis from a variety of sources, it occurs to me that we really need to heed Mr. Santayana. The answer to the question above is that when we allow ourselves to dehumanize others, we give ourselves permission to treat them in an inhumane fashion. We attach derogatory labels to groups, lump people into the cluster, and deny and denigrate anything they say or believe. We lose all compassion and empathy for them. Hitler did it to the Jewish people and he sucked far too many of the German citizenry into this horrible atrocity.
We do it on a daily basis to each other on a smaller scale. When we categorize others as “liberals” or “conservatives,” implying we’ve summed up who they are, what they believe and have dismissed it without ever exploring and considering the facts, we’re doing it. When a man speaks dismissively of “women drivers” as if they are all the same, he’s doing it. When feminists assume that all men are misogynists, they are doing it. Radical Muslims who see us all as “infidels” not worthy of living are doing it to us. When we respond in kind, viewing anyone from the Middle East, particularly if they are of the Islamic faith, as a “terrorist,” we are doing it back. Are we condemned to repeat the past? If not, what is the solution?
In the 70s and 80s, I was a member of a band called the Irish Texans. We played Irish music, and country and western songs. We didn’t play them especially well but we played them with a great deal of gusto and enthusiasm. The band included an Irishman, a Canadian, an Arizonan, a Coloradan and two proud Texans. In 1981, we made our second tour of Ireland. We wound up the tour in Northern Ireland, which was experiencing extreme unrest at the time. Bobby Sands and the other IRA hunger strikers were getting world-wide attention from the press. It felt dangerous to be there.
We stayed at the home of our Irishman, Terry O’Reilly’s, aunt and uncle, Neal and Maeve O’Reilly in the little town of Newry, Northern Ireland. Neal was a physician and although he was Catholic, he was highly respected and welcome anywhere in the North because he’d long demonstrated that he took care of any and all people regardless of their religious beliefs. His wife Maeve (the fairy queen) was a wonderful lady with a wicked sense of humor, a tongue as sharp as a razor and a heart as big as the moon. Their next door neighbors and best friends were Protestants. It didn’t seem to matter.
They had a party for us and we wound up staying up all night, singing songs, telling jokes and talking about topics both light and heavy. We connected on a personal, human level. We had an Englishman, Ron Tristram, in our party, just to make the politics even more interesting. On top of that, one of Maeve and Neal’s daughters was married to an Iranian. The wounds from the Iran hostage crisis were still raw as it had been resolved only a short time before we made our trip. Did I mention that we had a number of Texans (and adopted Texans) in our bunch?
For those of you who know me today as a stable, mature individual, it may come as a surprise that I was a bit wilder in those days. Along with all the other alcoholic beverages we imbibed over the course of the night, someone had brought a bottle of mescal. Of course, we drank that, too. As the sun was coming up, the bottle was passed around one last time and it came to me with one swallow…and a worm…left. The myth is that if you eat the worm at the bottom of the mescal bottle, you’ll “see God.” I considered it and decided, “What the hell?” Some swallow it whole; I chewed…tastes like chicken. NOT!! After a few minutes, someone asked rather sarcastically if I’d “seen God yet?” I looked around Maeve’s kitchen in Northern Ireland at the Catholics, the Protestants, the Englishman, the Iranian, the Texans, all of us feeling the tired glow from an all-night Irish ceili. The warmth and companionship among our new and old friends was so real you could almost reach out and touch it. And I said, “Yep, I believe I see God.” I believe that human connection is the solution. Mescal is optional. You really don’t need to eat the worm.