Food for Thought

by Eric Hamilton

I hope that everyone remembers Carolyn’s wonderful account of her visit to Riverview Park that was published in the June 27 edition of this paper. In her piece, she describes, among other things, the wheeling of a trio of vultures above the Mississippi, the antics of a squirrel in the park, and “the river’s grey water rippling with wind-driven waves”. (Notice she uses the version of ‘grey’ with an ‘e’ and not the more American ‘gray’; yes, she’s an anglophile.) She also comments on the American character—the courage and determination of the first settlers who journeyed on the river in flatboats.
The reason that I mention all of this is because it occurred to me that she was writing, in June’s last edition, about what I was writing about in the first July edition, when I asked the question, ‘When were the “Good Old Days”?’
At first glance, we seem to be butting heads (which might be dangerous for me, because everyone knows she’s hardheaded). In her article, she hopes that today’s Americans do not lose the sense of destiny that those first settlers had. In my article, on the other hand, I conclude that ‘the good old days’ are an illusion. It seems that she would speak to you about the courage of the pioneers, while I would remind you that many of them owned slaves and that a few of them massacred (or were massacred by) Native Americans. But this seeming butting of our heads is only on the surface.
Actually, I think that Carolyn and I are both right. Both the courage and the sins of the pioneers were real, and both need to be remembered. What’s more, the fact that those pioneers have fallen into the past is helpful to us, today.
It is easier to celebrate the noble achievements of the pioneers—and to see those pioneers’ faults—when we look down at them from the ‘height’ of the present moment, as Carolyn looked down at the Mississippi from the height of Riverview Park. Time, itself, has raised us above the day-to-day concerns of the first settlers. We can see more clearly than they that they were wrong to keep slaves and, in some cases, to steal land that belonged to others, and we are able to see this because WE don’t have to worry about staying warm at night in a log-cabin or about finding food in the wilderness. Worries about survival on the frontier can’t obstruct OUR view of that frontier. (Similarly, Carolyn, as she picnics at the lookout, can gaze down at the river without her view being obstructed by the undergrowth on the riverbanks.)
It is, however, much harder for us to evaluate what is happening today, because what happens today is happening to US, right now. As far as the present moment is concerned, we’re stumbling through the undergrowth down on the riverbank; or maybe we’re actually swimming in the river, trying not to drown.
It’s very easy for us to look back and see that we were wrong (and we were!) to lock Japanese-Americans into prison-camps during World War II, because nearly eighty years have passed since Pearl Harbor. We no longer have to be frightened of an attack coming from people who look just like those Japanese-Americans.
On the other hand, it isn’t nearly as easy for some of us to see that it is horrifying to separate refugee children from their parents and lock them into cages, denying them soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste (as our government is currently doing). People who do not see that this policy is barbaric are floundering in the river or stumbling through the undergrowth. They see the hundreds of thousands of people swarming to our southern border and wonder, ‘Will our children’s children’s children even look like us, or will they look like these intruders? Will our descendants even speak English?’ People who have such thoughts panic and feel that they are drowning. Locking up and punishing small children seems, to them, a small price to pay to save the world that they’ve always known. They cannot see that these refugees are not much different than the pioneers who first pushed into Indian Territory, just hoping to find a better life.
To see the similarity between modern refugees and the pioneers, we need perspective. We need to take time to look down at the Mighty River of History and to watch the slow, inevitable flow of things, to see what is really going on.