We Must All Be Historians Now: Exploring the inequality of sources with my students

(Note: This essay was originally published as “Perhaps Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Should Not Have Dropped Out of Harvard,” by the History News Network on July 22.)

The full-page ad that Facebook recently ran (May 26) in the Wall Street Journal was a history teacher’s dream. However, rather than taking out the expensive ad, the social media giant might have simply sent a message to its over 2 billion users and held a press conference, advocating forcefully for the study of the humanities, especially for history. In this era of high falsehood and fakery, clearly the American citizen seeking truth needs to understand and adopt the historian’s mindset.

Given the challenges the company has faced in recent months, it is not surprising that the company choose to take out the ad. In mid-March, the New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and wealthy Republican donor Robert Mercer, had harvested private information on more than 50 million Facebook users, a figure later raised to 87 million.

This added to questions Facebook was already facing about the use of the social media platform to spread false news and Russian propaganda to influence US elections in 2016.
On April 10 and 11, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg faced questioning before committees in both the Senate and the House. The primary issues included: the use of user data by third parties without the user’s knowledge, the proliferation of “fake news” and its impact on the 2016 presidential election, and the censorship of conservative media.

Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had been “slow” in correcting problems but maintained that Facebook was taking corrective actions: boosting its disclosure rules for issue ads, committing more resources to delete troll accounts spreading disinformation, ensuring real people own the accounts, adding helpful links next to articles to assist readers in checking information, and giving priority to trusted sources.

Costing probably several hundred thousand dollars, the ad which ran prominently in the paper’s first section had a collaborative and instructive tone. Using the pronoun “we,” the title was a positive assertion and also encouragement to all: “Together We Can Fight False News.” Thankfully, it used the more direct, less Trumpian phrase “false news,” instead of honoring the phrase “fake news,” even though the latter was the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year of 2017.

The ad continued by indicating what Facebook is doing to meet the challenge and what the reader can do. “We are taking action by removing fake accounts and working with fact-checkers. You can learn what to trust with our tips to spot fake news.” It then offered the reader ten pithy and pointed recommendations, most of which align beautifully with the principles history teachers seek to inculcate in their students on how to think critically in evaluating historical documents and images.

Number 1: “Be skeptical of the headlines.” The history teacher strives to instill in students a healthy, dispassionate, respectful skepticism, a trait Amir Bhidé of Tufts University recently emphasized in the Wall Street Journal. Early on in my own history classes, I conjure Thomas Jefferson and his keys words now part of the American Creed: “all men are created equal.” I follow quickly with: However, all sources are not created equal!

Number 3: “Investigate the source.” This relates to the first level of questions history students learn to ask: the who, what, when, and where of a document.

Number 7: “Check the evidence.” This relates especially to documents which are argumentative. What are the document’s major points? What evidence is given? Is the argument logical? Does the author present sufficient evidence? Also, in the essays students write throughout the course, they must use sound, sufficient, text-based evidence.

Number 8: “Look at other reports.” History students learn to compare one document to another which may have conflicting claims and evidence. Especially in World History courses, the students also learn to engage in cross-cultural comparison and analysis. For example, in my classes once we finish the ancient world, teams of students go to the white boards and compare the world’s major religions.

Number 10: “Some stories are intentionally false.” The final, deepest set of questions history students learn build on the previous questions and strike to the veracity, reliability, and credibility of the source. What was the author’s intent and why? How reliable and credible is the source? Using all this information, the student is then prepared to make judgments about the overall quality of the source and how much weight it should merit in the search for historical truth.

Beyond the study of history, the humanities include other fields essential for the conscientious American citizen, seeking understanding and truth in this “post-truth” era. While mathematics and science enable us to investigate, understand, and even shape our world, the humanities’ fields of religion, philosophy, and ethics help the citizen deal with ambiguity and irrationality, give insights into civic virtue, and help the citizen grapple with important questions which have no right answers.

The challenges for Facebook continue. On June 8 the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had arranged “customized data-sharing deals” which gave certain companies special access to user records well after the point in 2015 that it said it was protecting this information. One wonders whether Mark Zuckerberg and the other executives at Facebook should take time to turn to the humanities.

Beyond helping the good American citizen, the humanities can also offer help in this Age of Grand Manipulation to benighted technological behemoths, engaged in Great Power Capitalism and blinded by the god of gold.

Having taught history at the high school and college level for 25 years, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor (history and politics) at Salve Regina University, RI. He writes for The Hill and is a contributing editor for The History News Network.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

1968: High Water Mark of Turbulent 1960s

(This essay was originally published as “1968 was the high water mark in a decade of discord,” by the Newport Daily News on June 12, 2018.)

Fifty years ago Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, having just won the California Democratic primary. Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian and resident alien, shot him in the head with a .22 cal. pistol.

This was only one of many significant events of the 1960s—tragic, turbulent years in which American civilization seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Americans were divided like no other time since the Civil War. For those of us who lived through it, it was a decade in which we knew history—for good or bad—was being made, and we were witnessing, living, and even making it.

The year 1968 was the high water mark of the decade for our discord and disunity, and for some the height of their hope for a new America, indeed a new world. It was as if a volcano of turbulence, its core temperatures beginning to rise in the 1950s, its lava beginning to flow at that lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, spewed forth its molten lava in the 1960s and reached its furious peak in 1968.

Twenty years later, Lance Morrow, writing of the year in Time, said: “…the air of public life seemed to be on fire, and that public fire singed the private self.” … “Nineteen sixty-eight was a knife blade that severed past from future.”

There were significant events in 1968 for all the major “movements” of the decade: anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and social equality, counter-culture, and women. (The environmental movement was inchoate.) Thanks to TV, Americans watched these events unfold in their living rooms.

On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a widespread offensive against South Vietnam, including attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals. The Tet Offensive belied statements by American officials that we could see “the light at the end of the tunnel” of this war. Trusted and venerable news anchor Walter Cronkite was incredulous and asked: “What the hell is going on?”

Weeks later President Lyndon Johnson signaled his personal disillusionment and defeat when he announced on national TV: “… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President ….”

On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher of non-violence and beacon of the black civil rights movement was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, TN. Race riots erupted across America in 130 cities, including Newark, NJ, 20 minutes from my home.

Nineteen days later, radical students at Columbia University, NYC, began occupying five buildings on the campus, continuing for almost a week. The students moved into the office of the university president and smoked his cigars. Columbia student Mark Rudd wrote an open letter to him and ended it with: “Up against the wall, m——-r, this is a stickup.”

As America was falling apart in the spring and summer, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang out forlornly in their song, Mrs. Robinson: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” The hit “rock-musical” Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968 and sang of the “age of Aquarius.” When the stars are aligned properly: “Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars.”

In August, young protestors in the streets of Chicago demonstrated and taunted police during the Democratic National Convention. Eventually they were violently assaulted by police with tear gas and nightsticks, and over 1,000 were injured.


In early September, members of the National Women’s Liberation Party picketed the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, NJ, denouncing it as degrading to women. At the same time there, the first Miss Black America pageant was held in protest against the all-white pageant.

In October at the Olympics in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter race, raised their fists in a Black Power salute as the national anthem played.

With the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in November, the volcano began to subside. In a few months the Democrats departed the White House and a new Republican Administration arrived with a new mindset and a new cast of characters, including Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. There was still much turmoil to come in the early 1970s: the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, and Watergate; however, American civilization had been through the worst of it.

The year ended on an upbeat note. On Christmas Eve astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell made revolutions around the moon in Apollo 8. Lovell later said: “It was the final bright star in the last gasp of 1968.”

For me personally, it was the year I began my junior year at West Point, thus committing myself to West Point and at least five years of service to this fractured country.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Slavery in Narragansett Country

(This essay was originally published as “In 1843, slavery was banned in Rhode Island,” in the Newport Daily News on May 29, 2018.)
(Note: This is the second in a series of essays on slavery in Rhode Island.)

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Rhode Island, after over two centuries, officially banned slavery in its Constitution of 1843.

The first slaves in the colony of Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the conflicts with colonists in southern New England in the 17th century. In 1638, New Englanders began to import Africans by trading Native Americans captured in the Pequot War (1636-37) for black slaves from the West Indies. Sometime after 1638, the first African slaves entered Rhode Island. They were sparse in the colony throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total African slaves in 1680.

In the 18th century, Rhode Island merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, engaged in the Atlantic trading system of West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, foodstuffs, rum, and horses; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, spices, linen, woolen clothes, iron, and slaves. By 1730, the colony came to dominate the North American slave trade.

Most enslaved people imported into the colony of Rhode Island were bought by owners of farms in what we call “South County” (technically Washington County) and what in the 18th century was called “Narragansett Country.” Eventually these farms grew to be plantations comparable to those in America’s southern colonies, and with these plantations a class of “Narragansett planters” emerged. By mid-century large plantations thrived from the village of Wickford south to Point Judith and west to Connecticut.

At the heart of the economy of Narragansett Country were products grown and produced by enslaved people. This plantation system bred horses, cattle, and sheep; produced dairy products; and also grew Indian corn, rye, hemp, flax, and tobacco. The planters then, through merchants in Newport and Providence, exported these products to southern colonial ports and the West Indies. As the southern climates were harsh on livestock, horses, beef, and dairy products were in demand. The wealthiest of the planters hired ships themselves to export their goods directly.

By the 1730s, 20-30 families had established farms in Narragansett Country and had acquired slaves—generally five to 40—to work them. By 1740, this area had the highest concentration of enslaved people in the colony; by 1755, one in three residents was a slave. Though only a few Narragansett planters were large slave owners, historian Christy Clark-Pujara states that ultimately “thousands of enslaved men, women, and children” in this area produced foodstuffs and raised livestock for trade.

The planter class made fortunes on the lucrative trade rooted in slavery, especially cheese exports. Competing with dairy farms in the colonies of New Jersey and New York, Rhode Island farmers produced the most cheese of all. Robert Hazard, a successful Narragansett planter, owned seventeen acres, had about one hundred cows, and produced 13,000 pounds of cheese annually. The Champlin farm had 42 cows that produced 9,200 pounds annually.

Potter Overmantle, c. 1749, oil on pine, 31" x 64".
Portrait of John Potter (1716-1787) and his family including three women and a young black servant. John Potter was a wealthy South Kingstown planter.
COLLECTION OF THE NEWPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The wealth of the planter class enabled the families to lead an elaborate lifestyle, similar to southern planters. They commissioned portraits, hired private tutors for their children, took European vacations, enjoyed horse-racing, and sought to imitate the lifestyle of the landed gentry of England. They also dominated the political affairs of the region.

Richard Smith, Jr., was one of the first Narragansett planters. He inherited his farm from his father, Richard Smith, a contemporary of Roger Williams, the founder of the colony and of Providence. The site of the farm was an area called “Cocumscussoc” by the Narragansett Native Americans. Williams had established a trading post there with the Native Americans and learned their language and customs. Williams reportedly said that Smith: “Put up …the first English house…in Nahigonsik Countrey.”

Smith, Jr., died in 1692, leaving the farm to the Updikes who developed it into one the great plantations of 18th century New England. At its height, it contained more than 3,000 acres, and was divided into five farms, worked by tenant farmers, indentured servants, and enslaved people. The Updikes dealt primarily in livestock and dairy products, producing cheese, other farm crops, and a breed of horse known as the Narragansett pacer.

Cocumscussoc still exists today as a park along with a colonial house known as Smith’s Castle, seasonally open to the public. (See: smithscastle.org)

This plantation system flourished until the late 1760s. The final blow came with disruptions caused by the American Revolution and the British-Hessian occupation of Newport (1776-79). Thanks to this plantation system the state has the country’s longest official name: the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

(For further reading: Carl R. Woodward, “Plantation in Yankeeland”)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colonial Rhode Island Dominates North American Slave Trade in 18th Century

(Note: This is the first in a series of essays on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published in the Newport Daily News on April 27, 2018.)

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Rhode Island, after over two centuries of slavery, officially banned it in its Constitution of 1843.

Slavery by the British began in North America when they brought the first African slaves to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in about 1619.

Slavery in Rhode Island began probably with the colony’s establishment in 1636. The first slaves in the colony were surely Native Americans, not Africans. Prisoners of war from the two major Indian wars in southern New England in the 17th century—the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s/Metacom’s War (1675-76)—became slaves, many of whom were sold abroad. Many more of them became destitute and bound themselves as indentured servants to colonists, some for decades.

The slavery of Native Americans declined as the century wore on, with Providence and Warwick banning their enslavement in 1676. More and more Rhode Islanders wanted to distance themselves from Native Americans and simply did not want them in their settlements, even as slaves and servants. The Newport Town Council eventually made it illegal to sell firearms to Native Americans; Portsmouth banished them to “live in the woods.” Merchants were disallowed from trading with them, selling them liquor, or repairing their firearms.

Seeing the profit to be made, Rhode Island merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, became a part of the Atlantic trading system of the 18th century, including slave trading. Many of the names of these merchants dot Newport County today: Malbone, Banister, Gardner, Wanton, Brenton, Collins, Vernon, Channing, and Lopez. They engaged in commerce with West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, beef, pork, butter, cheese, onions, cider, candles, and horses; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, ginger, indigo, linen, woolen clothes, and Spanish iron. This trade had positive ripple effects throughout the local economy and the economies of the trading ports.

(ncwbts150.com)

The first African slaves entered the northern colonies in the 1620s and were concentrated in New Netherland, the Dutch colony that eventually became New York City.

African slaves were sparse in the colony of Rhode Island throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total slaves in 1680. Prior to 1696, the English Royal African Company monopolized the Atlantic slave trade. However, when this was lifted, Rhode Islanders aggressively expanded into the Atlantic trading system, and therefore, the slave trade.

Within 30 years the colony of Rhode Island came to dominate the North American slave trade. Even though it was the smallest of the colonies, the great majority of slave ships leaving British North America came from Rhode Island ports. Historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, indicates that during “the colonial period in total, Rhode Island sent 514 slave ships to the coast of West Africa, while the rest of the colonists sent just 189.” Historian Jay Coughtry in The Notorious Triangle, argues that “the Rhode Island slave trade and the American slave trade were virtually synonymous” and that “only in Rhode Island was there anything that can properly be termed a slave trade.”


In 1713, Rhode Island slave traders introduced a new export into the trading system—rum. Slave traders in Africa came to prefer this rum over the previous liquor of choice, French brandy. Within 50 years there were close to 30 distilleries in the colony, 18 in Newport alone. Thus the so-called “triangular trade” system emerged within the larger Atlantic system. In its simplest form, the system entailed the rum produced in Rhode Island being exported to the slave coast of West Africa. There it was traded for slaves who made the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, most going to the Caribbean. There they were traded for sugar and molasses, a key ingredient of rum. The molasses was then brought to the colony for processing into more rum.

Slaves Processing Sugar

(John Carter Brown Library)

By 1730, most of the trades and occupations in Rhode Island were somehow related to slavery. Slave traders kept busy shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers, painters, barrel-makers, and dock workers. Clerks and warehouse managers administered the system. In addition to these tradesmen, additional crew members were needed to control the enslaved during the voyages.

Rhode Island’s dominant role in the Atlantic slave trade explains why the colony came to have the highest percentage of slaves in New England: an estimated 543 slaves in 1720 (5%), 3,347 slaves in 1750 (10%), and 3,761 slaves in 1770 (6%).

Merchants from Newport paid significant taxes and duties to the city, which allowed public works projects. Clark-Pujara concludes: “The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Courageous Anne Hutchinson, Unyielding to Death

(This is the third and final part of a series on Anne Hutchinson. All three essays were originally published in the Newport Daily News.)

Three hundred and eighty years ago, this month, Anne Hutchinson was put on trial before her church congregation and excommunicated. Several months earlier, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony had convicted her of heresy and banished her from the colony, to take effect the following spring.

In 1634, Anne, her husband William, and their 11 children crossed the Atlantic and joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a near theocracy in which religious and political leadership were closely intertwined. Proving to be too great a threat to the male leadership, she was brought to trial in November, 1637, for conducting religious meetings in her home, for criticizing the colony’s all-male ministers, for denying the importance of performing good works as a sign of salvation, and for her claims of divinely inspired prophecy. Hutchinson was found guilty of heresy for her claims of direct divine revelation and of sedition for her criticisms of the colony’s ministers.

For these crimes the Court banished her from the colony “as being a woman not fit for our society;” however, she was allowed to remain in the colony until the following spring. Until her departure, the “prisoner”, as Governor John Winthrop called her, was required to remain isolated at the home of Joseph Weld in Roxbury. She took her Bible, her Herbal (guide to medicinal plants), and winter clothes. During these winter months, she studied scripture, sang psalms, prayed and meditated, and saw her mid-section grow with her 16th pregnancy.

At the same time, husband William and other male followers met secretly and made plans to begin a new settlement. They wanted good soil, access to fresh water and wood, a milder climate, and religious freedom from the Massachusetts colony.

Initially planning on Long Island or New Jersey, they decided to settle on Aquidneck Island, at the urging of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence. On March 7, 1638, a group of men—eventually 23—signed the Portsmouth Compact, incorporating themselves into a “body politic.” Anne’s husband, William, signed it third, behind William Coddington and John Clarke. With the help of Roger Williams, these men acquired the island from the Narragansett sachems (chieftains) Miantonomo and Canonicus, for a collection of beads, coats, and hoes. They decided to settle on the northeast section of the island, which the Indians called Pocasset. The settlers soon changed the name to Portsmouth, after the English port city from which some had sailed.

The church trial of Anne Hutchinson was held on March 15 and 22, 1638, in the Boston meetinghouse. The church leaders held documents which described her numerous “errors” in belief on such arcane subjects such as the mortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body on the last day, and the necessity of the saved to follow earthly laws.

On the first day, a number of church elders attacked her with vengeance. Thomas Shepard asserted that it was “not God’s spirit but her own spirit that hath guided her hitherto—a spirit of delusion and error!” … “For she is of a most dangerous spirit, and likely with her fluent tongue and forwardness in expression to seduce and draw away many….” John Cotton, the religious leader she had followed for over 20 years, gave her the final “admonishment.”

In a signed document on the second day of her trial, she noted her errors repentantly; however, many church elders continued to scold and reproach her. Reverend John Wilson said: “I look at her as a dangerous instrument of the Devil, raised up by Satan amongst us to raise up divisions and contentions, and to take away hearts and affections one from another.” He proceeded to cast her out of the church.

Followed by a number of her supporters, Hutchinson walked to the door, stopped, turned around and faced the elders and magistrates, and said: “The Lord judges not as man judges. Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ.”

On April 1, 1638, the banished Hutchinson, with horses, carts, family, and friends, began a six-day walk to Aquidneck Island. She traveled the last leg by boat and arrived at the new settlement in Portsmouth, described by Eve LaPlante as the “windswept marsh, beach, pastureland, and pebbled cove of her new home.”

Regrettably, under threat of Massachusetts asserting its control over Rhode Island, Hutchinson, with her husband’s death in 1641, decided to move to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (current day New York City) in 1642, where she and most of her family were killed in an attack by the Siwanoy native Americans the following year.

Today both a river and a parkway in southern New York bear her name. Gov. John Winthrop had labeled her “this American Jezebel”; in 1987, Gov. Michael Dukakis formally pardoned her. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, RI, Anne Hutchinson can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.

Founders’ Brook Park and the Anne Hutchinson Memorial stand off Boyd’s Lane in Portsmouth. There one finds a shaded glade with benches, marble markers with quotes from Hutchinson, the Founders’ Brook with a small waterfall, an herb garden in honor of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, and a copy of the compact which was the basis of Portsmouth’s government.

(For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel. Thanks to Jim Garman for his assistance with this essay.)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a columnist for the Newport Daily News.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

American Civilization is bleeding itself

(This essay, edited, was originally published by thehill.com on February 22, 2018.)

In comparison to the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the violent incident a few days earlier at my granddaughter’s high school in our cozy, comfortable New England town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was insignificant. Marcus Schlip, 22, assaulted the physical education teacher to gain entry to the gym, after which he told all the students to line up against the wall because he was now in charge. Luckily, he carried merely a knife which remained in his backpack. This episode—however less violent than the Parkland massacre—still traumatized my granddaughter.

America remains positively “exceptional” in so many ways; however, in the area of gun control & personal safety, it—among modern, industrialized countries—stands egregiously apart. According to procon.org, gun death in America, 1999-2015, was the number one cause of homicide, of suicide, and of death by gunshot from legal intervention. During that period, America averaged over 33,000 gun deaths each year. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2014 America had 33,594 firearm deaths. From 2001 to 2010, close to 120,000 Americans were murdered by guns, 18 times all American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These data and other contrast with data from other modern, industrialized countries where gun deaths are rare. In Germany, two of every million die by gunshot from another person, about the same rate as in the Netherlands and in Austria. In Poland and in England, the figure is less—about one in every million. In Japan it is even rarer: one in ten million, similar to the rate of Americans killed by lightning. In comparison, the rate in America is 31 per million. For men 15-29, gun homicides are the third leading cause of death after accidents and suicides.

In his magisterial work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond arrives at five key factors which determined the fates of societies. In the many he examines, past and present day, he asserts that the only factor significant for all societies is the decisions they make facing their challenges.

At this point in the story of American civilization, one of these key decisions regards national culture and policy on gun control-personal safety. Our current culture, and the policies rooted in it, are unsustainable. Civilizations whose citizens kill each other at such a high rate cannot persist, especially if they kill their young at high rates. When we lose young people, we lose their potential positive impact. Our sense of personal safety declines, replaced by fear. Especially in school shootings, our children grow more fearful. These impacts hinder our civilization’s progress at home and influence abroad.

Compared to other developed countries, our dominant views and policies on the subject are indisputably backward. During my six years in Germany as an army officer, I had numerous conversations with my German friends about Germany’s completely different culture on gun ownership. Gun ownership there is a privilege, not a right, enshrined 230 years ago in the country’s constitution. To purchase a gun in Germany, it takes months to earn the certificate validating one’s skill with a weapon and its ammunition. You must show that you can store it safely, in a place in which only you have access. You must be at least 18, and if you are under 25, a psychological exam is required showing your fitness. Each new gun purchased must be registered. Günter Lach, a member of Parliament in 2015 and avid marksman, said that in Germany, “at any given moment, you know where a gun is.”

In France, as well, guns are highly regulated. A hunting license is required before a rifle can be purchased. For buying a gun to be used at a firing range, the police must approve one’s application. All guns must be registered, and it is illegal to possess military-grade weapons. Gun buyers must provide a medical certificate of mental and physical fitness to own a weapon.

As for all the arguments that gun advocates assert, they may have their merits, but these are drowned out by our current realities. The inordinate gun deaths year after year indicate their views, and the laws and policies stemming from them, are not working for our civilization, which is bleeding itself and failing to provide safety for its children. Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our … [children].”

While we have the Second Amendment, we have no amendment enshrining the right to contribute to American civilization or for a child to live without fear. Perhaps we need one. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson would agree. I wish all who disagree could have seen the fear in my granddaughter’s eyes.

Fred Zilian (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI, and is a columnist for the Newport Daily News.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

America’s Story Must Evolve with Changing Demographics

(This essay was originally published, abridged, as “Changing demographics: The Battle for America’s Story” on February 10, 2018, at thehill.com.)

All great countries, empires, and civilizations have their stories—grand narratives that consist of both truth and myth—which serve as part of the glue which coheres and perpetuates them, along with such factors as race, language, religion, cultural rituals, and significant historical events. However, while founding chapters of a great country’s epic may become fixed with time, the later chapters of the story can never be static; rather, they must change when the country endures a significant historical event or era and also when the country’s demographics change. If the American story is to endure and serve as force of unity, it must change with our changing demographics.

The ancient Greeks had their Iliad and Odyssey, which related the story of the beginnings of ancient Hellas and reflected the aristocratic, heroic values they cherished. These works served as the basis of Greek identity and of their ethical code for a thousand years. Ancient Greece’s story was shaken by the Peloponnesian War, a war lasting 27 years in which—Thucydides tells us—at one time or another just about the entire Greek world was involved.

The ancient Romans had their Aeneid along with their foundation myth of Romulus and Remus, which served to explain the beginnings of the Roman Empire. The magnificent story of the Roman Empire which sprang forth was eventually subverted when the Asiatic and Germanic tribes penetrated its over-extended frontier in the second through fifth centuries. It was also changed decisively when its population turned increasingly toward Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, the emperor declared it the official religion of the empire.

The traditional American epic begins with the age of European exploration and includes as its salient points the American Revolution, the Civil War, the conquering of the American West, America’s rise as a world power, the waves of immigration propelling its development, and its significant role in winning the two worlds wars. After that, the story as epic—marred with dark chapters but overall a beautiful, positive narrative of expansion and progress–becomes more muddied and non-linear.

Resilient epics are not static, they must evolve with significant events but also with the changing demographics of the population. There is no question that demographics will be a key factor in the future evolution of the American story. Demographic trends indicate that the white-alone American majority is declining. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that between 2010 and 2015, the white-alone population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7% to 61.6%, while Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5% of the population. In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”

As an American of diverse blood who has taught U.S. History for the past 20 years, I can assure America’s people of color that at least some of their sub-stories are in the current American narrative as manifested in conventional U.S. History texts. The blood on the hands of European-Americans is visible. For African-Americans, the story covers the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial slavery, slavery and Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.

For others, I can testify to the coverage of such episodes as the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, and the struggle of Latino migrants workers. With the success of such books as Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the American story will and must again be amplified and enriched with the sub-stories of yet other peoples who have come to America. For example, in a recent interview in Foreign Policy, Daily Show comedian Hasan Minhaj said, “New Brown America represents a whole generation of kids who are either descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves, who are coming to America and enriching what it means to be American.” … “We’re adding to that narrative.”

The battle for the future of America’s story, specifically as a binding force, will turn on some key questions. Among them: For the fading white-only population, how open will it be to changes which make the story even more faithful to the struggle of people of color? For blacks, when will the national original sin of slavery be sufficiently redeemed? How open will they be to include the even earlier original sin of their own people in Africa, without which the Atlantic slave trade would not have flourished? And for all of us: what is our common, unassailable American Creed? How are we to endure as a nation of nations?

Much more so than external threats, it will be our national bonds rather than our divisions which determine our success in facing future challenges. A key factor in that unity will be the legitimacy of this more-complex, future American story in the eyes of the rising peoples of color.

Abraham Lincoln’s words still apply. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on January 27, 1838, he said: “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined …could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and is a columnist for the Newport Daily News.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments