As students of history, we know what we are seeing. Through the fog, we search for beacons. Once again, we are drifting in a period of divisive, high-energy activism, so-called ends-justify-the-means “progressivism” – complete with uneducated utopians, brick-throwing enthusiasts, intolerance and arrogance. Those old enough to remember know we must be patient, and strive to educate the young. Once again, society – at home and globally – is challenged.
This new breed of “progressives” has social media to work with and, like socialists in Congress, is disinterested in history or contrary facts. Benefiting from hard-won freedoms, they disparage American tradition, hard work, democracy and capitalism. They never ask how we got here.
They advocate what they want – with liberties bequeathed them by those who lie beneath white crosses in America, Europe and the Far East. They care little for how they got these sacred freedoms – un-chilled speech, un-persecuted religion, and unencumbered association. They never ask why so many rose to fight for an American future they squander. They have no time for the past.
Most have never walked Arlington’s silent, endless rows, white crosses and Stars of David. Most have never stood on Normandy’s barren, once bloody beaches. Most have never been to countries – most of the world – where just saying a wrong thing, wearing a Christian cross or Star of David, associating with the wrong people – will get you killed.
Most have never listened to the speeches of Ronald Reagan, tried to understand the life experience that brought that great American President to his world-changing wisdom. Or listened to Churchill. Or to George C. Marshall. Or stopped to read Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, letters of Thomas Jefferson or Abagail Adams, James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, or George Washington’s reflections on freedom.
They could not tell you about the Battle of Britain, Bastogne, Anzio, Solomon Islands, Iwo Jima, or American heroism in places like Midway, the Argonne, Korea, Vietnam, or – for that matter – Yorktown. They do not have time to understand all this past. They are on a mission to correct us, to teach us what they don’t know, so we can all not know it, too.
All this is why our current patch in American history, vocal ignorance between times of knowledge – is so important and calls us to duty again. Our duty is to be patient, teach by example, and educate with what we remember and revere.
Surprisingly, this duty to educate – which falls to the older – is not about teaching facts or postulates, although these help. It is about teaching respect for the past, those who lived and died to cast a shaft of light forward for us, teaching us to do the same.
It is about teaching how and why we speak freely, the goodness in hearing criticism; about freedom to believe and hope premised on faith, a nation built on that faith, even for those who may yet have no faith; and it is about freedom to compete and learning from competition.
Today, we hear rising anti-Christian and anti-Semitic sentiments, with violence. We hear pure hearts accused of evil. We see law breaking, in the name of remaking our great nation. We are told contrary opinions are not to be tolerated, that government is the answer. Bunk.
These things are untrue. Hard work is part of life. No size government program will end this reality – maybe Soviet-style persecution, killing some to indulge others. That is not America. In America, we just want the chance to succeed, not sweat of another man’s brow. We need to remember goodness is not apportioned by government. It is lived, earned and is its own reward.
So, by now, you think these are words without a historical grounding. But what if I told you there lived a good man, black and persecuted without reason, who got his chance – and used it well, to show a world hurtling toward intolerance why it should be tolerant?
What if I told you this man lived when prejudice fired the globe, innocents killed for their skin color, religious faiths, culture and differentness? What if I told you he was like Daniel in the Lion’s den? He took the long odds, stayed merciful, demurred when invited to hate?
Well, he existed. He was not perfect but showed the world what a man of heart can do. His name was Jesse Owens. He went to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, reviled and rejected by his hosts; being told he would not win. His patience, love of the possible, and determination to show that hard work, freedom, and competition are good, left the world silent.
He blew the field away with his resolve, love of freedom, sport, and the possible. A four-time gold medalist, Owens won the 100-meter, 200-meter, long jump and 4 x 400 relay – with Hitler watching. The only thing he ever threw, was himself into seeing what he was made of. And he taught the world. His life had ups and downs, but he taught good lessons, worth remembering.
Asked how he prevailed, he said: “In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.” No mention of government handouts, no getting stuff for free, and no tickets to ride on easy street.
Asked about what it takes to succeed, he did not attack free speech, religion, or association; he did not promote violence. He was the opposite of arrogant. “One chance is all you need.”
Asked where wisdom lived, he did not go for “us” and “them.” He spoke as a man who had really lived, and overcome much: “Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it, and you’ll start believing in it … The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself – the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us – that’s where it’s at.”
His words quiet the soul. Where is Jesse Owens today? Where are those who look inward, asking of us our best, not encouraging our worst? Maybe this is a lesson worth passing forward.
Understanding America, and where our freedoms came from, is a start. Understanding who we are, and in the words of Jesse Owens winning the “inevitable battles inside,” is a bigger challenge. Owens’ example is a beacon in these troubled times, a shaft of light through the fog. He was not perfect, nor we. But he never stopped looking for goodness. That too, we can do.