History's chains need not bind our future

March 30, 2009

In October 1988, conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote a review of the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Not normally a movie reviewer, Kilpatrick said that he went because Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalists made such a fuss about urging everyone to boycott it.

Kilpatrick, no libertine, nevertheless had to see what all the hoop-de-doo was about.

It was a very American act and that "don't tell me what to do" attitude prevalent among U.S. citizens explains, in part, the election of our first African-American president.

It is not the only thing, of course. Just as George H.W. Bush paved the way for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush's handling of many things made it possible for many Americans to set the race issue aside.


That would not have been possible 30 or 40 years ago. And although many would lament that it took so long, I would argue that unlike other nations, many Americans have been (relatively) quick to change their way of thinking on such matters.

Contrast that with Northern Ireland, whose Catholics and Protestants have been at odds since 1690, when William of Orange won the Battle of Boyne.

(As an American of Irish descent who came to dread St. Patrick's Day because of the killings there, I had hoped all of that was over. Recently, however, a group calling itself the "Real IRA" killed four in a drive-by shooting. Thankfully, average citizens on both sides have condemned the action.)

And then there are the ethnic hatreds of the Balkans, which date back to the Roman Empire.

Yugoslavian leader Josif Broz Tito kept them in check between 1944 and 1992, but they broke out anew after his death with brutal battles and a round of ethnic cleansing.

It is often said that Americans do not know their history, but even among those who do, it is seldom a source of anger.

Does anyone seriously suggest that Americans should hate the British for what happened during the Revolutionary War, or even more recently, that we should revile all Japanese because of atrocities that took place during World War II?

We may know our past, but we are not bound by it. Dad might have bought Chevrolets, but by golly, if Hondas suit us better, we'll buy them. Our family might have been yellow-dog Democrats, but if we find the Republican message more compelling, we'll vote that way.

Some of us return to the old ways after a tryout of the new, but like Kilpatrick, it's because we decided to, not because someone told us we had to.

Of course, this column is not written from the perspective of an African-American. I'm a white guy - an old white guy, really. And I acknowledge that the history of race relations in this nation began with slavery - America's original sin - hundreds of years ago.

Will Obama succeed or fail? I don't know now, although with his town meetings and his appearance on Jay Leno's show, he seems stuck in campaign mode. You won, Mr. President, now get on with it.

Our contrarian ways compel Americans to do many things that make no sense to me, such as the passion some have for riding motorcycles without a helmet, for example.

But they also prompt us not to accept traditional beliefs as wisdom and truth, at least not until we examine them anew.

For that stubborn streak of truth-seeking - and the decision of many citizens to vote based on issues instead of race - I celebrate.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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