The other day, during a discussion of the current race-war madness, a guest on Anthony Cumia’s podcast asserted with confidence that the answer to the whole problem is simple: young Americans need to be told more about the injustices historically suffered by blacks in the United States. I wanted to reach into the screen and smack him. Yes, blacks had an extremely lousy deal in America for a very long time. But young Americans know all about that. Indeed, if they emerge from their years and years of schooling with no other historical knowledge whatsoever, the one thing you can always be sure they know is that white Americans held black Africans as slaves, that chattel slavery was a cruel and evil system, and that the repercussions of that nightmare can still be felt in our own time.
Some, if not most, of those young Americans also come out of school with notions about slavery that aren’t anywhere near being true. They’ve been told – or have somehow acquired the belief – that America invented slavery. Or that American slavery was, in some way or another, uniquely corrupt. Already many students around the country are being inculcated, courtesy of educational materials furnished by the New York Times as part of the 1619 Project, in a set of preposterous, perfidious ideas, among which are these: America was founded on slavery; a devotion to human bondage is at the core of our national ideology; the American Republic was built not on glorious new Enlightenment ideas about human freedom but on an ignoble dedication to the belief that it’s okay for one person to own another.
As if all that weren’t enough. now, in the era of Black Lives Matter, adult Americans by the million are paying good money for new books that explain to them that the stain of white American racism is deep and indelible. Every white American, they’re solemnly informed, bears a lifelong responsibility for the slave trade; every black American carries the eternal weight of victimhood at the hands of white masters. How to address this dire state of affairs? There’s just one honorable solution, they’re told: namely, for whites to devote their waking hours to self-reflection, self-castigation, and endless apology, and for blacks to spend their lives accepting those apologies and serving as tokens of historical guilt.
Of course, this fanatical fixation on race simplifies American history – and human reality – to a ridiculous extent and ignores, among much else, a profusion of other group grievances. American blacks are now more than a century and a half removed from slavery; meanwhile, there are American Jews still alive today who were children in Hitler’s death camps. Only a quarter century has passed since Tutsis in Rwanda were the victims of genocide at the hands not of whites but of a fellow black tribe, the Hutus. And – news flash – the people who directed and carried out the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, which together snuffed out tens of millions of lives, weren’t white either.
Does this mean that Americans of Jewish or Tutsi or Chinese heritage should set up competing world pictures centered on the crimes against their own forebears? I recently learned that some of my ancestors were members of the Nansemond Indian tribe. Should I, accordingly, try to make a career out of dividing the human race into Native Americans and their white oppressors? What about the other Indian tribes that fought with the Nansemonds? How do they fit into the picture?
Similarly, some of my mother’s forebears were Huguenots – Protestants who fled France, many of them to America, in order to escape persecution and massacre by Louis XIV and his royal successors. Should I write a book guilt-tripping Catholics for what they did to my Huguenot ancestors? But what, then, about my paternal grandparents, who were, in fact, Catholics – Polish Catholics, to be specific – and who, far from ever oppressing anybody, fled to America in the years before and during World War I to escape Prussian and Russian barbarity?
What, indeed, about them? While my sister and I have been able to trace several lines on our mother’s side back to the early Middle Ages, my father’s side has long remained a mystery, because his parents came from a region where it’s not easy to research family trees from a distance. Then my cousin Barbara hired a professional genealogist, who dived into the local archives and discovered, among other things, that our grandfather had been born in 1891 in the village of Hutu Pieniaki (no connection to the Rwandan tribe). We also learned about the history of Hutu Pieniaki. In 1944, thirty-one years after my grandfather emigrated to America, leaving behind his mother and other relatives, the SS razed the entire village and murdered almost all of its Polish residents. The village no longer exists.
The Hutu Pieniaki massacre was only one of many unconscionable actions of mass murder directed against Polish Catholics during World War II. Some of these atrocities – such as the Intelligenzaktion, in which up to 100,000 Polish intellectuals were liquidated, and the Wola massacre, which took 40-50,000 lives in 1944 – were committed by the Nazis; others, such as the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre, in which 22,000 Polish military officers perished, were the work of the Soviets. The Ukrainian nationalists also did their part, eliminating about 90,000 Poles in the so-called Volhynian slaughter.
As far as I know, Polish-Americans never talk about these horrors. I wonder how many know about them. Not many, I suspect. I can’t recall a single Polish-American I’ve ever known who felt that historical abuse of Poles entitled them to anything. Moreover, I don’t think Americans in general know about the tragic history of the Polish people, not just in World War II but for centuries before and for many decades afterward. At least when I was a kid, Polish people were rarely if ever mentioned in American discourse except as the butt of jokes. I liked the jokes. I didn’t mind them. They were populated by louts and buffoons who wore bowling shirts to their own weddings and who couldn’t commit suicide by jumping out of a window because they lived in basements. On the most popular TV show of my youth, All in the Family, the character of Archie Bunker got laughs every week with jokes about his “Polack” son-in-law, Mike, a.k.a. Meathead. It was funny. But that was all you ever heard about Polish-Americans.
My impression is that Polish jokes began to drop out of favor with the investiture of Pope John Paul II and the rise of the courageous Solidarity movement. Those developments helped burnish Americans’ image of Poles – whose longtime lack of any particular kind of reputation, aside from the jokes, is probably due, ironically, to the fact that Polish-Americans blended into American society very quickly and smoothly after entering it, and with remarkably few exceptions proved to be patriotic, freedom-loving, law-abiding, and highly successful citizens.
No, I suspect that American teachers don’t pay much attention to the torments visited over the generations upon the Polish people, or to the many contributions that Polish immigrants made to America. Admittedly, you can’t cover everything. But you can cover enough to make young people aware that no racial or ethnic group has a monopoly on either victimhood or villainy. Which means that none of us has any reason either to feel saddled with ancestral guilt or to feel entitled to reparations because of events that took place long before we were born.
Race wars lead nowhere. Our pioneer and settler and immigrant ancestors understood that. They came to America for freedom and opportunity, and as a bonus they got e pluribus unum, a near-miraculous and incomparably precious process of national identity-making that homo sapiens had never known before. Unless the current ethnic-group victimization contest ends soon, and we return to a system under which, yes, character means more than coloration, it’s clear where we’ll all end up: with e pluribus unum transforming into a raucous, ugly, and explosively dangerous Balkanization.