How to Avoid Groundhog Day

By William Hausdorff

I’m tired of Groundhog Day.  Not the show on Broadway, which I haven’t seen.  And not the Bill Murray movie some years back, which I enjoyed.  I mean political Groundhog Day, now playing in the Middle East, in the southern U.S., and in Britain.

I-R-A Countries
Does the following sound familiar?  A U.S. President, his advisors and some congressional leaders are obsessed with the policies and government of a Middle Eastern country whose four-letter name begins with I-R-A.  In order to “punish” the country, the President is ready to declare that “I-R-A-X” has violated international agreement obligations regarding weapons of mass destruction, and thereby represents a clear and present danger to the security of the planet. 

Such a declaration flies in the face of public attestations by UN inspectors that I-R-A-X is indeed complying with the terms of the international agreement.  Their findings get a fleeting mention in the mainstream media, but are brushed aside by the President and congressional supporters, and their flacks on Fox News and Breitbart.  

With few exceptions, our closest allies are steadfastly and vocally against the US strategy, and its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement—which they also are part of— and they flatly refuse to participate in any serious way.

There are some differences between the Iran and Iraq episodes.  Today, the agenda is not even hidden. Trump openly justifies withdrawal from the international agreement and “fostering regime change” in Iran for reasons that have nothing to do with the nuclear weapons issue, as his UN ambassador essentially just admitted.  In contrast, Bush and his gang at least offered the pretense, albeit fraudulent, that he had been presented with incontrovertible, secret intelligence of hidden Iraqi violations, and showed superficially plausible evidence.

Another difference is that the Iranian president was recently democratically elected, unlike the hateful Saddam. To be sure, Iran is far from a liberal democracy, given the power of the unelected supreme leader, but it is more democratic than Iraq in 2003 or than key U.S. allies in the region today.

Furthermore,  the US probably won't be able to count on the support of the Tory-governed UK.  This will further doom the US to be perceived as an erratic, unreliable partner in the international arena, and rightly so (see global warming accord).

Why such an unwillingness to draw any lessons from recent history?  

It’s not just Trump
It is tempting to place all the blame on the current White House occupant, one whose actions are fueled not by facts or a coherent strategy but by his own unresolved burning personal resentments.  He clearly is a tortured soul.  One of Trump’s specialties is flatly contradicting photographic and video proof of obvious facts, such as the less-than-impressive attendance at his inauguration or recent press-bashing rally in Phoenix.  How then can he be expected to draw lessons from something that happened 15 years ago?

Unfortunately, as I have previously argued, this painful sense of déjà vu stems in part from the lack of any national hearings in which the leaders of the Bush administration were called to account for the fraudulent Iraq invasion.  This is amazing, considering that it was arguably one of the biggest frauds ever committed by any American president.  In addition to the horrible destruction in Iraq wrought by the war itself, it undeniably undermined world perception of the US and, incidentally, gave birth to ISIS.

At the time, one could almost sympathize with President Obama’s explanation for not pushing for hearings--he was elected to help heal, not “divide” the country. Yet the net result is that, outside of a personal vilification of the Bush/Cheney regime, there were no lessons drawn or closure obtained. 

For example, how do we balance the desire for unilateral action with listening to and working together with our allies?  How and why did we blithely ignore the findings of UN inspection regimes that we ourselves help put in place?  How do we prevent it from happening again?

The unexamined American life
Our national unwillingness to confront our own history reflects one of the most attractive and maddening qualities of Americans. 

The US reputation for dismissing the past or stifling traditions can be attractive to people seeking to escape countries consumed by endless re-litigation of their old battles and resentments. It underlies much of a refreshing “can do,” entrepreneurial attitude that still elicits grudging admiration, even by Europeans who are NOT seeking to emigrate.

But it’s one thing not to wallow in the past, and another to never examine or learn from it.  Our tendency to avoid drawing and digesting the lessons from the major traumatic events of our history means they maddeningly remain unresolved for America as a whole.

The Civil War as poster child.
The Civil War is our quintessential national trauma.  Its unresolved nature is (almost) literally reflected in the endless re-enactments of Civil War battles.  These are the mother of all Groundhog Days.

Even what to call the war is unresolved. I’m embarrassed to recall that I only became aware, when my wife and I moved from the Northeast down to North Carolina 30 years ago, that Americans don’t have the same name, much less the same history, for the conflict.  What I thought of as the Civil War was there called “the War between the States,” or even the “War of Northern Aggression.” 

More importantly, it was evident that for many people the Confederacy and its flag and monuments represented a vaguely noble cause.  Many school children were and are taught the War was about “states rights” that somehow had nothing to do with slavery.

There of course is a long-standing debate among historians about the multifactorial causes of the Civil War.  But I don’t see how any honest reader of history can disagree with Lincoln’s eloquent summation in his second inaugural address: 

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.  These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.  All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. 

To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war…. 

Until those lessons are honestly confronted, that the evil of slavery was obviously the central cause of the war and raison d’etre of the Confederacy, we’ll endlessly fight the same battles. 

This is easier said than done.  It is difficult to take on deep-rooted beliefs with emotional appeals. 

We are not alone
I think it is worthwhile looking at another attempt to critically examine one’s history.  This one, on the face of it, seemed nearly impossible:  can 28 European countries, who have endured centuries of conflict and strife, and reflect a multiplicity of seemingly irreconciliable historical perspectives, come to an agreement on a common interpretation of European values and recent history? 

And if they did so, wouldn’t it inevitably be insipid and anodyne? 

I wouldn’t claim that my recent visit to the European Union’s new Museum of European History in Brussels was a transcendental experience, but it was interesting and successful in its basic intent.

The key I believe, is that the museum designers assumed agreement around certain basic themes and core values—European complicity in slavery trade and in colonization was a bad thing, European contributions to establishing democracy and promoting basic human rights were a good thing, the European experience with the right of peoples towards self-determination was positive but could go too far when extreme nationalism takes over. The Nazi and Soviet regimes were hugely negative and traumatic. 

As one walks through the museum, the rationale for the existence of a European Union gradually seeps in:  these countries have been attacking and fighting each other in an unending series of savage wars over the centuries.  The formation of this loose political and economic union post-WWII was and continues to be an attempt to put an end to that, and allow them to live together peacefully.

The consequences of not understanding this history can be very tangible.  Let’s look at the political and economic paralysis afflicting the UK today.  I’m convinced that the tragic flaw underlying the Brexit vote was that, as far as I am aware, no British political leader or major political party ever referred back to the basic questions:  

Why was the EU formed in the first place? Why did the UK ever join?  What is its present value to the UK? 

Instead, discussion of the EU, even by its partisans, was focused on how to fight off “Brussels” and the “bureaucrats.”  In such an environment, where the EU’s intrinsic value is never defined, it may seem very logical to happily (or angrily) vote “Leave.” And now it’s quite a mess.

The contribution of Confederate statues to Groundhog Day
The placement of statues of Confederate leaders and military officers in public squares, major park areas and boulevards was not a subtle message:  these leaders and military officers were not being honored because of some inherently noble characteristics or ideals, but precisely BECAUSE they fought for secession so that states could continue to enslave. 

As such, they should not be in places of honor, and most should simply be discarded.  But we need to continue to discuss and understand what they meant.  One way is to move some into separate reserves.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, this was done with some of the toppled communist-themed statues in Grutas Park in Lithuania.

In a very few cases, such as with Stone Mountain of Georgia, Confederate monuments are already found in removed park areas, and are infeasible to move.  But in each situation, the locales should be modified to foster real conversations about their origins and what they represent.

Confronting our history once and for all will take time and efforts by real civic leaders, not cowardly tweets of mindless slogans by a disturbed President.  They would do well to follow the courageous example of New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who eloquently articulated the reasons for relocation of Confederate monuments in his city.  I suspect, deep down, we’re all tired of Groundhog Day.