Lately I’ve been honoring the Santayana quotation about being doomed to repetition by referring my readers to history:
Habit and memory are a sort of heredity within the individual… Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained[,] infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1906
As the next administration’s proxies invoke the prison camps where the United States held 120,000 Japanese-American people for four years during World War II, those who lived through that experience are recounting their memories for our benefit.
Actor George Takei shared his experience with an audience in Kyoto, Japan, two years ago. He recalled the day soldiers walked up his drive to force his family out of their house. “I will never be able to forget that scene,” he said. “It is burned into my memory.” At the time, he was five years old.
These things don’t just happen, however. They creep, and we adjust, and they creep some more.
Prior to the Bosnian genocide starting, the same Islamophobic rhetoric seen in the U.S, was spread throughout the former Yugoslavia. ‘Muslims are terrorists,’ ‘They want to spread Sharia Law.’ ‘They want your women to wear hijabs.’ All of that stuff we’ve ignored… Genocide is a slow process, you know… and it starts with words and instilling fear into the people. We’re past that in the U.S.” —Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura (November 17, 2016)
“You’re worried about a future that’s already here,” Ayesha Siddiqi also wrote last night. “[It] just didn’t touch you yet.” I joke sometimes about the U.S. government being overfamiliar with my iris patterns—because I was required to submit them with other biometric data more than a decade ago. But it’s really not a joke. It’s more than just bureaucracy.
And that’s why I keep writing about history and why others, like Takei and Buljusmic-Kustura keep recounting the targeting they’ve lived through. We do it with the hope that the more we tell these stories, the more that more of us will be able to perceive the social and legal patterns behind and around us; that we’ll use that perception to help us better notice and intervene in the experiences of others; and that, given opportunity, when the old, old story cracks open at this chapter again, we will choose differently than we have before.
Nothing will change until we do.