Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Cost of Not Just Forgiving But Also Forgetting

I believe in forgiving.  I believe that those of us who refuse to forgive others who hurt us only wind up hurting themselves.  Maintaining rage, anger and vengeful feelings hurts the person with the rage. When we hold on to anger, we sacrifice peace and contentment.  Forgiving helps the injured.  Forgiving is the only way for a damaged person to heal.  But what about forgetting?  Must we forget to heal?  I think there is danger in forgetting.  Perhaps it is personally advantageous for the forgiver to forget, but there is a greater danger in history repeating itself.

Ferguson, Missouri has been in the news all over the world.  People who claimed racism is dead in this country are perhaps reconsidering.  Racism has come out of the shadows and re-emerged in the lightness.  We can see racism.  We are having debates about racism, and it makes many of us feel uncomfortable.  Those of us who want to forget about the existence of racism are forced to confront its ugly countenance.  All of the Harvard, Princeton and Yale graduates, those college kids who have no knowledge of campus protests, sit-ins and race riots, are learning anew about those baser feelings that divide us. The lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers, comfortable in their big offices with lots of money and prestige may have to face humanity's baser characteristics.  We all want to forget, but if we forget, racism inevitably raises its ugly head.

I am slowly reading a novel about John Brown, and sometimes I feel like him.  I feel that he was a crazy man on a moral mission who went awry.  John Brown killed others in a futile attempt to eradicate slavery.  He was impotent in his killing rampages and died a violent death.  There is a fine balance between crazy fanaticism and moral righteousness, as we can see in terrorism attacks around the world. But, if we get too complacent, bigotry has no reason to hide.  How crazy do you have to be to fight for what you believe in and not take a cushy job and tell yourself that all is right in the world.  We all hate "political correctness," right? How important is it to feel comfortable while others still suffer?

I was born quite awhile after Hitler's suicide.  I have never met a Nazi.  Although my mother and grandmother fled Nazi Germany, I only know stories from relatives.  I have had a good life, with a good job and a wonderful safe family in a safe country.  I forget how fortunate I am.

But, Hitler is probably the reason I am a civil rights lawyer.  Next week, I am going to Germany for the first time.  There are probably far fewer Nazis in Germany today than there are in the state of Missouri. Yet, I cannot forget what happened to my forebears.  I wonder how I will feel at the numerous receptions with German lawyers that are slated during the seminar in which I am participating.  I am a little scared of my own feelings and hope this will be a healing experience for me.

I guess all this I have written above is really beating around the bush.  I belong to an organization of discrimination lawyers.  Like most lawyer organizations, this organization is populated mostly by white men.  They are by and large very good people.  But I suspect most of the lawyers in the organization have no personal experience with blatant bigotry.  Why aren't there more women trying civil rights cases?  Why are there very few people of color in the organization?  There are a few old hippies, which is probably the category the others put me in, but why don't we have more people in our ranks who know discrimination first hand? Women and minorities are being actively recruited to defend civil rights cases and it's a whole lot easier to live on a healthy salary with benefits than it is to fight discrimination on a contingent fee basis.  Will the Ferguson civil case, which will probably follow, be defended by a lawyer of color? I don't know.

The thing that probably scares me the most about the Holocaust and other instances of racial or religious genocide is the realization that it can, and will, happen again.  That's not what scares me, though.  It's that people like me, or even actually, me, can go along with the crowd and participate in bigotry because it is so much harder to fight the status quo than be a part of it.  The whole of the population of Germany in the 1930's and 1940's were not anti-Semitic or genocidal, but the Holocaust happened.  Massacres in Syria, and other countries occur today.  It's so much easier to forget, or just to trust that others will do the right thing.  Why get involved?  Isn't is easier just to look the other way, to become part of the "silent majority?'  Most people want to be the "cool kids," want to be in the "in" crowd.  When will comfort give way to justice?  I am scared because I can see myself becoming complacent.   Complacency and amnesia are the enemy.

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