THE SEVENTEEN TRADITIONS
4. The Tradition of History
Our childhoods were livelier because my parents always put a premium on the lessons of history. Learning from the past, they taught us, was crucial for understanding the present and shaping the future. It was a rich journey Mom and Dad took us on -- worldwide, nationally, regionally, and locally. We relished their stories of the heroes of history, though not so much for what side they were on as for the stories of what they did or said -- the wise phrases of Lincoln, the gallantry of Saladin in his twelfth-century victory over the European crusaders, the liberational voices of Arab patriots against the French and British rulers, the frugal sayings of Benjamin Franklin, and, of course, the poetry of several long- forgotten poets. Mother often shared such stories at lunchtime, when we rushed home from school -- not just for the food but also for the next installment of her latest historical saga. And this storytelling approach to history whetted our appetite to read more on our own, including historical novels from the Revolutionary and Civil War to the tales of Genghis Khan.
When we children were respectively eleven, nine, seven, and three years old, my mother set sail with us for a year-long trip to visit her family in Lebanon just before World War II. While my father stayed home to tend to the restaurant, we made a voyage into history -- both our own family history and the history of our ancestral home. We took in the archaeological ruins of Baalbek, and the history of the Levant under the Ottoman Empire and then under the French colonial mandate. We learned of the struggles of my great- grandparents' generation, and absorbed the cultural history of custom, myth, folklore, festivities, food, humor, and religion. We learned to see history as geography, its contours mapped in the cities and villages and terraced countryside of our ancestors, and chronicled in the ancient lore of the luscious vineyards and orchards and the very rare small rivers. Along the banks of these small rivers people still sat together, sharing food and stories. Their conversations were sometimes delicate and nuanced, sometimes uproarious, and often full of reminiscences, tapping into the past for insight into the present. Even the local small talk here drew on larger spheres of reference, including colonialism and the rebellions of earlier periods. Even chronic Lebanese gossipers talked politics.
Back in Connecticut, we paid similar attention to our local history. With the imposing Civil War Veterans Monument nearby, and a wonderful library full of history books and materials around the corner, our part of northwest Connecticut came alive with the tales of its dairy, apple, and other farms, of its many factories, and of how the great natural disasters, floods, and gigantic blizzards were overcome. It was the time of the great U.S. melting pot, a time when immigrants came here to become Americans.
As is the case today, hometown history rarely came up in our elementary and high schools. We learned it from the old-timers around us, who shared their stories in town meetings and impromptu street-corner gatherings, in sandwich shops and bars. The bustling sidewalks and the local restaurants -- my father's included -- were places for talk and eating; their counters and booths lent themselves to passing conversations far better than today's fast- food restaurants.
Sometimes knowledge of the town's history got me into trouble. In the third grade, when my teacher referred to the "Beardsley Public Library," I corrected my teacher in front of the class. "Miss Franklin," I said, "The Beardsley and Memorial Library isn't a public library, it's a memorial library." My parents had always stressed the importance of charity, and I knew that our library had been established in the nineteenth century through the generosity of the well-off Beardsley family and other donors. My correction got me a trip to the dunce chair in the corner. It was a valuable memory for me, but not in the way Miss Franklin intended it. It taught me the difference between instructional obedience and critical education, though I did not quite phrase it that way at the time.
The local daily newspaper, the Winsted Evening Citizen, was another conveyor of local history. I was a delivery boy for a time, carrying a weighty 120 copies in a sack I flung over my shoulder. Needless to say, I read what I peddled from door-to-door, and as I did I began to marvel at all the parts of this town that escaped most townspeople's awareness. Mother once wrote a short article called "Touring Your Own Home Town," in which she suggested that residents visit our numerous factories, schools, town departments, farms, our reservoir and purification plant, the rivers, streams, lakes and woods, the country courtroom and local hospital, firehouses and local landmarks, and of course, the Winchester Historical Society. Just seeing how all the various products that fueled our local economy -- from clothing to clocks, from the common pin to electrical devices and household appliances -- were made would be an eye-opener for most residents.
My father, who had a bottomless appetite for political news, viewed the events of history in cause-and-effect terms. To him, wars, tragedies, and elections were the result of preexisting social and historical conditions, and their consequences were all too often ignored by greedy powerful interests in favor of their immediate lust for domination and profits. This mindset led him to a political perspective that ran counter to nearly any prevailing party line. He also saw how the appeal of communism in Third World countries was nourished by callous and colonial corporate capitalism, whose political allies propped up dictatorships while the very rich oppressed the rest of the population. If the governing officials would only give a thought to the workers' desire for a decent life, he would say, "communism wouldn't have a chance." Having been born under the rule of foreign occupiers who wrote the self-serving history books the students in Lebanon had to study, he came to believe that history was written -- and revised -- by those whose interest it was revised to serve. Whenever he heard people say that Columbus discovered America, he would laugh and ask, "Didn't the people who greeted him on the shore arrive before he did?"
My father had an interesting take on how to accelerate the retirement of cruel dictators. As usual he started by asking me a question:
"Why don't dictators ever retire voluntarily, except to let a family member take over?"
"Because they like the power and the wealth and the adulation," I replied.
He countered by suggesting another reason: fear. Once those dictators were no longer protected by the military cordons that shielded them, they would be vulnerable to the many enemies their rule had created. Their years of brutal domination would make it difficult for them to have a second act.
But obviously there was an advantage to luring such figures out of office. So my father proposed an unorthodox solution. "Why not have the international community establish a retirement island for former dictators?" In exchange for agreeing to release the reins of power, they would get guaranteed security on an island somewhere in the South Seas or South Indian Ocean, where they and their extended families could tend their gardens or write their autobiographies. They would be forbidden to travel except for exceptional situations, and their communications with the outside world would be monitored. Since most dictators are already of an advanced age, the opportunity to escape the constant fear of reprisal might prove incentive enough to accept the invitation. Perhaps most important, scholars would be given access to them, interviewing them to learn just how they had maintained their totalitarian hold over millions of people -- a subject my father found critical if mankind were to forestall the emergence of future dictatorships.
Of course, Dad's idea raised all kinds of questions: Would exile on an island paradise really be sufficient punishment for these once-murderous rulers? How could security be ensured? Who would pay to maintain the facility? But when I tried to poke holes in his "solution," he waved them away, arguing that such details could be worked out once the general plan was accepted by the proper authorities in the nondictatorial community of nations. Besides, he had to get back to work. Easy for him to say -- but such conversations conditioned us to think in unusual ways.
My brother, Shafeek, shared my father's interest in history, which dovetailed with his own affection for geography. Shaf was convinced of the importance of having a sense of place -- so much so that he collected U.S. Geological Survey maps of our county and its towns, which he kept rolled up on his bookshelves ready to use on his regular tours. He read deeply in American history, and like my father he enjoyed pointing out its sugarcoated versions. One day, after prevailing on our parents to buy us a brand-new set of the Encyclopedia Americana (the 1947 edition), Shaf pulled me aside and read a passage from the entry on Hawaii. The article referred vaguely to "external influence" that had caused tumult for "the Kingdom of Hawaii" in the late nineteenth century. "These influences finally caused a revolution in 1893, deposed the reigning queen, Liliuokalani, and established a provisional government. A republic was formed the following year with Sanford B. Dole as President. Pursuant to the request of the people of Hawaii, as expressed through the legislation of the republic, and a resolution of the United States Congress approved July 7, 1898, the islands were formally annexed to the United States on August 12, 1898 as a territory."
Shaf looked up at me when he finished reading. "Do you know what really happened? The Dole family, other Anglo planters, and some missionaries engineered a coup to overthrow the indigenous Hawaiian monarchy. This was no 'request of the people.' it was simple colonial imperialism, secured by the U.S. Marines. The encyclopedia is whitewashing history." At the age of thirteen, I found this an invaluable lesson in skepticism: Even an established encyclopedia, I had learned, could contain a political agenda. By the time I arrived in college and law school, my critical faculties had been honed by years of such exchanges with my perceptive family.