The Americans took California from the Mexicans. The Mexicans took it from the Spanish. The Spanish took it from the natives. Those natives took it from … does it matter?
America used to have slavery. So did the British. And it was introduced to North America by the Dutch. The Dutch bought the slaves from West African tribes. Does that matter?
We are said to live in a male-dominated society, in which women are second-class citizens, and there is some truth in that. Yet women live longer lives, pay less for insurance and most of them leave the very dangerous jobs – the military, public safety, mining, construction, etc. – to men, who are much more likely to be injured or killed on the job. How important is that?
If we look at much of the public discourse in social media, the most popular pastimes seem to be a) blaming someone else for your troubles and b) claiming victimhood. If you have the typical run of Facebook friends who like to weigh in on the hottest sociopolitical topics of the day, chances are they say they know who the bad guy is, and how they themselves have suffered.
Certainly, there is injustice in the world, and opposing it is the never-ending work of all good-hearted men and women, but remember this: we live in the United States of America, not the Imaginary States of Utopia. No nation, system, person, gender, family or society is perfect or blameless.
Some on the left say that America is racist. Well, if true, it has had a lot of help. As noted above, warring West African tribes took prisoners of war, some of which they sold to Dutch (and other) traders in human flesh. While the vast majority of American slaveholders were white, some were Native American or even black.
Some on the right complain about wasteful government spending and giveaways to people who “vote for a living.” That might be true when you consider that poor people typically have the lowest voter turnout, and wealthy people the highest. That “wasteful government spending” also includes subsidies to various industries, the construction of roads, harbors and dams which make the movement of goods – essential to making rich people richer – easier and more convenient.
With the rise of Hispanic populations in America, especially in the west, some folks agonize about how “we are losing our country,” or chastise Uncle Sam for stealing half of Mexico.
But look at it another way. California, for example, was a frequently rebellious area chafing under the weak and corrupt regimes in Mexico City. Most of the californios were happy to trade in El Tri (the Mexican national flag) for the Stars and Stripes, at least until some boneheaded American “leaders” tried to govern with too heavy a hand.
Move the controversy to the Lone Star State. The majority there still holds fast to the legend of the Alamo, where brave proto-Americans resisted tyranny and died a martyr’s death at a mission in San Antonio in 1836.
A minority viewpoint has it this way: the American “rebels” in Texas were there to bring in black slavery (outlawed in Mexico) to make money growing cotton.
Strangely enough, both versions are correct. Mexico has been in a condition of chaos throughout almost all of its independent life. Revolutions, revolts and dictators were as perennial as the grass.
And yes, many of the pioneers of a “free Texas” were slaveholders, and sought to keep that evil custom when admitted to the Union a decade later. But balance that against the fact that enforcement of the ban on slavery in Mexico was weak and ineffective, and was much less a deterrent than seems possible today. In fact, there was a perfectly unfair peonage system that bound the poor to the land as a form of economic slavery in Mexico that was almost as wrong.
So where does that leave us? As I see it, it means that the time has come to stop blaming others – most of them long dead – for the imperfections of the present. We solely are responsible for the conditions of our life and our world. Pointing backwards as a justification for moral outrage won’t take us forward.
In other words, forget the Alamo. We must make our own victories and take ownership of our own failures. It’s better to progress today than blame those long in the ground as an excuse. Learn from bad memories but don’t let them cripple you.
As the saying goes, “Forget what hurt you in the past. But never forget what it taught you.”
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts appears every Wednesday, except when it comes out on Thursday.