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War > Politics and Prejudices

Perils of ignorance

Vietnamnesia: Why it's dangerous that today's kids don't know their history

 

Published 11/18/2009

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For weeks, we've been waiting for President Obama to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, and, if so, how many.

This ought to give Americans a worried feeling in the deepest levels of their guts. Afghanistan has been wearing down, chewing up and defeating invading armies for centuries. Think of the once-mighty Soviet Union, the country the Nazi war machine couldn't beat.

Moscow was ground down and ended up fleeing the mess in the 1980s. We've been there now for more than eight years. We came in with a bang and overthrew the nutty Taliban with ease. Unfortunately, then the war started. Lately, we've been more or less losing, after a long stalemate. The Taliban has been getting stronger and the number of Americans killed is on the rise.

The puppet leader the previous administration selected for us, Hamid Karzai, just won a corrupt new election.

Everybody not on our payroll seems to want us out. If you are a baby boomer, you can't help thinking we've seen this movie before, under the title: Vietnam. That war ruined a presidency, cost us untold billions and 58,000 dead, sacrificed for nothing.

Afghanistan has all the makings of Son of Saigon. Our generals want to send maybe 40,000 more Americans into the meat grinder.

So, you might wonder ... why aren't we demonstrating? True, there isn't a draft anymore, but the Great Recession means more and more young people are being forced to join the service.

Disaster in Afghanistan could doom Obama's presidency, torpedo health care, the economy, everything.

Yet far too many young people are wretchedly ignorant of history. They don't know anything about Vietnam. They know little about the major struggles that shaped our nation. They don't even know when the Civil War was. I know this, because every semester I teach a course in the history and law of journalism at Wayne State University. The students are seniors and graduate students. This term, I learned that many — even the African-Americans — have no idea that slavery was ended by the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment. One woman thought it was still going in the 1930s, and ended when the black press persuaded the slaves to hop a train for the North.

Most of my students haven't the faintest idea what World War I was about, or when it was fought. (I asked a grad student, who told me she thought it was in the 1930s.) They ask me if I can remember World War II, even when I tell them I was born in 1952. The only thing most of them know about Vietnam is that it was a bad thing and spawned some movies they didn't see.

Now, Wayne State isn't Harvard, but it is far from alone. We are a nation increasingly ignorant of our past, of the forces that shaped us. Two years ago, a radio reporter who had gone to a private college asked me whether more soldiers had been killed in our current farce in Iraq, or in World War II. She was dead serious.

I'm not saying we need to memorize lists of dull facts. But there is something truer than anything our politicians ever say, something expressed by a philosopher named George Santayana a century ago: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

If you think you know enough history, you don't. Today, you can play with your new iPhone while you wait for your job to disappear. Or you can try to learn something about how we got into the various fixes we're in, so we can try to avoid making them worse.

Otherwise, well, send me a postcard from the homeless shelter, or downtown Kandahar. They say the dysentery in both places is especially memorable this year.


Cox and the stripper:
It has long been rumored that Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox a) covered up the legendary-though-unproven "party" at the Manoogian Mansion and/or b) then somehow impeded the investigation into the death of Tamara Greene.

Greene, aka "Strawberry," was, of course, the woman once primly described by the Detroit News as a "thick-bodied stripper." She was shot to death in a drive-by in April 2003. Though the papers don't often mention this, it needs to be noted that nobody has ever turned up a shred of evidence that any of the charges against Cox were true. Nor has anybody, in our leak-happy nation, ever claimed to have been at the infamous party.

Nevertheless, there are many who think this case has the potential to torpedo Cox's run for governor next year. This includes both Republicans backing other candidates, and Democrats who would like to see him get the nomination, and then be destroyed by some such revelations.

However, a little reality check is in order. First of all, just in case you are new to the scene, here's a quick summary. According to legend, Kwame and cronies staged a stag party with strippers at the Manoog. There are various versions of what happened, but, according to the most usual one, Carlita Kilpatrick turned up to discover Strawberry servicing Hizzoner, and then supposedly beat up the stripper. Later, Strawberry did, in fact, get whacked.

The whispers are that Cox covered this up, possibly because — even though he is a Republican — he has ties to the Wayne County political machine and used to work for Mike Duggan.

How likely is it that any of this is true? Logically, it makes little sense. There would be no reason for a politically ambitious Republican attorney general to protect a corrupt black mayor of Detroit. Granted, Cox was concealing his own extramarital affair from the public at the time. But there is no text message or other evidence of a quid pro quo.

Conceivably, Cox may not have pursued the investigation into the "party" aggressively enough. The political climate was much different in the early days of the Kwamester's rule. To be seen as aggressively going after the young black mayor might not have been politically smart. Kilpatrick, remember, was strongly backed by the same business interests whose support Cox also needs. Way back in 2004, Cox told me that he had looked but found no proof that there was any such party, though he had turned up lots of evidence of Kwame behaving badly.

His report at the time did say (all too correctly) the mayor had put the city at risk of a big-time lawsuit. As for Strawberry's murder: The lady, by all accounts, was a stripper with a drug problem. Folks like that are usually not seen as good risks by life insurance firms.

Absent any evidence, there is no good reason to assume Kwame Kilpatrick had her bumped off. Now, don't get me wrong. I think the former mayor is a thug who should be doing hard time.

Mike Cox is ruthlessly ambitious, and all about getting himself elected governor. But it makes little sense to assume Kwame had the stripper killed. It makes even less sense to think he and Cox were in cahoots to cover this up somehow. And the idea that this will affect the race for governor is wacko, unless a smoking gun is suddenly produced. The voters are going to care about essentially one thing next year: the economy.

Nobody is going to give a damn whether Cox did enough eight years earlier to investigate a corrupt, long-gone mayor whom, in the end, he helped send to jail. Anybody who thinks otherwise needs to get out and talk to real humans, especially those without jobs.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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