Offloading garbage in Seattle can trigger a chain reaction. My condo building has a garbage room where large metal bins are designated for different types of trash: paper, glass, and cardboard boxes. Things like rotten food, eggshells, and kitty litter cannot be recycled and are dumped into the trash bins assigned to stinky garbage. There is a human tendency to scan the bins to see if everyone is doing the right thing—putting their garbage into the bin where it belongs. In this very green city, whistleblowers are encouraged to shout.
The condo garbage room holds more than trash bins. Next to the bin designated for paper a six-foot-tall bookcase sits flush to the wall. People put the books they no longer want on the bookshelf. Most books cycle through and find a home. Few books stay here forever with the possible exception of Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life. So last week I was astonished to find an old hardcover book stuffed inside a trash bin. It was unthinkable that anyone would throw away a book.
The book I found in the trash was not a mediocre mystery, nor a heavily borrowed, marked-up Urdu phrase book. Books like that have already found a home. The book I found was as heavy as a doorstop and could be used as a murder weapon. From the paper bin in between two crushed Amazon boxes, I had rescued The Life of Greece by Will Durant. After I pried the first book free, I spied another Durant classic, The Age of Faith. Soon another Durant book, The Age of Reason, bobbed above obnoxious bricks of Styrofoam. I was beside myself. The three books were part of the collection The Story of Civilization.
I reveled in my find because it was coincidental. In my latest book, The Death of a Library, I had written about a Yonkers librarian, Miss Helen Blodgett, who in 1934 had named Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy as hugely popular. Will Durant’s rendering of history had piqued my curiosity. Only a month ago, I bought the entire series written by Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon published his massive work in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence proclaimed our statehood as a nation. I digress but sit tight and be patient with me; the correlation between history and books and democracy is yet to come.
My good fortune in the garbage room gave me the chance to read Will Durant’s work as surely as if I had gone to the library and checked out his books. It was only through happenstance that I had experienced a windfall. The Will Durant books were indisputably mine and for free. But I also wondered, who would throw away great books? The bookcase in the garbage room stood like a pillar with open arms clamoring for castoffs. Examining the books for wear and tear, I noticed they would be deemed to be in very good condition, probably fetching more than ten bucks a book in the Amazon reseller market. It’s a five-minute walk to the Pike Place Market where three used bookstores would happily have acquired the history books written by Mr. Durant. (One was cowritten with his wife Ariel). There I go, digressing again.
It’s shocking to find books in the trash. Many people who live here have an avowed passion for reading. It might be due to Seattle’s population that has on average a higher level of education, or it could be due to the city’s appetite for withstanding copious amounts of coffee and rain. Even our homeless are well read. Piles of books are heaped in makeshift tent cities. I once knew a homeless schizophrenic man named John, who used to ask me to bring him used books. He preferred mysteries and historical fiction, especially westerns.
In a city where people are passionate about reading, there is a collective cultural horror at the very idea that someone would toss a book into the trash. We are imbued with a moral obligation to always find a way to pass on an unwanted book to anyone who might give it a quick read and a home. The perpetrator caught dumping a book into the trash would be more than censured. An offending book perpetrator would be given the Seattle freeze—the clod would be permanently shunned and forced to remove all traces of his Bernie Sanders’ bumper sticker from the rear bumper of his smart car.
I could not forget the sight of the books in the trash bin, looking like victims of attempted murder. I needed to understand why the perpetrator tried to kill them. I began to imagine all sorts of crazy things. It didn’t make sense that someone would throw away books. I reasoned that the book perpetrator hated the owner of the books, not the books. The crime was personal. What had begun as a lovers’ quarrel grew into many sleepless nights. One fight led to another. Then came full-blown rage, guilt, bated breath, and suffering. There is no better way to break up with someone than to throw away his books.
The Truth about History
Soon after I found the books in the trash, I experienced an unpleasant lesson about history. My massage therapist lives in the tiny town of Wheeler in Oregon, (population 310). While she had me spread-eagled on the table, I put myself through grave introspection, drilling down into the tiny needling part of myself that makes me feel compelled to read history. Understanding history gives me neither money nor academic credit. Loving history doesn’t even get me respect. No one cares if I know the French Revolution officially began in 1789, or whether Marie Antionette said, “Let them eat cake.” (She didn’t.)
In the mirror of my soul, I looked at myself in the silvery place where I cannot lie. Eye-to-eye, I shrugged. “Come on, admit it,” I thought, “You’re a snob. You’ve always been arrogant. Knowing history makes you feel superior.” I nodded my head to affirm the truth. All of those things were true, but truth is never simple or easy. Dorothy mistook my head movement for a need to adjust the face cradle, and whispered in my ear, “We’re returning to the way things used to be.” Then she narrated a sequence of historical events so improbable that I immediately detected alt-right extremism. “Oh no, here it comes,” I thought to myself.
While Dorothy was therapeutically passing her hands all over my body, she told me that in the 1940s no one was obese because the men were men and the women were women. “How do you know?” I asked her. “I have a picture,” she proudly told me. “The picture’s black-and-white,” she emphasized. “The men wear trousers and the ladies wear dresses. Some people might be big-boned, but no one’s fat.” “What year was the picture taken?” I asked. She enthusiastically told me the year was 1945! I told her that’s the year World War II ended. “If you say so!” she harrumphed.
Dorothy didn’t believe me when I told her that 1945 was the year World War II had ended. She dismissed me as a Seattle Liberal whose lips chatter upon being thawed from having lived in the blue bubble for too long. “There are alternative facts and alternative media,” Dorothy informed me. “The only good TV anchor is Sean Hannity. I listen to what he has to say,” she said, “and I filter it through the universe that lives inside of me.” Then she handed me a paper cup filled with cold water, as if it was a rude awakening, and told me to hydrate for the rest of the day. I was willing to drink Dorothy’s cold water, but I know too much about reality to drink her Koolaid.
As I gulped the water, I had a chilling thought about the history we are currently living through in America. During this past Fourth of July, the President told us in his “Salute to America” speech that the Continental Army “took over the airports” from the British during the American Revolutionary War. Wow! Airports in the 1770s! It’s incredibly scary that an American President could have said such a thing. It’s like claiming Lewis and Clark talked to Sacagawea on cell phones as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. What’s scarier is the notion that Trump makes these gaffes on purpose. When the President says dumb things, it makes his supporters feel good about not being smart or educated. He is saying to them: you can be dumb, very dumb, but I still get to be your President to make America great again.
There is the likelihood that Trump does not know why nationalism was suppressed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Four nations, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain, were afraid of nationalism because it had given Napoleon the fuel to stomp all over Europe. The outcome of the Congress of Vienna resulted in a “balance of power,” nearly a hundred years of peace in Europe—until everything fell apart, resulting in World War I. The long span of peace in Europe served as a model for future historians and diplomats. Later in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was often credited with striking a “balance of power” similar to the Congress of Vienna. Kissinger’s diplomacy kept us out of war by pivoting among the Soviet Union, China and the United States. Keep in mind: at Harvard, Henry Kissinger taught history.
Destruction is inherent in Trump’s America First stance. This President has no knowledge of American history and no clue as to why NATO is important to the safety of the entire world. His glaring gaps in understanding the Middle East and the historical, deep-rooted enmity between America and Russia has put us all at risk. It’s not to suggest that America and Russia can’t be friends, but it cannot be done at the expense of throwing our friends and allies to the wolves. America is now in the position of being more than America first. We are America alone. And if something happens where we need our allies and friends, they will not be there for us. America’s relationships are no longer in place to mimick a balance of power among, friends, allies and foes. I’ve digressed again but be patient with me, the best is yet to come.
The Truth shall make you free
The full quote "ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," is inscribed on the main building of the University of Texas; the quote originated from the bible, possibly the King James version, and it has always been attributed to Jesus Christ. The truth shall make you free has been spun in the rhetoric of all types of leaders, from the spiritual to the political, and from the radical left to the alt-right, and everyone in between. The concept of the truth setting us free is the common fare dished out by teachers, clerics, tyrants, mobsters and venture capitalists. What they say is true. The truth shall set us free. But first we have to be willing to pay the price.
Identifying truth is hard work, but somebody has got to do it. Sorting through the quagmire of falsehood, trickery, alternative facts, gaslighting, and selective data, to determine and define reality only comes by developing a lifelong habit of critical thinking. There is no amount of healthy respect that can be given to a lie that will eventually turn it into the truth. When you’re armed with knowledge, a deceptive person cannot win over your mind or your heart for very long.
We have all heard the quote attributed to the philosopher and essayist George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The desire to learn history isn’t only to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Knowing a thing or two about history means we get a playbook. If we know the steps or events that led to what happened in the past, we can detect patterns. Recognizing patterns allows us to try something new. Knowing the rules helps us to effectively explore all of the possibilities. We have to know the rules before we can break them. Knowing the past is what leads to future innovation. History is the true hallmark of innovation.
I still have an irksome obsession attached to my recollection of the Durant books stuck in the trash. It occurred to me that the perpetrator who threw away the books wasn’t mad at the books or their owner. It is possible that he wanted to erase history. Today in the era of Trump, we show signs of what Jane Jacobs defined as “rushing headlong into a Dark Age.” Some pundits have made a strong argument suggesting that Jane Jacobs’ book Dark Age Ahead may have predicted the rise of Trump. Amnesia is the chief symptom that besets a nation when it is entering a dark age. In other words, when people forget history, their cultural norms, or knowing right from wrong, the dark age becomes the new reality. Examples of forgetting history include the alt right factions of our culture and the GOP who no longer remember the core principles of our democracy.
Jane Jacobs has been described as an autodidact, a term I dislike because it sounds arrogant. An autodidact is simply a person who was self-taught. Jacobs did not have a college degree, but she was a brilliant observer of what made cities work and flourish. Her books and articles are held to be legendary among urban planners, architects, academics and civic leaders. Self-education goes well beyond the formal constraints of school. There are many so-called autodidacts. Among my favorite are Emily Warren Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge, and Eric Hoffer who wrote notable books, including his seminal work “True Believer” that gets to the truth about how mass movements are born and take root in a culture. Hoffer labored as a migrant farmer and a longshoreman but spent his free time in the public library studying, of all things, history.
My story began with picking three great history books out from the trash, and it ended up making me think about our democracy. The prerequisites of a democracy require literacy and knowledge. Every American is expected to participate in a democratic government by voting. In order to vote, you have to be able to read and write, but you also have to know American history. Immigrants seeking American citizenship are required to know the answers to 100 questions about American history. Among the 100 questions there are facts that most naturalized Americans might take for granted, like knowing that the Bill of Rights provides for our essential rights and civil liberties. As Americans, we are expected to think. Some of us might take our thinking to a higher level by continuing to educate ourselves throughout our lives. History does matter. The future of our democracy depends on it.