The Mirror of History

The story about medical experimentation in Guatemala is a harrowing reminder of our past, yet our reaction to this story is itself a snapshot of where our society is today, and I see a welcome image of hope for Progressives, in this time when disillusionment and disappointment seem to be almost overwhelming.

Amy Goodman's October 5 interview with Susan Reverby, the medical historian who recently brought to light the unpublished documentation of the project, puts the incident in perspective. As an authority on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, she is very familiar with the social attitudes of those decades when the lives of some were simply and plainly not considered to be as worthy of respect as the lives of others. In the case of Tuskegee, poor black sharecroppers in Georgia who were found to already have syphilis were studied, without being told that it was syphilis that they suffered from, they were lied to about the nature of their medical treatment, and they were never treated for their disease, even after penicillin was found to be an effective cure.

The study in Guatemala is even more egregious due to the fact that individuals who were institutionalized in a prison and in an insane asylum, as well as some army soldiers, were actually infected with syphilis, surely without their knowledge, although what they were told was a detail that had been left out of these newly discovered physician's notes. And even in the atmosphere that allowed for the Tuskegee experiment to go on for forty years, from 1932 to 1972, Susan Reverby points to a comment in a letter referring to a statement by the surgeon general himself, showing that he knew that it would not be ethically acceptable in the United States, as the most shocking aspect of her discovery.

On one hand, it is difficult to acknowledge the wrongs of our nation's past. Many would prefer not to think about them. When Glenn Beck spoke of "restoring honor" to the United States during his rally in Washington, for example, his statement rang of the personal experience of a man who seeks to put his own past behind him. He said,

"Let's be honest. If you look at history, America has been both terribly good and terribly bad. It has been both, but to concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad and then looking to the good that is still out in front of us within our reach -- We have a choice today. We can either let those scars crush us or redeem us."

When Glenn Beck looks into the mirror of history, while acknowledging the bad, he cannot bear to dwell for long on those painful aspects. Assuming that what has worked for him in his own life will work for the nation, he turns toward the language of religious redemption, seeing those shameful instances as a part of a necessary spiritual path, as all-too-human lapses, their lessons being those of faith rather than of seeking deeper self-awareness. And whenever Progressives are characterized as the "blame America first" crowd, this abject refusal to look in the mirror and take responsibility for our collective actions, particularly in the "America" that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the colossal societal disconnect is strengthened.

On the other hand is the hope that surrounds this story. I perceive this moment to be a brief flash of the hope that Barack Obama campaigned upon, the hope that progress brings. That we find this story to be so horrifying, that the president's immediate apology to the nation of Guatemala is seen nearly universally as the appropriate response, shows that the rate of progress is, like the growth of a child, slow and nearly imperceptible to those who are witness to it day in and day out, yet society is moving forward.

Furthermore, by facing up to the attitudes that decided that it was acceptable to do in Guatemala what was not acceptable to do in the United States, the story links us to other past actions that our nation has taken in the Americas that merit attention, if we want to find realistic answers to problems such as illegal immigration or improve our relations within the rest of America. Rather than fearing that our scars will crush us, or refusing to accept blame beyond doing so in seeking redemption, we must study our image in that mirror in order to link our past actions to issues that continue to affect us today.

Walt Long's novel, The Travelers, achieves this goal. It is a story about the smuggling of illegal immigrants through a community in southern New Mexico that not only humanizes all of the factions involved, but also makes the link between the social realities that so many of the travelers are escaping in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, and the part that the United States has played in helping to create those situations. This novel evenhandedly depicts the complexities of a vexing issue, offering not answers, but respect for the fact that it is as complex as the human character is.

Similarly, the past year's unveiling of classified State Department documents from the Nixon era merit close examination, as they go a long way in explaining how the brutal dictatorships that gripped the Southern Cone region of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay were the results of a concentrated effort by the United States to weaken social movements that were becoming legitimized through democratic processes, thus threatening the veracity of the neo-liberal narrative.

"History does not refer merely [...] to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it, the past, with us. And we're 'unconsciously controlled' in so many ways, that history, the past, is present now in all we do." - James Baldwin

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