The Weight of History

October 10, 2021

by Steve Stofka

In 1992, several months after a brutal beating by L.A. police officers during an arrest for drunk driving, Rodney King pleaded “Can we all get along?” From his apartment balcony nearby, George Holliday had filmed the incident. Despite the evidence shown in the film, a jury without any black members acquitted the officers and Los Angeles erupted into riots. Mr. Holliday, 61 and in good health, died in September from Covid. He told a friend that he didn’t want to get vaccinated so that he could develop antibodies to the disease (Williams & Chan, 2021). How did vaccines become a lightning rod of disagreement? Mr. King died in 2012 but his words haunt every meeting where human beings gather to negotiate a solution to a problem. Why are there so many irresolvable problems?

Myth and religion have provided answers to this question. The Judaic version is that two people in the Garden of Eden broke a pact with God and all humankind had to suffer. The ancient Greeks thought that the gods of Mt. Olympus amused themselves with the human drama, stirring up trouble when there was too much peace. Animistic traditions believe that the gods take an active part in our daily lives as well. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians hold a similar belief but limit the agency to one God.

Constant turmoil is necessary for change, and change is the key characteristic of our world. Whether it is the gods on Mt. Olympus enjoying the human soap opera, or a God in heaven answering a prayer for relief from pain, we seek an explanation that features agency. What we fear is the senseless turmoil of random change. We want there to be a clearly identifiable cause and what we find are an abundance of causes for a single event, an overdetermined system.

The system of international relations is characterized by anarchy, the lack of a central authority to enforce the rules. We often see the same anarchy in a republican system of government. In the U.S. system, Congress itself is the higher authority and within that governing body is a Senate with features similar to the Security Council of the UN. The U.S. is one of five members of that council, the P5, who have a veto vote that can kill any resolution. In the Senate, the leader of the majority party can kill any legislation, no matter how popular, by refusing to bring it up for a vote. Should it come to a vote, one Senator’s vote can effectively kill the legislation. This governing structure has enfeebled  both the UN and the Senate. Why did the U.S. adopt the anarchy of the international system?

Writing over three hundred years ago John Locke argued that men in power could not be trusted (Locke, 1988, 395). The U.S. Constitution embodies Locke’s principles and especially this foundational distrust of power in the hands of people. The Constitution constructed the House on the democratic principle of majority vote and majority will. The founders built the Senate like an international organization of nation-states, each state having separate interests and cultures, each state capable of wielding effective, if not outright, veto power. Founded on distrust and the autocratic power of one Senator’s vote, the Senate has become an ineffective political body, a classroom where adults gather to practice the art of international politics. Unable to govern itself, the Senate hobbles the rest of the country with the chains of its ineffectiveness.

Students of history study the flaws of the Roman Senate that led to monarchy and the eventual downfall of the Roman republic. Students of future centuries will study the foundation of distrust that crippled the U.S. Senate at a crucial time in the nation’s history. They will learn that human institutions can become powerless if they attempt to strike an even balance of power. Will they learn from our mistakes? We leave so many lessons that succeeding generations ignore, thinking that they are different or that their circumstances are different. If we could only learn, we might improve our institutions and our lives and construct a more lasting peace.

Peace is not conducive to change and it is the uneven path of change that we must walk. No, Rodney, we can’t all get along. Like donkeys each generation carries the lessons of history on its back but looks forward, unable to truly see and understand what it carries.

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Photo by Florian GIORGIO on Unsplash

Locke, John. 1988. Two Treatises of Government: a Critical Edition. ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, D., & Chan, S. (2021, September 21). Man who filmed Rodney King’s 1991 beating by police dies of covid-19, Friend says. Retrieved October 09, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/21/us/george-holliday-rodney-king-video-obit-trnd/index.html

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