During his marathon talk on the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, turned to history to help him persuade his colleagues to support his dream of defunding Obamacare, and quiet those saying that it was "impossible" and "cannot be done."
Cruz hearkened back to the 18th century, saying, had these naysayers been alive then, they would be saying, "This cannot be done. You can't stand up to the British army — can't be done. It's impossible. Accept your subjugation. Accept your taxation without representation.' "
Cruz then turned to the Civil War and finally to "the 1940s, Nazi Germany," to make his point.
"Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, 'Accept the Nazis. Yes, they'll dominate the continent of Europe but that's not our problem. Let's appease them. Why? Because it can't be done. We can't possibly stand against them.' " Cruz continued, "I suspect those same pundits who say (that defunding the Affordable Care Act) can't be done, if it had been in the 1940s we would have been listening to them."
Sen. Cruz's statements were not only outrageous. They were also inaccurate. Britain responded to the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 within hours, and Neville Chamberlain declared that the nation was at war with Germany by late morning the following day.
A few days before Cruz spoke, AIG's CEO, Robert Benmosche, compared the 2008 public uproar against bonuses for executives in the financial services industry to lynchings in the South. Benmosche said, "(The uproar over bonuses) was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that, sort of like what we did in the Deep South (decades ago). And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."
What these comments demonstrate is that our society needs more exposure to history. With STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) championed by politicians and investors alike as the focus in national education, the humanities, including history, have been on the defensive. The humanities, some argue, are irrelevant, fiscally unjustifiable for their utility to society, and socially redundant.
But without them outrageous and ignorant comments like those uttered by Cruz and Benmosche are frequently left unchallenged. They demonstrate clearly that knowledge of history and the perspective of the humanities should be essential elements of good citizenship.
Citizens knowledgeable about history would not only find such comments distasteful; they would be able to marginalize people who utter them, instead of lionizing them for their courage to speak "until (they) can't stand anymore."
Magda Teter is a professor of history and Jewish studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.