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Mangino column: A ship without a captain, compass or rudder

Matthew Mangino
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The Rolla Daily News

Columns share an author's personal perspective.

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As the winds of war swirled in Europe in 1938, a back-bencher in the British House of Commons gave a fiery speech denouncing the closed minds of the burgeoning totalitarian regimes of central Europe.

During a session in Parliament, an aging politician stood up and said, “You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police ... yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts.”

He exclaimed, “A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”

The words of that aging politician, Winston Churchill, could easily be invoked today. As President Donald Trump campaigns for reelection, he rails against any thoughts or words that examine his or the nation’s failures. He paints protesters as un-American and educators who study racial injustice as “Marxist” radicals who hate America and are revising history.

On the stump Trump suggests any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, is unpatriotic. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to American leaders such as former President Barack Obama, who “spoke more frankly of the nation’s shortcomings, painting it as a country constantly striving to perfect itself.”

According to TIME, most Americans concur with Obama. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 71% of registered voters agreed with the statement that “it makes the U.S. stronger when we acknowledge the country’s historical flaws.”

Trump is fearful of that “little mouse of thought.” On Constitution Day, according to the New York Times, the president focused much of his speech on what he called “left-wing rioting and mayhem” which are, according to Trump, the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools,” adding that “it’s gone on far too long.”

UCLA historian Gary Nash told TIME, revisionist history is a sign of a healthy democracy. “Why in a democratic society shouldn’t we be looking at history, warts and all? If we show only a smiley-face history we’re just mimicking what kids learn in authoritarian regimes,” he says. “As long as historical research is still valued, there will always be revisions to history.”

Bill Moyers wrote on his blog Moyers on Democracy that since Trump’s inauguration, “a handful of writers have urged Americans to heed history’s lessons on resisting tyranny in all its forms.”

One such writer is Thomas Ricks. His book, "Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom," examines the writings of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, tracing how both came to recognize and resist abuses of power and political propaganda.

During an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2017, Gross read the last line of Ricks’ book, “(T)he fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.”

Ricks replied, “(T)his is the essence of Western society and, at its best, how Western society operates.” He continued, “(Y)ou can really reduce it to a formula. First of all, you need to have principles. You need to stand by those principles and remember them. Second, you need to look at reality to observe facts and not just have opinions and to say, what are the facts of the matter? Third, you need to act upon those facts according to your principles.”

Facts, principles and action are essentially absent among today’s leaders - our nation is a ship without a captain, compass or rudder.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.