Fortress America: What We Can — And Can't — Learn From History

Jan 31, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 3:24 pm

President Donald Trump's decision to temporarily ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from across the globe has set off a firestorm of protest. In airports and city streets across the U.S. and beyond, people turned out by the thousands over the weekend to protest the action.

In tense times, we often turn to history to understand events such as these. While we can and should learn from the past to inform our present, scholars say this process can be fraught with psychological peril. We're often inclined to draw lessons from history that suit our preconceived notions.

In recent days, many people have reached for the story of the SS St. Louis. It's a story you may be familiar with: In 1939, a ship full of Jewish refugees was turned away when it reached the shores of Cuba and then the United States.

This week we speak with historian Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University. She researches the Holocaust and the global response to Jewish refugees. Lipstadt gives us a vivid portrait of the voyage and its aftermath — and cautions about making simple parallels to crises today.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

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