By David K. Shipler
Ronald Young died last year. He served his country for his entire adult life, not in uniform but in the ranks of those unsung Americans who campaign for peace, who use not lethal arms but the weapon of morality to call their country to its highest values. They should also be honored on Memorial Day.
For Ron’s memoir, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas,Vietnam and the Middle East, I wrote a preface from which this essay is adapted. It calls upon us to consider what lenses we use to see ourselves and our past.
History is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill observed. It is then interpreted by the powerful, and periodically reinterpreted as values mature and new voices are heard. In other words, history is malleable. Russians under communism used to joke about the disappearance of important figures from official recollections: “What is the definition of a Soviet historian?” The answer: “A person who can predict the past.”
We Americans like to think we’re more truthful than autocracies, and we are, but only to a degree. While no central government dictates what we learn about our history, we have multiple versions manipulated instead by a thousand points of institutional bias, from the Texas school board’s textbook requirements to the museums and monuments scattered across the country. In democracies, too, what is taught and known about the past is shaped by the cultural consensus of the present.
Not long ago, Native Americans (then called “Indians”) appeared in classrooms and films as ruthless primitives. If they were occasionally admired, it was only for their savage nobility—their exotic rituals and canny self-reliance—or as collaborators with the white man against their own. I went to school in the 1950s, and I cannot remember reading a line in a textbook or hearing a sentence from a teacher about the atrocities visited upon them.
Nor was slavery sufficiently woven into the American story. Not until the waning years of the twentieth century did visitors to Monticello, Mount Vernon, and other plantations see anything of the majority of residents who had lived there—the enslaved blacks who built and labored on the land. Tours concentrated on the owners’ elaborate mansions, furniture, silverware, and china.
That this has changed—that the powerless are now seen—is a tribute to America’s sporadic capacity for self-correction. We hail Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that were so vilified and spied upon by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. What an FBI memo called a “demagogic speech” that made King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” we now celebrate as one of the most inspiring pieces of eloquence in our history: “I have a dream.”
Yet even this evolving self-portrait underestimates a whole subculture of America’s sons and daughters who struggled against established policies and norms. They include blacks who sacrificed to overturn segregation and whites who journeyed south to join them in the civil rights movement. They include those who defied the military draft to resist the war in Vietnam, protested United States aid for Latin American dictatorships, urged nuclear disarmament, demanded protection of the environment, and called broadly on their country to stand for peace and humane justice—not easy standards for a superpower to achieve, evidently.
These Americans have been the backbone of our conscience. If we sing of their achievements too softly, we miss essential ingredients of our country’s greatness.
Ron Young was one of those Americans. I first met him when he and his wife, Carol Jensen, visited Jerusalem, where I was a correspondent, from their home base of Amman, Jordan. Their task, for the Americans Friends Service Committee, was to cross the rigid boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs—and the internal boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs among themselves—so they could report to Quakers back home on the state of the Middle East and its faltering peace process.
Being a reporter was my job, too. But Ron and Carol seemed to be doing much more. In harvesting competing perspectives, they were also seeding a measure of interaction and dialogue. They were carrying the contrasting views across those boundaries and leaving them for contemplation by the other side. To believe that this would make a difference took enormous faith in people’s good sense and their capacity to listen, especially to voices different from their own.
Given the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace nearly forty years after their efforts, you might conclude that their faith was misplaced. But they never struck me as naïve. They honored the decency in people, respected their need for dignity, and looked at hard truths with a clear gaze. We need more of this realistic idealism. Lofty goals cannot be reached by cynicism.
So Ron’s story was the country’s story—or, a part of the country’s story not usually told vividly. Because he came of age by following pathways that led through the most momentous protest movements in the nation’s postwar experience, his personal narrative filled in the picture of a turbulent society reaching for moral poise.
He told me little of this during our long conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during those years in Jerusalem. Perhaps I never asked—a grievous failing for a reporter. But he also never volunteered, a measure of his humility. He was not a man obsessed with himself.
But he was a man driven by the desire to see injustice made right—not with the flashing rhetoric of hyperbole, not with unprovable accusations of conspiracy or venality, but with the quiet assurance that understanding can be nourished from those seeds of listening.
At a time when organized religion is most publicized for its intolerance, Ron held regard for the clergy of diverse faiths as catalysts of change. That began at the height of efforts to topple Jim Crow segregation, when he dropped out of Wesleyan to work at a black church in Memphis under the Reverend James Lawson, Jr., who set him to reading and thinking about topics far beyond the immediate racial conflicts, including the threat of nuclear war.
Ron visited the Dominican Republic after the United States invasion, went to Uruguay for a conference on nonviolence and social change, and would have been drawn more deeply into Latin America were it not for the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
He worked for the religious and pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He burned his draft card, campaigned with the peace movement, and led a delegation including religious leaders for discussions with non-communist South Vietnamese who opposed the war. His anti-war credentials enabled him to visit North Vietnam in 1970 as part of a small group of religious figures to deliver mail to and from American POWs and their families.
In later years he translated those early contacts with religious leaders into a longterm effort toward Middle East peace. It’s hard to think of anyone else with his deep experience who could mobilize Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy in the way that he did, to keep pressing the United States to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects alive.
Ron was 75 when he died of septic shock. I don't know if he would want a flag lowered to half mast, but he deserves the tribute as much as any soldier who falls in battle. If you are ever tempted to despair that Americans have lost their moral compass, look into Ron Young’s generous life of active idealism. And remember that he has not been alone.