What’s goin’ on across this land?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The following lyrics are from a song about a soldier returning from war who’s trying to catch up on what he’s missed while being overseas.

Hey, baby, what you know good?
I’m just gettin’ back, but you knew I would.
War is hell, when will it end?
When will people start gettin’ together again?
Are things really gettin’ better Like the newspaper said?…
Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend.
Money is tighter than it’s ever been.
Hey, man, I just don’t understand What’s goin’ on across this land.

What makes those lyrics all the more poignant—and disturbing—is the fact that Marvin Gaye wrote them as part of his “What’s Goin’ On” album, which was released on May 21, 1971—37 years ago next month. Unfortunately, those same words, which were supposed to represent the Vietnam veteran, could be spoken by any young soldier returning from Iraq or Afghanistan today.

“War is hell, when will it end?” That’s what Americans have been asking ever since President Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of his victory banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003—five years ago next month. Since that banner was hung, 3,898 Americans have been killed in Iraq.

“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job/Money is tighter than it’s ever been.” Unemployment has spiked in recent months, rising to a three-year high. Food and gas prices are at their highest. Many economists are finally admitting that we are indeed in an economic recession with no foreseeable end.

When it comes to politics, most people are smart enough to reach their own conclusions about candidates. You’d have to be crazy to vote for a candidate just because some celebrity endorses him or her. After all, what does fame in acting or accomplishment in sports have to do with knowledge in politics? Pretending to be a cop in a blockbuster movie or tossing a ball through a hoop doesn’t make you an expert on domestic or foreign policies.

Yet, here I am writing about politics.

My achievement in basketball provided me with the platform to reach you, but it’s my achievement as a historian that provides me with some small measure of expertise. I’ve been writing books as long as I played professional basketball, so I’m not writing here as Kareem the athlete, I’m writing to you as Kareem the historian.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all my years reading and writing about history can be summed up by the famous statement attributed to American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When I listen to Marvin Gaye singing those lyrics in “What’s Happening, Brother,” and I realize that here we are 27 years later wondering when the war will end and how we will keep our jobs and feed our families, I can’t help but look around for someone to lead us who has the ability to learn from history. To make sure we aren’t doomed to repeat our past mistakes.

For me, that person is Barack Obama. I believe that because his personal history has taught him so much. His parents came from modest means and knew the hardships of tough economic times. Barack learned from their struggles, which motivated him to move to Chicago to become a community organizer to help make the lives of people in poor neighborhoods better. Even after getting his law degree from Harvard, he continued to help people in need by practicing civil rights law. That, and everything he’s fought for as a state senator and U.S. senator, convince me that this is a man who will use his knowledge of and respect for history to lead us into a future that avoids the mistakes of our past. And that future promises to make all our our lives better.

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