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

Barely a week after assuming office, President Donald Trump set off a worldwide firestorm when he decided to temporarily ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from all over the world from entering the United States.
Alex Brandon
/
AP
Barely a week after assuming office, President Donald Trump set off a worldwide firestorm when he decided to temporarily ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from all over the world from entering the United States.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Chloe Connelly