Saturday, April 28, 2018

With Each Generation

This week's van attack in Toronto is a reminder that misogyny and hate in general are alive and well in the 21st century. Jonathan Freedland writes:

By a quirk of the calendar, April 2018 brought a double anniversary in the history of race relations in this country: 50 years since Enoch Powell delivered his “rivers of blood” speech, and 25 years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Implied in much of the commemoration of these two events has been a note of self-congratulation: look how far we’ve come.

But, more and more, it looks like we haven't come very far:

This month brought news of a survey finding that two-thirds of US millennials could not say what Auschwitz is, while 22% of that same age group had not heard of the Holocaust. Maybe education on this subject is better in Britain, but it was still possible for two Holocaust deniers to be adopted as Labour candidates for next week’s council elections, while the Conservatives nominated a man who once tweeted that he was “sweating like a Jew in an attic”. And it was possible for a supposedly humorous video, in which a would-be comedian repeats the phrase “gas the Jews” 24 times, to go viral.
In other words, the memory of the Holocaust is not secure, just as what seemed to be long-ago battles over racism and sexism have not been won. There is an amnesia abroad that is troubling, as if lessons we thought we had learned need to be relearned all over again. Perhaps each generation has to do it itself, itself from scratch. Maybe we should take no knowledge, no insight, for granted. Older generations, for example, might think it obvious, given the 20th century, that European nations need to cooperate rather than compete if we are to avoid mass slaughter and bloodshed. However, it seems even that is not obvious, but rather needs to be taught anew.
It is an especially dispiriting thought for progressives, who, as the name implies, want to believe in progress. But perhaps this is our fate. Like Sisyphus, we must roll the boulder to the top of the hill, only to watch as it rolls all the way down – then gird ourselves to push it all the way up again.

It appears that -- despite Barack Obama's fervent hope -- no lessons are ever learned for good. They must be re-learned with each generation.


The Mound of Sound said...

The Sisyphus reference seems all too real. People have forgotten the past and the loss of that knowledge defeats them when they need to make sense of what's happening to them and around them today. Those who haven't forgotten or who make the effort to find explanations for what is happening - and it is so unprecedented in both scope and pace - must struggle to resist succumbing to malaise and helplessness.

I had to seek that sort of bulwark on the crisis of climate change. I have no illusions that we're going to sort it out. We can't because we're not approaching it holistically which would mean treating it as one part of a greater, even more existential challenge, that incorporates over-population, over-consumption of dwindling resources, even ocean acidification. What saved me from succumbing to defeatism is the knowledge that, while we probably cannot spare our grandkids from tribulations we cannot truly imagine, we still can make their challenges vastly worse than need be. That margin between what they will confront regardless and what they may have to confront if we simply continue on as we have is always worth fighting for. That margin is what makes advocacy worthwhile. It makes even the seemingly inconsequential sacrifices worthwhile.

People do forget. Societal memory can be erased. I'm currently reading Paul Fussell's 1989 classic, "Wartime." In an early chapter he deals with how the American public viewed their country's first clashes with the enemy as somehow bloodless. They were "groomed" by propaganda such as posters that depicted the B-17 as the unstoppable bomber that flew so high it was beyond the reach of the enemy below and yet, with its Norden bombsight, could still hit a 25 foot radius target more than 20,000 feet below. Fussell explains that it wasn't until the Marine's bloody invasion of the tiny island of Tarawa, that claimed a thousand dead and two thousand wounded, that photographs appeared in hometown papers showing masses of bodies floating in the surfline which sent a seismic shock of reality through the population. Americans had erased the carnage of WWI from their minds. Only after the public consciousness was jolted by Tarawa did the propaganda line shift to a far grimmer "let's get this over."

Owen Gray said...

We like to think that we're making progress to a better future, Mound. Perhaps I'm just getting old and harder to get along with. But, these days, I don't see a lot of progress.

BJ Bjornson said...

I don’t know that people actually forget the past, not without some extra push to bury it. But people do tend to believe that battles won mean the fight is over. The thing people need to remember is that most victories aren’t totally decisive, and the losers don’t just disappear with defeat. They will fight on and reassert themselves given the chance.

I look at these items and think back to the early days of the internet and blogging and the like. In the atheist community, there was a lot of talk about how the internet allowed atheists living in relatively closed communities in the Bible Belt or other heavily religious regions where admitting to such views would leave them shunned and socially outcast, to learn about and connect with others who shared their views. Allowed them to see that they weren’t alone, that there were like-minded people out there, that they were part of greater community. Give them confidence and a renewed sense of self. And ultimately allowed them to bring atheism (and other previously marginalized communities) into the public sphere and mainstream consciousness and acceptance.

The dark side of that is now becoming more apparent. The racists, misogynists, and other peddlers of hatred and ignorance whose views were, more or less, being slowly excised from “polite” society, also found their like-minded brethren and an increased sense of community and numbers, and used those same online resources to reassert themselves into the mainstream, louder and more determined then ever to maintain their privilege and reverse as much as possible their previous defeats.

And so the fight continues.

Owen Gray said...

Birds of a feather, B.J. But a lot of birds are anonymous. They refuse to publicly acknowledge the bile they spew. Having to own what you say acts as a retraint on some of the really unconscionable stuff that is out there.

Tal Hartsfeld said...

It's because human nature itself is the primary cause of all these evils (as well of any other sort of evils)
...and human nature never changes.

And, remember: only the scapegoats change, not the crimes against humanity themselves.
"Never again!" may apply to "further persecution of the Jewish", but there are plenty of other similar groups of marginalized individuals (a.k.a.: the homeless, or the poor, for example).
Prejudice and persecution simply morph and transition into other forms, that's all.
...sad to say, but true.

Owen Gray said...

You're right, Tal. The scapegoats change, but human nature doesn't.