Saturday, June 03, 2006

Dante Lee: Short Memories

Adolf Hitler once said to one of his advisers worrying about how History might look on the Fuhrer’s plan for the Jews: “Who remembers about the Armenian genocide?” The monster unfortunately nailed it right on the head.

History of wars and genocides can be compared to labor pain. It is absolutely excruciating but instantly forgotten at the very first cry of the child. And humans, just like the mothers who infant them, have an incredibly short memory when it comes to History.

Even the names of the men and women who have contributed to shape the world history, who have died for the sake of its progress, often get the hardest time to be remembered in our classrooms: who, for instance, remembers Hypatia, the last scholar of Alexandria; woman mathematician, neo-Platonian philosopher, astronomer and charismatic orator, who was the very first scientist martyr into being forcibly undressed, lynched, skinned by rough sea shells and tiles, and finally dismembered by an angry Christian mob in the streets of Alexandria in 415 AD?

Who remembers Margaret Sanger, the inventor of Family planning? She was lynched seven times -often closed to death – by angry men for her passion to help early 19th century women whose husbands only regarded them as mere baby factories. I can go on and on and write a huge list of reformers, an encyclopedia out of those forgotten heroes. But my point is, why are hard earned progress and reforms endangered once again —and so soon? And why do the battles have to be re-fought anew?

When it comes to genocides, massacres, abuses and atrocities, our memory skills get even more pathetic. If it is already challenging to feel personally the pain inflicted to an individual other than oneself, it is just impossible to funnel the pain of an entire community into one’s brain. How can we feel all these different pains at the same time?

In movies depicting such events like the Holocaust in WWII, directors show the need to focus their cameras on scenes involving a sole victim, in order to illustrate the crime committed on a group. When screening the Spielberg’s movie, “Schindler’s list”, one can witness how murderous acts committed on one individual result often in a buzzing of tear jerking throughout the theater, while the emotionally charged shot of a mountain of human corpses is invariably taken with a solemn silence from the crowd.

A mass of people dying is too much of a fuzzy thought for the common news readers. For instance, is there a newspaper out there that has ever published anything more than a few reader’s comments about the 36 millions Africans left to die since the day when Dick Cheney went to Davos, Switzerland, in order to defend the un-defendable: the “right” of American pharmaceutical industries to hold on to their patents on the AIDS drug cocktail and prevent the third world countries to be able to produce them cheaply? Or the billions confiscated by the Bush administration from the UN war chest for the war against AIDS, because this administration can not tolerate that the world’s NGOs preaching condoms instead of abstinence.

Genocides have become a bore. A journalist from Time magazine on the ground in Darfour, complained last week on National Public Radio for the fact that world news agencies pick up and relate a massacre only if it contains sexual contents such as rapes and sexual tortures.

Networks have understood this long ago. The near half-million dead from the Christmas 2004 Tsunami, the sinking of a ferry-boat, the last big earthquake in Iran, Katrina; these are just “sensationalist” events. Meanwhile, the genocide in Darfour, in Rwanda, or the major human and economic disaster that is unfolding inside the republic of Congo, are treated in the news as mere natural disasters. We tend to have accepted that, for Western networks and media, blacks killing blacks, even by the millions, is just a natural thing, in the same level as a category 3 Hurricane or a bad monsoon.

When it comes to wars waged by our country, if you think that abuses and cruelties perpetrated by American soldiers are committed in a different state of mind than, say, My Lai or during the gruesome Spanish-American war - most particularly in Philippines - ask yourself this question: What is the difference between the infamous 1904 letter, sent by a Marine fighting in Philippines to her mother, describing “the nigger paradise” in which Marines were free to go into a bonanza of “nigger killing”, and a cellular phone video shot inside Abu-Ghraïb?

Another important reason for our short memory and for our tendency to continuously perpetrate these evil acts upon other nations or people is greed.

If a serious poll were conducted to determine the percentage of Americans who would prefer paying 50 bucks more for their sneakers, if consumers were guaranteed that those shoes were to be made by a company that works their employees within the full range of human rights, I’m sure that the reflection in the mirror would be painful to watch for most of us.

And it’s not just the greed for money. It’s deeper than that. It’s a genuine greed of gene. The Jewish community, for instance, quite vocally denounces the atrocities committed against them; and not only by the Nazis. With their high pitch lamentation and great skills as portraying themselves – justly - as victims, westerners still have a good memory of the Spanish massacres on their Jewish community during the 15 and 16th century.

But the Jewish community rarely talks about the mass of Gypsies, Poles, Russians, gays, and common resistance to Nazi occupations who died alongside their folk. Where are they when it comes to Darfour? Where were they during the genocide in Rwanda? Have you ever heard Israel lobbying for Turkey to apologize for the Armenian genocide?

And where are the Armenians for Darfour? Where are the American Indians talking for Aborigines?

The greed of gene affects all of us —but affects Americans in a somewhat a different tone. It is best exemplified thus:
"I eat more than you. I grow taller than you. I have more freedom than you. I have a bigger car, a bigger house. I piss on public schools because I want to show the world that I have paid more for the education of my children than you have. My oil is cheaper than you so I can go faster than you while my car is bigger than yours. My church is bigger than yours and will soon eat up all the followers from your church too. My country is bigger than yours, or if it’s not it’ll be soon. My country has more goodies hidden inside its underground than your country. And if it’s not the case, heck, you don’t have the money nor the industry to get what's under your own soil anyway: You’ll soon need us to dig and pump your stuff and you’ll be praising us for leaving you a few crumb!… at night, We go to bed praying out loud for the return of a Christ who, I’m sure, has blessed MY COUNTRY. When we dream, however, We see another JC for America: a Julius Caesar! ... or a Napoleon. What kind of Duke of Wellington any nation will oppose against the superpowers God had bestowed on us?”
You see, Imperialism is the oldest ideal of a human government. It is here to endure as it shows up time and time again when you expect it the least. Ask Beethoven how he felt when Bonaparte was declared Emperor! Imperialism has always been considered the ultimate award a civilization can obtain, once it has reached the top the world’s peaking order.

It is amusing how people get only shocked and disturbed by the atrocities perpetrated by other Empires, while coming up with the most stunning excuses for tolerating the same abuses done by their own empire.

American Protestants, who stunningly chose to call themselves Christians, believe staunchly that the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire is comparable to the Jewish Holocaust. What they don’t want to know - or even hear - is that the Roman Empire had actually been, in the beginning, quite tolerant toward the strange new Jewish sect; following the Roman spirit of inclusiveness of other religion and cultures. As long as Arabs, Jews, Greeks or others accept to pledge allegiance to Rome, despite of whatever they want to pray or believe, Rome accepted them as full citizen of her Empire. Racism did not exist under Rome, from Augustus to Constantine.

Christians under Rome, however, started, early, to aggressively proselytize their religion based on the axiom of civil disobedience, “Give Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to Him.” The Empire justly saw this as a threat but opted for the wrong solution: scaring them. Therefore Rome started the gruesome episodes of sending the Christians to the lions, for the joy and entertainment of the mass.

Today’s America evinces the same attitude toward Muslims. Because of a few bad apples The United States feels threatened by the entire muslim community. True —we don’t send them to the lions; instead, we lock them up in Guantanamo Bay for indefinite lengths of time. But wait, we do send them to the lions: In Syria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, or anywhere where the CIA can operate torture chambers in perfect secrecy, or, if they cannot, outsource the torturing job.

The greed of gene, folks: The thing that makes us all forgetting the past, the heroes, the martyrs, the victims. The thing that made me understand why Colleges and High schools all have history books that always come into a new edition every year, despite the fact that the information they contain does not change overtime.

Because History is just like that: For every generation the same stories, framed into spanking new editions.

—Dante Lee, Guest Columnist.


Len Hart said...

My thanks to Dante for his fine essay and his patience with this provincial cowboy. I would like to add an appropriate and oft cited quote:

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. —Georges Santayana

You will often see this quotation in different words. I stand by this text. It is found in this form attributed to Santayana on the frontispiece of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Dante has addressed the crux of our conundrum. Until the human race develops a more efficient "racial" memory, we will forever relive various holocausts, atrocities, bloody conflicts, and needless wars. Given the fact that technological progress has overtaken social and ethical progress, one of those wars will one day finish us off before those same genes mutate for the better.

damien said...

A very fine and thoughtful essay, Dante Lee.Well done. And you're right about "racial memory", Len. A closer look at the social and psychological mechanisms by which we give ourselves permission to murder others is long overdue. I am tempted to believe that very little of it has any intellectual basis. I am reminded of Stanley Milgram's studies on obedience and authority. People are so compliant when presented with the right cues - and equally in denial about that process. But I am reminded also of what I term the "boo-effect". When a parent brings their face up close to a toddler and goes "boo" the child drops their psychological bundle. They become an exercise in passivity (actually a survival mechanism for them). They appear disoriented, not knowing what psychological response to provide: if the mother is smiling, they will then laugh; if she is frowning or harsh, they cry or respond with fear. There's a brief hiatus where they look to their surroundings to provide social cues about how they should respond.

I guess my bit here is that we are a species with extended childhoods where we need protection and we often revert to uncritical childhood emotions, looking to our environment to tell us what we should feel. In other ages children would grow up faster, with generally reduced levels of emotionality because of the shortness and brutality of life, but the same mechanisms are there below the surface. The capacity for anti-intellectualism, prejudice and violence is much higher in people than many of us would care to believe.

We won't ever really be free of these influences, but we can curtail them by playing competitive sports and team games to channel the impulses and by travel and education. Mostly, however, I think we need to develope a massive social disdain for war, armies, weaponry and especially the easy advocacy of war. Perhaps some ancient traditions aren't so barbaric. Perhaps we could reintroduce hostages: put the Cheney and Bush children next to Tehran nuclear plants. Now that's a social cue we can use. I'm feeling safer already.

Len Hart said...

Thoughtful post, damien. I've often wondered if we have become the victims of our own evolution, the victims of our success. In the trees and, later in the savannahs, it would appear that a certain "mean streak" had survival value. Times have changed but our genes havne't. No pun intended (well, maybe a little) but we have outgrown our "genes".

damien said...

Clearly, we can't outgrow our genes, but a monkey who picks up a stick on the savannah can do little damage. Half-assed political leaders uncritically willing to irradiate half of the Middle East are a different story. That has to change.

Fuzzflash said...

Wonderful essay dante lee. Such a crying shame that Homo Sap. keeps being ruled by his limbic system instead of that beautiful,elusive intellect that blooms occasionally in oases of enlightenment amongst the all pervading "Nothing".

damien, enjoyed your thoughts on how,as a species,we're a tad dysfunctional. There is a book by Robin Dunbar,which I read recently,"Grooming,Gossip and the Evolution of Language". R.D. is a Prof. of Evolutionary Psychology at Liverpool Uni and writes well for an academic. Chapters include "Babel's Legacy", "The Little Rituals of Life" and "The Scars of Evolution". It clarifies Gauguin's second, of life's Big 3 Questions, "where did we come from?", and suggests some well reasoned answers.