Monday, September 28, 2015

Remembering is not enough

In the past week an NDP candidate admitted she "didn't know what Auschwitz was" and a Chicago news station displayed a badge from a Nazi prison uniform when reporting on Yom Kippur observance. Disappointment at this level of ignorance of the Holocaust is appropriate, but the belief that we can avoid repeating history if only we remember it misses something important.

Backlash against both the ill-educated candidate and the hapless news station are evidence of the fervour with which we demand remembrance of one of history's great crimes. But memories alone can't prevent tragedy. The minister under Tito who managed the work and starvation camps for Swabian Germans in Yugoslavia immediately after World War II was a Jew who survived Hitler's death camps. His memories may have justified repeating history. 

The horrors of life under the Soviet Union, post-revolution China, and North Korea are well known, but poorly understood. The 20th century's greatest and most terrible economic lesson, the impossibility of comprehensive planning and the tremendous cost of the attempt, is explained away as the result of evil leaders with bad intentions. Those who try to understand the motivations of the communists, socialists, and fascists responsible, though, find that their goals had an almost fairytale innocence to them: they wanted a land of milk and honey, where want, toil, and uncertainty would be disposed of handily with logic and science, and citizens who would be secure because they would never have to depend on anyone but each other. When we see people today suggesting:
"We could live in a country powered entirely by truly just renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality." 
it's insulting to say that they've forgotten or don't care about Stalin's show trials or the Kims' prison camps. It is fair to say that they don't understand the severity of their request, what it leads to, and why. They don't understand how intimately economic life is intertwined with the parts of life they think of as more meaningful. They don't understand that you can't bend one without warping the other, or that less than they're suggesting can break both. This is likely why the building blocks of fascism are widely accepted, maybe even popular: they're amenable to these goals. Without better understanding, we find ourselves shunning fascism's name while cheering its substance.

It's equally unfair to claim that the failure to recognize a symbol of the Holocaust implies those responsible wouldn't be alarmed by calls for arm bands for specific groups today. What is alarming is that superficial opposition to armbands might be all that we've gained from remembering their role in the Holocaust.

The purpose of the Nazis' arm bands was to make Jews identifiable on sight so that they could be marginalized, brutalized, and excluded. But we don't need arm bands to discriminate, to make people ashamed of who they are, or to treat them differently. They aren't needed by those who call for security ministries to focus on people who look Arabic or wear Muslim clothing when searching for terrorists, and they aren't missed by anyone who wants to justify stop-and-frisk programs' emphasis on black American males by referencing their greater likelihood to be arrested. We remember the pictures, but we forget the lessons.

So yes, it's irresponsible to forget. But remembering is only the first step. It may be even more irresponsible to remember and believe remembering is sufficient, without seeking to understand.


Frances said...

If they don't remember, I rather think it's because remembrance would bring about a disconnect in their narrative. They can't be free to demonize Israel if they still remember Auschwitz.

Back in the day, visited a classmate's home after her father died. Younger sister had come in and I remember her saying "at least this my brother has a grave". Found out later how many of that family had died in Poland. Not that I needed this to believe: Dad was a war vet and, if there was one thing I knew, it was that the concentration camps existed. It wasn't pushed on me, it was absorption of the belief of the men who had been there or - if not - know those who were.

Frances said...

Realize is a possible problem with previous post: Dad's younger sister was the one who flew in. I still have chills when I remember her quiet speach.