Friday, April 26, 2019

Better to Forget

I can’t help it.  I grew up in the 1970’s.

Whenever I hear a German accent, my first thought is, whoa, bad guys.  Totally unfair, for sure, but so many of the movies I grew up watching featured German villains that the accent has lots of baggage.  Not only were there plenty of war movies, like Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, and Victory, but many more of all sorts of genres featured Nazi villains, like The Boys from Brazil, and Sophie’s Choice.

As Paul Attanasio wrote for The Washington Post in 1985:

Over the years, the German has become etched in our imagination as a signifier of pure evil. "It's become a convention," says screenwriter David Freeman. "In the Elizabethan theater, a character would come out with a kind of mask on his face -- that would mean he was invisible, and everyone in the audience accepted it. We've done that to the Nazis."

No question, Nazis make great villains, and, obviously, justifiably so.  Their incarceration and systematic murder of millions of innocent people stands out as one of the most horrific chapters in human history, and the extent to which Germans are self-conscious about it is evidenced by the existence of a German word, “vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung,” which “refers to embarrassment about and often remorse for Germans' complicity in the war crimes of the Wehrmacht, Holocaust, and related events of the early and mid-20th century, including World War II.”

But the Germans are hardly alone in having embarrassing chapters in their history.  Please consider this:

The first English settlement in North America was founded in 1607, on the banks of the James River, in what is now Virginia.  Just twelve years later, in 1619, slavery began in America, when a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves to the Jamestown settlement.  Slavery didn’t end in the U.S. until 1863, when President Lincoln officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  So, for 244 years, innocent people were captured in Africa and brought to North America as property. As chattel. For 244 years.  After slavery was abolished, these innocent people went from being slaves to being officially considered second class citizens and, unofficially, subject to horrible abuse.  From emancipation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these innocent people were legally discriminated against.  Legally.  For a century.

[As an aside, we don’t see as much embarrassment and remorse about this in our country as we should.  In fact, there’s controversy regarding monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy.  Controversy, meaning there are people who have no problem with those monuments and symbols.  Imagine if there were people in Germany favoring the display of Nazi symbols, which would be quite equivalent, in my book.  But that is a topic for a whole other essay.]
Let’s go on to consider another matter:

The indigenous people of what is now the United States are thought to have arrived here approximately 15,000 years ago.  And they were doing generally well. Until the European colonization of the Americas, that is, which began in the 1400s. After that “their population declined precipitously mainly due to introduced diseases as well as warfare, territorial confiscation and slavery.”

When you read “introduced diseases,” I’m sure you assumed the Native Americans got sick because their immune systems were not equipped to handle the diseases brought to their home by the Europeans.  And you would be right. But what you may not have thought of is that  (emphasis mine):

… there are a number of documented cases where diseases were deliberately spread among Native Americans as a form of biological warfare. The most well-known example occurred in 1763, when Sir Jeffery Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the British Army, wrote praising the use of smallpox-infected blankets to "extirpate" the Indian race.

Perhaps the best way to succinctly describe the effect the arrival of the Europeans had on the Native Americans is to simply state that, although estimates vary widely, it is thought that approximately 10 million pre-Columbian Native Americans lived in what is today the United States of America, but by 1890 the Native population had declined to 250,000.  

So, the Europeans arrived in North America and decimated the continent’s innocent indigenous people.  They then abducted millions of other innocent people from another continent and brought them here as slaves.  

Obviously I could go on ad nauseum.  There is probably no civilization on the planet that can look back on its history without cringing at some of the chapters.  Yet we are constantly reminded that we must remember.  Remember the Holocaust.  Remember the past.  Because, of course, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

I don’t think so.

It seems that we are condemned to repeat the past whether or not we remember it.  Remembering the past makes us understand that we, as a species, have done horrible things to each other, but it doesn’t stop us from continuing to do those horrible things, over and over again.  The problem is not that we don’t remember the past. The problem is that remembering it just shows us who we are, but doesn’t give us the power to change who we are.

Maybe the answer is the opposite.  Maybe the answer is to forget. Maybe If we all wake up tomorrow morning knowing nothing of the past, we would mistake ourselves for a better species, and finally start acting like one.