Saturday, June 07, 2008

Cultural Amnesia

I recently attended a Hudson Institute symposium on the Power of Ideas. Victor Davis Hanson presented a paper on the need for civic education and dangers of cultural amnesia. You can read the paper here or download the pdf here. Essentially, he argues several points that highlight the failure of public education in this country and of society as a whole to keep our cultural development, history, and course in context.

One point he made is that my generation is the most wealthy, education, and privileged in history. We all have cars, computers, the time and money to travel, and the ability to sit back and digest the deeper questions and ideas on life. We didn't earn any of it. We see it as a given, thus we can't comprehend what our forefathers sacrificed to give it to us.

Dr. Hanson recounted a personal story where he "learned" of the "war crime" Hiroshima atomic bombing in school. He went home and told his uncle, a bomber crewman, that he was a war criminal. His uncle replied that he should also count the firebombing of Japan as a war crime. Young Victor dutifully reported this response to his teacher, who responded with disgust. Once he returned home, he told his uncle of the teacher's response. His uncle offered this:

"Victor, one day I hope your turn 21. I hope you're caught in a war, wake up at 3AM, take your caffeine pill, climb into a rickety unreliable plane, and fly 12 hours in the dark. Don't wear a parachute, because if you bail out you'll be beheaded anyway. Then dodge the flak and fighters and fly 12 hours home. Look out at the squadron. What was once 12 planes with 11 men each is now 2 planes. When the replacement 8 planes and crews show up, go and tell them that at least 7 of them won't return home. Then have your 12 year-old nephew come call you a war criminal for ending the war."

It obviously stuck. Since my generation has never had to fight for anything, we have nothing to--as Hanson put it--calibrate our decisions and times. Hanson argued that the 4,000 dead in Iraq, regardless of your politics, pales in comparison to the 80,000 killed in the several month long campaign in the hedgerows in France in 1944. What about the 22,000 casualties in a single day at the battle of Antietam in 1862. We lost 6,800 in a month on Iwo Jima with 19,800 WIA or MIA. These events are from my parents and grandparents generation. Most Americans don't know much of the battles, I'd bet.

On this note, there is also a lot of ignorance from vocal political activists. I recently came across a girl who was livid over the fact that the US has destroyed "world peace" with the invasion of Iraq. She argued that the war was the bloodiest and had more civilian casualties of any in her lifetime. I mentioned the civil war in Zaire (aka DRC) from 1998-2003, very much during her lifetime. She had no clue that over 4 million civilians had been killed. She couldn't even locate the country. I named about 25 of the 50 wars/conflicts currently ongoing and she didn't believe me. It seems that many activists like to pick and choose their histories.

Back to Hanson, another point he made was the changing of history to be more "sensitive". Essentially, all school children know of the Holocaust, the destruction of the Native American Nations, and Harriett Tubman. As they should-I'm not arguing that this should not be taught. However, these small narratives have replaced the larger, more important narratives. What about Eisenhower, Zhukov, and Montgumery? Should we not learn of Grant and Sherman? What about the daily lives and struggles of pioneers who had to choose between starvation in Ireland or Scotland and trying to scratch out a living on the frontier?

To be "sensitive", we exclude the more important history. Ike and Zhukov did more to end Nazism, create the current world order, and change history than diabolical SS doctors and sadistic death squads. While the Holocaust is an important watershed in the history of human barbarism and our uncanny ability to visit suffering on each other, it should not replace the larger war effort. Sherman burned my hometown, cut the Confederacy in half, and thus did more to end slavery (at least in the Confederate States) than Harriet Tubman. The pioneers who worried constantly about feeding their families and surviving, who essentially built this country with their blood, sweat, and tears, did not have time to contemplate multiculturalism.

I'm not saying that they were right; they simply did not have the luxury. And this brings me to Hanson's point: we can sit back and debate ideas like multiculturalism and liberality. They did not have this luxury. We sit back, having earned nothing for ourselves, and claim moral authority because we NEVER had to decide between 2 million casualties or dropping an atomic bomb; we've NEVER had to decide between shooting a Native American who is competing for a food supply or watching 4 of your 6 children starve during the Winter.

We can move on and move forward; we can debate and contemplate. We should honor those who passed us this incredible nation. We can discuss past wrongs and attempt to right them; however, since we are a privileged and spoiled generation who has never made these decisions or defended our very existence (and thus have no context by which to compare), we should never wholly condemn our past. Lest we repeat it, neither we should forget it.