Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Way We Never Were

I often think I should create a blog entirely on this topic. This topic of nostalgia. Life was somehow better for the generation before us, apparently. "The good ol' days" reaction to things people do. In the good ol' days kids listened to their parents. Really? Did they listen? What about all those college students who threw tomatoes at the returning Vietnam soldiers? Were their parents all happy about that? How about the fathers and sons who ended up on opposite sides of the Civil War?

And of course, in the good ol' days kids were allowed to be kids. There was never a problem with child labor, right?

Michael Moore recently wrote a blog post about America's reaction to Osama Bin Laden's death. His claim in the post is that Americans weren't partying and celebrating after Hiroshima, nor were they celebrating after Hitler's death so the parties after Obama's recent announcement are evidence that Americans today are on a downhill path.

I completely agree with Moore that the celebration in the streets was less than stellar. I can't bring myself to celebrate any death, no matter who it is, though I did feel a sense of relief when I turned on CNN that morning. However I'm not sure this is an "America today versus America of yesterday" kind of problem. I'm not convinced we are any better or worse than the generations before us. There was the transgender woman who was beaten in a McDonald's recently while people taped it with their cell phones. Then again, if humans had cell phone cameras during the great depression or before the women's rights movement what may we have seen?

This next story is not for the squeamish.

That was your warning.

I am trying to find the book this story came from. As soon as I do I will credit it. There is a story I've recently read about a group of soldiers making their way through Japan during WWII. The author of the story specifically mentioned the dehumanization of the Japanese that had occurred during the war. A quick look at the propaganda sent out to American citizens demonstrates this. Propaganda Americans would not put up with now. The ACLU and Civil Rights organizations would be in an uproar and protests would occur all over the country. I can just imagine the tweeter feeds. However, during WWII this propaganda was everywhere, including comic books, cartoons, and magazines. Japanese were depicted as beasts, rats, nothings. When this particular American soldier and his troop came across a dead Japanese soldier seated upright at a gun, with the top half of his skull removed by a fast-moving weapon, they decided to set up camp there. They set their fire in front of him, sat around joking and laughing and pretending he was part of the conversation. They never once considered his lost life. During the night it rained. His skull was wide open, remember. It filled with water. The next morning they proceeded to play a game. Who can throw the most rocks into this man's skull?

Just pause now to take that in. This human being was turned into a game prop for these soldiers. This is one example out of many of the dehumanization of the Japanese by Americans. Of course, there are the concentration camps that our high school history books prefer to pretend didn't happen. Even my college history book says very little about them. Looking Like the Enemy is an eye-opening memoir of life in those camps if you're interested.

Watch interviews of the people who were on the Enola Gay the morning it dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The man who flew the plane named it after his mother. The people they were about to kill were not spoken of. In the presidential speech about Hiroshima the city was simply referred to as an "important Japanese army base." Never mind the thousands of children attending school that morning. Never mind the chefs and the bankers and the florists. Who knows, maybe there were people in that crowd who were secretly against the war and hating their leaders for involving them at all?

Now think about that. America did that. And we are somehow worse now?

Now take a moment to think about the support Americans have given the Japanese since the tsunami.

On the other hand, Osama did something similar to humanity on September 11 that America did in Hiroshima. Complete disregard for human life. I don't know about you but I remember the terror of that day. I remember the horror. The ash being wiped off the journalist's news cameras. The people jumping from the windows. I still can't watch the specials on the history channel because I feel like I am reliving the moment that my country, the country I had been raised to believe was impenetrable, became vulnerable for the first time in my life.

These are all horrible things. Every one of them. The genocide of the Jews was horrific. Even worse than horrific. There aren't really words to describe it. The current genocides and murders going on around the world are just as horrific.

But that doesn't mean we, as human beings, are better or worse now. People talk about the words of violence between congressmen and senators today as a sign that our humanity is failing. Does anyone remember Preston Brooks, the South Carolina senator who severely beat Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate in 1865 and then was regarded as a hero for it by much of his state and was re-elected?

History is too subjective and I am too optimistic, a lifelong glass-half-full girl, for me to say for sure that we are better beings now. But I would argue that it is worth more examination and thought. More objective examination. Americans have made huge strides on civil rights and our treatment of others and we should be proud of this. The champagne dumped over the heads of our citizens in celebration of Osama's death was excessive, yes. But I am remiss to say that it is a sign this generation is actually worse than the one before. I would simply argue that maybe we are different.

Edit: The book the story from WWII came from is titled "The Good War" by Studs Terkel. That particular story was told to him by E.B. Sledge.

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