My writing is very disjointed at the moment, fragments jotted down here and there, slowly becoming a page, two, three, and then more. Each fragment is being built into another piece until they come together into something much bigger over time. Over the next few months there will be “essays” composed of fragments, all stemming from a project I started this time last year that took on a world of it’s own. My views, my observations, my memories. For me, for you, for no one in particular, for everyone. Today’s piece is a disjointed essay on how narrow-minded we are in general.
I started writing this piece earlier in December, while pondering on the lack of empathy, and the lack of memory in the general population around me. Maybe this is a result of having born witness to events from afar (through a TV or computer screen) but never having had to actually live through them? The latter has a huge effect on how a population views life in general I think, but it doesn’t excuse the apathy and disinterest in others’ well being. It’s easy to imagine what someone else, another group of people, or a population in general is going through, but can we really understand it if we only witness through a small, media-driven lens? When a lack of interest in seeking out more information is coupled to a lack of basic empathy, the ground beneath us starts to erode, revealing the filth of buried secrets. Then comes the sudden need to throw blankets over everything before we have to admit that nothing is the way we have made it seem for so long. 2018 should have been a year of great change, but it really just feels like a game of same old, same old.
I was reading through some Bush Sr. related coverage for work when I suddenly realized that Gorbachev was still alive. I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did. It certainly made me recognize, amongst all this sudden praise for a president who so many hated back then, that the world was such a different place when I was a kid than it is now. I was born in 1978, and was very aware of what was going on in the world from a very young age. My family always listened to the news on the radio, and I was always encouraged to read anything I wanted to, to explore information, and to ask questions. There was also the fact that my stepfather came from a family of Polish immigrants, who had been displaced by Stalin at the beginning of WW2, and had no home to go back to at the end of the war. We talked, read about, and listened to, a lot of history, both recorded, and orally through individuals who had lived it.
I vividly remember being at the tail end of the Cold War, of the wall (Berlin Wall of course) and of Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, John Major, and of course, Mikhaïl Gorbachev. We were stuck between the US and the USSR, always wondering what was next. The 80’s still have a bleak feeling to them in my head. Cold, gray, threatening. My sister still shivers when she remembers our cousin telling us that there was a button that could be pressed by Reagan or Thatcher and once they did missiles would destroy the world, and we would be gone, burnt to a crisp. (Obviously we realized after a while that it wasn’t as simple as that, but yes, nuclear war was a threat).
These words still have deep meaning to me: Glasnost, Solidarnosc, the Iron Curtain, the Wall, the Cold War. We studied things like the Bay of Pigs and the Cuba missile crisis in depth, assuming that we had actually made some steps towards a better, more positive world. Do I see the world differently now because I know more, or because it just felt more simpler back then, the good and the bad, separated by a river?
Do you remember Ceaușescu? His name was such a household name he was always on the news and I constantly wondered why he appeared to be so evil. I lived in peaceful, plentiful (as opposed to the East) countries, but I was always intrigued about what went on behind the Iron Curtain. When I was very young I imagined a real curtain made of iron, descending with a crash like the gate of a storefront. I often wondered about my counterparts just a few countries away, children just like me growing up, going to school, falling in and out of love. What was it like to grow up under Communism? Was it the evil we were supposed to think it was? Years later we had a visiting professor from Berkeley at my French University, whose specialty was teaching US foreign policy from 1945. His lessons were designed to shock, to have us look at the USSR, even at Stalin in a different light, but we were confused by his tactics. We already knew how to think for ourselves, we didn’t need someone to tell us what to think. Still, he aimed to teach us that Stalin’s Communism wasn’t as bad as we were taught. I suppose none of his family members died in the gulags or in the pogroms…
My stepfather still had family members in Poland, and others in the Soviet Union; communication was only available via letters that could take forever, opened and read by censors (with random black lines through content), or scheduled phone calls that might or might not go through. We didn’t have a home phone when we lived in The Netherlands in 1988, a rarity, and we would use the pay phone down the street if we needed to call someone. My stepfather’s family members did the same, although their phones were usually the actual only phones in the area, and it was obvious all calls were listened to. I remember waiting and waiting for one of his cousins and their son to arrive from the USSR (now Belarus). The process to obtain visas and travel permits and back and forth was drawn out for months, and the day they finally were supposed to arrive came and went without a sign of them. And then suddenly there they were. We smiled a lot, as we did not speak Russian, and they did not speak English or Dutch.
There is an art to communicating when you don’t speak a common language, and I learnt it a long time ago. Most likely from moving to different countries and being thrown in the deep end so to speak: we had to immerse ourselves into everyday life, school, and friends immediately. You learn to communicate through gestures, looks, smiles. I suppose it’s one of the main reasons why my other half and I transcended regular communication even though we didn’t speak each other’s language very well (at all). Most people couldn’t understand it, but to me language has never been a border.
I also remember other family members arriving, these ones from Poland, and assuming we would be giving them a truck full of jeans and electronics to take back with them. They soon discovered that our roads were not paved in gold, and nothing was handed to us on a plate, but the abundance of everything was still overwhelming. When bread, milk, chocolate and eggs are available whenever you need them you don’t really wonder what it’s like to have to line up for basic necessities, ration book in hand, and hope that when you make it to the front of the queue there will still be something left to buy.
(My recollections of our trips to Poland before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall can be found here).
I fully believe we are too comfortable in our abundance, we often take it for granted. It drives me mad to see apathy in the face of possible change, where people watch a government chipping away at their rights and they are too comfortable in their abundance and apathy to feel frightened. Freedom is never a given, and there is always someone who wants to regulate it, take a larger part of the pie for themselves. Can you imagine the state breathing down your back, observing your every move? Having to skip through twenty hoops to get a visa to visit Canada or Mexico, or any other country for that matter? Can you imagine not seeing your family for years, speaking sporadically on the phone, not being able to get through when an emergency strikes, waiting in limbo for hours to hear some (good) news? It’s bloody hard, I can tell you. We take our guaranteed ease of communication and freedom for granted. We take too many things for granted, too much of the individual and not enough of the collective.
I think we all believe in stereotypes of some sort, but as individuals and as a society in general; we have to do the hard work of destroying them. How many times do you hear Africa referred to as one country rather than a massive continent composed of many countries, climates, people, customs, cultures, languages, and governments? How many times do you hear the US referred to as “America” when America is actually a continent comprised of many countries, cultures, people, languages, governments, etc.? What do you think of when I say “USSR”? When the current president spouts out stereotype after stereotype what do you do to erase the harm that it causes? When we refer to a group of people as a stereotype, and generalize them, we are just a step away from dehumanizing them. By generalizing and stereotyping people we are actually saying that they are “not like us”, which immediately has the pejorative effect of “us” being “better, easier, normal”. “Them” is not “us”. It’s a constant learning process, this push to “uneducate” ourselves from so much of the crap that we have been taught, to use our eyes, ears, and minds differently, with acceptance and empathy rather than fear and unfounded misgivings. Obviously we will make mistakes, most likely awful ones at times, but learning is what we must do in order to evolve into a better human race in general.
We don’t have much time left. We have learnt from history, especially very recent history, that walls, persecution, isolation, internment, and censorship are never a solution to any kind of issue we think we may have. We are not protecting ourselves when we shut out, censor and destroy the “other”. Today’s cages and walls, a death here a death there, are tomorrow’s failure to anticipate discrimination, mass murder and hell, and the following day’s frantic whitewashing of the crimes we committed the day before.
We can choose to say no more. This doesn’t mean waiting for the next election to save you, because by then it will be too late. We have to say no more right now.
Two children recently died in US Border Patrol custody, their names were Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez.
There is a conservative effort that at least 85,000 children have died of starvation in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia is hiring Sudanese child soldiers to fight for them in Yemen.
A 7 year old child named Jazmine Barnes was shot and killed while in her car with her mother in a completely senseless and horrific drive-by shooting. This will never be normal, so why did it happen?
Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered three months ago and the US has not put any pressure on Saudi Arabia for real answers. Are we slowly forgetting about this?
And people in the US are so afraid of the “other” that they have started their own fund to build the wall. It has reached over $18 million dollars… Racist bigots and their money, always going towards something completely dumb and unhelpful to the country they say they love.
And so on.