Sunday, August 08, 2010

Hiroshima Trip, Post #7: Through Luck, Not Wisdom

One of the speakers on the first day, Hiroshi Taka, the Secretary General of the group Gensuikyo, which is the main group who organized this conference, made a remark which has been a running theme throughout this conference, but the way that he said it ended up staying with me. Part of the World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs is solidarity with hibakusha or those affected by nuclear radiation, primarily in Japan, but also people the Marshall Islands, Tahiti, Christmas Island or even the Western United States.

…with the passing of 65 years since the A-bombings, it is as especially important task for us to share the experiences and struggles of the Hibakusha as a common knowledge of the human race. Here, in Hiroshima, hundreds of young people participating in this conference will visit Hibakusha and listen to their messages, to inherit their struggle for the survival of humanity. Their testimonies of the tragedies are themselves a powerful refutation of the “nuclear deterrence” doctrine or any other pro-nuclear argument.
One of the things that I loved about this conference was that while many people from many nations spoke English, they all spoke it differently, awkwardly, and sometimes a new or strange way of saying something helps break through the casualness through which I tend to receive or perceive something. For instance, Mr. Taka’s remark that this become a “a common knowledge” of the human race, peeked my interest and made me reflect more on what he was saying.

Hu gof konfotme este, gof impottante na este na tiningo’ u makilili gi todu i nasion siha. Este na tiningo’ gof didok, gof gaibali achokka’ gof na’triste yan makkat lokkue’. Para i mamaila na henerashon siha, i famagu’on i famagu’on-ta, gof impottånte na i tiningo’ put i dåno’ este na atmas siha u ma’ok ya u mago’te.

There are many reasons as to why Mr. Taka’s remark is true, and here are some from my perspective.

The monuments to Man, which each of us carry with us changes based on our background, our politics, but in almost all cases those monuments are positive. They are glowing insistences of heroism, innovation, ingenuity, boldness, all professing that man is truly the greatness and worst creation of God, since he “accidentally” created a defect in man whereby it is the only creation of his which can one day challenge God himself and possibly dethrone him. Even if we know that life is complicated and that bad things happen just as often as good things do, and that for every layer of comfort we might enjoy, there is something which is suffering, being exploited to provide that to us (it could be historical as well).

The poem “The History Teacher” by Billy Collins shows us one of the reasons why this is so:

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart, mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

It is unclear why the history teacher of the poem does what he does in the poem, just as it is assumed, but still unclear what his impact is. Did his pedagogy lead to the violence of the students, or was it already there and we use the teaching as an excuse for its manifestation?

But one of the impulses we can see at play can be found in Arthur Schlesinger’s statement on the chetnot historian, “The passion for tidiness is a historian’s occupational disease.”

There is always a desire to believe, to promote the greatness of some men or man in general. There is a feeling of needing to advertise the greatness of your nation, your people. Or sometimes this tidiness manifests in how there is a urge to tell a “strong history” one in which there are clear lessons or messages (usually more uplifting ones). One of the reasons why people feel this need to make history more neat is because of a feeling that the messiness of history, the horror of it, always makes us look over our shoulders when we act. We cower in fear of the past, what happened before, and always twitch away at the thought of those ghosts grasping at our backs. These ghosts exhale the stench of failure, betrayals, their limits, their problems. It paralyzes men and keeps them from dreaming larger, for fear that they might be suffocated by those ghosts, or worse yet make more of them!

But at the core of this, there is an unspoken belief that man has progressed, not really through hard work, but through sacrifice. Massive amounts of blood, sometimes literal sacrifices of people generally against their will. To build the comfortable and happy-cheerful-yanggen-magof-ya-un-tungo’-pakpakpak-liberal democratic capitalist world of today, required the suffering of billions, the deaths of tens or hundreds of millions and the loss of lands and sovereignty for thousands of peoples. The urge to be tidy about history in this sense is about ensuring that when people learn and know this, it does not keep them from continuing to dream and continuing to reach for the stars. That history be told in such a way that these things are omitted or left out, or that they are recounted solely to be recounted. They are written of in order to be written off. That even if the suffering from these acts continues and layers of injustice continue to pile upon each other, we learn of that past, as being past. Buried and gone where nothing can be done about it, or buried and gone in the sense that things have gotten much better after that. The point is never to dwell on that past, especially not in a way where that negativity affects you or your decisions for the future.

This mindset is simplistic, wrong and misses the point. First, we should always be reminded of the failures or horrific violence of the past because no matter what history lessons you’ve been taught about who man struggled against in his evolution over thousands of years, his enemy has for the most part be one thing. As man journeys on the road to being modern, he struggles against nature, God, each other, but the main thing which drives man on this voyage, is his struggle with fear. And the evidence of this struggle is the oppression, violence and subjugation that we find throughout history. The tidiness of history which each of us enjoy is the kind where, even when we can see the violent foundation upon which our lives our built, we make excuses and we pretend that what happened was for the best of everyone. That even though no one could claim that slaves from Africa volunteered to go to the New World, or that the indigenous peoples of the Americans volunteered, eagerly to be conquered and Christianized, we constantly make those excuses all the time. We imagine those grinning skeletons of the past as someone being part of a larger plan, since everything must happen for a reason, and everything always seems to be getting better and moving up. Si Yu’us ha’ tumungo’, sa’ siempre put ha tungo’ na gaibali ayu na sakrifisia siha.

But in a less abstract and more personal way, we envision that there was in some way a concession, that those people wanted that domination, deserved it, are better off with it, and therefore (in some way) that they wanted to fulfill the wish that we all have for the present moment, and as a result, the same cycle of violence can always continue. The selfishness we feel for what we have today makes us imagine those historical and violated souls as existing to give it to us. That selfishness locks us into the present and requires that we keep that idealized, tidy version of the past, it keeps us from looking at our past with clear eyes, but always makes our interactions with that past, tenuous, limited, nervous, for fear that we might dislodge something from that foundation of our lives, and lose all or some in the process.

But the effect it has on others is what is crucial. If you accept that those forms of violence in the past were necessary or correct, even if quietly and silently, than you accept that the strong, the modern, the better, can and should take things from the weaker, the worthless or the backwards. Those who are stubborn and cannot see the big picture or the good of all, or the need for man to progress, those who won’t give up their land, their sovereignty are just trees in our way to be felled, boulders in the road to be pushed aside. It emboldens us to treat in similar ways those within your own polity but more importantly those outside as well. For instance, although it is rarely ever openly spoken of, so much of the animus the US and Europe have with the Middle East stems from the notion that those countries, who are barely modern, so backward, so medieval in their thinking, sit atop so much oil, so much wealth, but cannot even manage it properly.

Finally, it is important that the stories of hibakusha become common knowledge since they represent the door at the end of humanity. They point to the end of the world as we know it, the moment at which man at last succeeds in annihilating himself and erasing his living presence from the earth. Man must always be reminded of that possibility or that dimension in the world today, that his weapons have gotten bigger than himself. The human race can be destroyed and this is not some abstract or fanciful idea, but something which there are those who have the scars to prove it.

On August 6, during the morning Peace ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the mayor of Hiroshima Tadatoshi Akiba gave a speech, a passage of which ties all of this together. Although human beings may want to celebrate all the great things which have been accomplished in the history of this world, one of the most important reasons why we should always dwell on the negative and keep in mind the horrible, is because the reason man has not yet used his weapons to annihilate himself, has nothing to do with the greatness of the human spirit or character. As Mayor Akiba stated in his speech:

Clearly, the urgency of nuclear weapons abolition is permeating our global conscience; the voice of the vast majority is becoming the preeminent force for change in the international community. To seize this unprecedented opportunity and actually achieve a world without nuclear weapons, we need above all to communicate to every corner of our planet the intense yearning of the hibakusha, thereby narrowing the gap between their passion and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the urgency; their eyes are still closed to the fact that only through luck, not wisdom, have we avoided human extinction.

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