I’m nervous, but mostly concerned. About society’s unwillingness to examine and learn from history.
This past summer in Berlin, I discovered my grandfather’s PhD, written entirely in German, on Indo-Islamic architecture in the 15th century. I’ve been reflecting on why my late grandfather thrust himself so forcefully into history.
So much of “development” in the “developing world” focuses on engineering, medicine, science, law – why study old, past stuff when we’re just trying to escape it, move beyond?
Because we can’t escape who we are.
Gandhi said the way to change the world is to change ourselves. Because if we change the external without internal, we’re still going to be remnants of the past. The past will bleed into our newly-created futures, and we won’t know how to stop or prevent it.
Few events today occur without some sort of historical precedent. That’s why I believe the study of history is crucial, more so than merely current events, or the cacophony created by the pundits and pollsters.
My family survived genocide in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Rather narrowly. There were some moments that were uncertain:
My mom, 9, looked back at the other bus that got stopped by the Pakistanis. They might’ve not made it out. My mom and her family went into hiding for nine months.
My dad, 16, had a school friend and neighbor, whose father was shot and killed by the Pakistanis. They had thought it was my grandfather.
The Pakistanis proceeded to conduct a deep genocide of the country, taking up to 3 million lives. To put that into perspective, that is more than the entire population of Chicago. Wiped out in less than nine months.
This past summer, when I was standing in Oranienburg, a German town that hosted one of the early Nazi concentration camps, I heard about the local residents who financially profited from the camp and stayed silent out of fear. To this day, when researchers try to understand this community’s lack of response, the members don’t want to talk about it.
From a historical context, Trump’s ascendancy is not unusual. The patterns from history are made evident:
1. People largely feel ignored and loss of control
2. People look for scapegoats to blame
3. A captivating leader captures the popular mood
4. He (less often she) singles out that scapegoat
5. He talks in non-specific rhetoric, drumming up hatred and anger
6. Masses start moving as one
7. Logic loses importance to fervor in driving actions
8. The whole becomes unstoppable
The thing about nice, good people is that they’re the easiest to kill off, imprison, muzzle. In the concentration camp tour, I was surprised to learn that most of the prisoners there weren’t Jewish, but rather political dissidents. Socialist and communist thinkers and rabble-rousers. The Pakistanis, too, started their persecution with the students, intellectuals and thinkers, an effort my grandparents survived.
Stopping the unstoppable demands even more force from people generally reluctant to use force.
But it’s possible.
If you’re reading this, you might be enraged, baffled, and frustrated at the election results. You consider yourself a good person and those around you to be good people.
But in this moment, I implore you to ask yourself honestly: What can you do to take a higher step? To not just be a silent bystander, one who idly witnesses injustice snowball into a destructive avalanche?
I don’t want you to regret inaction in our collective future where so much is at stake. Really, in Gandhi’s words, be the change you want to see in the world.