This is how I’ll be consciously protesting the Nazi march through the streets of Gothenburg tomorrow
In our lives, it’s often difficult to discern good from evil. Life isn’t black and white, it’s mostly shades of gray. We all know that. However, there are some notable exceptions, and Nazis are one of them. You needn’t be a historian to understand that the genocide of more than six million Jews, Gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses & mentally disabled people was a defining moment for humanity, unparalleled in its industrial approach, its cold-hearted planning and faithful execution by the German Army and the various police forces of the era. It’s evil, pure and simple. The hatred against minorities, be it religious (e.g. Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses), ethnicity (Roma, Africans, Asians) or otherwise (disability, sexuality) is nothing new, and most certainly not a German problem. And the simple method of scapegoating is perpetrated again and again, in every country challenged by today’s complex world.
Gothenburg, my home town. Photo: Daniel Sjöström, CC
Sweden is, sadly, no exception. We’ve long prided ourselves for our open and welcoming society, and in recent decades, much like America has been in times past, we’ve welcomed immigrants to fill the jobs our own refused to do: clean toilets, look after the sick and elderly, janitorial services etc. On the other hand, our educational system is failing, after countless attempts by far too many politicians hellbent to leave a mark and fix a system that was geared toward graduating everyone “because they tried”.
We’ve had three (!) completely different grade systems in the 25 years I’ve lived in this country. Young Swedish males (they are primarily male) who fail school, don’t have much of a life to look forward to, they’ll find it difficult to find partners if they live in rural areas (because young women are more likely to get educated and more likely to move to university cities), jobs, and they often look to explanations outside of themselves. Racism (be it the socialist version we call Nazis or the conservative version that is fascism) provides all the easy answers. If only we didn’t have them, we‘d have plenty of jobs… If only they‘d assimilate, we wouldn’t have to rape to get women… Their sense of reality as warped as it can be.
This Saturday, the most active Nazi group in Sweden, The Nordic Resistance Movement, is going to conduct a march through the streets of Gothenburg, do demonstrate while the Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden’s largest annual cultural event, takes place. Loads of international media on site, Yom Kippur on Saturday as icing on the cake, and thus plenty of opportunity for great press (according to the motto: “all press is good press!”) They’ve already conducted an impromptu march a couple of weeks ago, taking everybody by surprise, as they hadn’t sought approval for a march. According to Swedish law, you can demonstrate any time, anywhere in public, as long as you don’t disturb the peace. To seek approval only gives you first dibs to a specific time and place. The route of the demonstration is still disputed in courts, and the Nazis have claimed to ignore any official ruling. The Police have built make-shift lock-ups for hundreds of people underneath police HQ, and the extreme left have vouched to bus people to our fair city to stop the Nazis from marching. Violence begging for violence.
Gothenburg, an open, inviting and international city, built by immigrants for free global trade, from day one. Photo: Rob Sinclair, CC
Gothenburg is a vibrant city. Sweden’s second largest was built on clay soil and swamps by primarily Dutch, Scottish and German engineers after King Gustav II Adolf decided he needed a fortified city on the west coast to protect the nation against attacks from primarily neighboring rival Denmark in 1632 (we are now very close to our Danish neighbors, just saying.)
Today, greater Gothenburg is home to some 1.5 million people from over one hundred cultures. Our weather isn’t the fairest, but we have a vibrant cultural scene and my city, which was already once plagued by Nazis in the nineties (see my book Last Winter’s Snow), when even I was once attacked by VAM, raised itself above it all, and will host EuroPride 2018 together with Stockholm. It’s a diverse city, for sure, home to some very large global companies like Volvo Cars, AB Volvo, SKF, SCA, Essity, Mölnlycke Healthcare, AstraZeneca and many others, companies who all rely on experts from around the world, companies who are home in almost every corner of the world.
For weeks, I was determined to stand alongside the march, draped in a Swedish and a Rainbow flag, the symbol of universal love, to show those monsters that there is another story of Sweden, a story of Sweden where color plays no role, where love is universal. I was determined to not sit idly by when the symbol of our nation (our flag) is hijacked by a group of thugs and criminals (the majority of the leaders of NMR are convicted felons according to research by local newspaper GP.) They don’t scare me as an individual group, but I am of course concerned with the wider implications of the rise of “white power” across Europe and the United States. Have we already forgotten the sacrifices of our grandparents?
There are several demonstrations planned against the Nazi march, some by individuals on the extreme left who are just as unpalatable, re “only a dead bourgeois is a good bourgeois…”, “kill those capitalist swines!” No, I would never join any of those groups, but I was looking forward to my silent protest, as scared as I was that it might provoke the Nazis to physically attack me. Despite the largest police contingency planned since the fateful 2001 EU summit, it doesn’t take much to hurt someone. But, as you can see from my use of time, I was going to protest on site. But an article in today’s Metro changed my mind. The authors of that article are spot on: the Nazis want attention, they’re first class attention whores, which is why they’re doing this now, while the world is gathered here for the Book Fair. Instead, the authors propose that we actively turn our backs, not physically in situ, but by staying away from the streets they’ll be marching on. Remember the 1980s peace movement mantra: “what if there was a war but no one showed up?” Kind of the same thing. We should instead actively protest their idiocy by spending time with our families, our children, our friends, do loving things, and suck the oxygen away from those thugs. The city of Gothenburg has also begun to fly the rainbow flag across town, as a strong symbol for love and our city’s diversity. When I dropped off a guest in front of the fair grounds and saw it fly I almost cried. It is a potent symbol for love, universal love.
My grandparents. I miss them very much, and I am proud of their stance and accomplishments during the WWII Nazi plague. Photo: private
Allow me to share an anecdote from my own family. I have German ancestry. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side emigrated from Imperial Germany to Switzerland, where my grandpa was born in 1907. My grandpa was my childhood hero. He was the operator at one of my hometown’s theaters. I loved him and grandma to pieces, spending every childhood summer at their place in St.Gallen. Grandpa was no saint, far from it, but he did one thing right: he refused to join the Wehrmacht (Germany’s army) in 1938 when he was drafted. He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in camps, as free labor on Swiss farms, far away from his family who suffered enormously of famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in the family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
He and his entire family subsequently lost their citizenship and my mother was born stateless in 1941. My grandpa spent the entire war in internment camps, providing free labor to Swiss farmers, far away from his family who suffered enormously from famine and lack of pretty much everything. His brothers all joined the war effort. None returned alive, and there was considerable dissonance between my grandpa and his sisters because of his choice. Personally, I think it’s amazing that my grandpa had the balls to stand up to Hitler and give him the finger. Whether he did if because he was a coward (as some in our family have claimed) is irrelevant today. I have many German friends who live with the stigma of having a grandfather who served in that war and who may have (willingly) participated in crimes against humanity. How do you deal with that?
The author of this post in Central Park, NYC. May 1, 2017. Photo: Alina Oswald.
I have to honor my grandpa for his choice, I have to honor my grandmother who worked tirelessly to shelter, clothe and feed her four children born during the war without any help from her husband, I have to honor my uncle and my aunts who suffered from the long-term effects of malnutrition their entire lives. The tragedy of WWII, and the horrors bestowed upon us by the Nazis linger.
I have a four-year old son. I have a responsibility to make sure that his friends at his international school, Nigerians, Somalis, Iranians, Indians, English etc. all have the same shot at a happy life, regardless of the color of their skin, their creed or who they might eventually end up falling in love with.
This Saturday, Gothenburg has a choice to make when the Nazi march through our city takes place. We let them, because it’s part of our system of free speech and freedom of assembly, but we don’t have to let them do so without showing how pitiful, small and insignificant they are. There are no two sides to this! Will you be with me? Will you stay away from the Nazi march through town, not ogle them, not demonstrate against them, most certainly not use violence against them, but spend time with your loved ones, and demonstrate (as in showing) that Gothenburg and indeed the world, can be a kind place, a loving place, a place where infinite diversity can peacefully co-exist in infinite combinations (to lightly adapt a Vulcan proverb).
Thank you and have a wonderful weekend. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Hans M Hirschi
author, husband & very proud father
Hans, tell me, why do you write gay literature?
Actually, I don’t. I write stories (whether they qualify as literature is for others to judge). I write stories about life, stories to depict the human condition, showcase our humanity, the challenges we face, the struggles, the ups and downs of our lives. A long time ago, I had this discussion with my father about why I chose to write about gay characters (which isn’t the same as gay literature) rather than commercially more viable het characters. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with every time I write a new book, for five years straight.
I’ve always said that I write about gay characters because there aren’t enough stories for us, stories where my people are depicted, not as villains, clowns or freaks, but as human beings, just like everyone else. Here’s how my latest character, Hunter, a journalist, views is. An excerpt from Disease:
Disease, my new novel, about a father in his “best years”, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
However, since I’m apparently not a “normal” parent, according to Connor, I have no clue how “normal” parents travel with their kids. I decide to call Emily. She’s “normal”—married to lovely Keith, a pleasant enough forty- something guy with a fully developed dad-bod, and they have two kids just a couple of years older than Amy. Emily is our sports editor. She travels, too. I’m sure she knows what it’s like when “normal” people travel.
“Sports desk. Emily speaking.”
“Hey, Em. It’s me, Hunter.”
“Hunter, hey. How are you doing? What can I do for you?” “It’s the assignment on travel Connor has me working on.
He wants me to write this piece on gay travel with kids. He seems to think we’re special somehow. And since I can’t figure out how, I thought I’d call you. You’re sort of normal, aren’t you?”
“He said what? That man is such a homophobic jerk. Shoot, what’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how straight, sorry, normal people travel. I mean, I always travel gay—on gay airlines, in gay economy seats, eat gay snacks, drink gay soda and gay beer. What does a heterosexual meal taste like? Are your heterosexual hotel rooms any different than ours?”
“Testy today, aren’t we?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get caught in the middle of this. It’s just that it’s such a moronic assignment. How am I different as a father than Keith? Do you know?”
Yeah, not easy, is it. The story is about Alzheimer’s, and Alzheimer’s doesn’t make a difference between gay patients or het patients, it doesn’t distinguish between Asians or Africans, Mexicans or Germans. It affects us all. It’s a human disease, and it’s growing, as the global population ages. However, society, and the way we are treated as we get sick, that’s different. Here’s how Ethan, Hunter’s partner, writes to us at some point in the story:
Just imagine, we could have finally gotten married. You have no idea what I would have given to turn Hunter’s fantasy wedding in Amalfi into a reality—to fly our family and friends out to Italy to wed the man of my dreams, the love of my life.
Just imagine Hunter finally being able to adopt his daughter, Amy, finally being able to say that his girl was truly his in every sense of the word, even legally.
Alas, it was not meant to be. The day when the Supreme Court handed down their landmark ruling that marriage equality was indeed the law of the land, and the entire land—Michigan included—was forced to start handing out marriage licenses to LGBT couples.
On the day itself, Hunter had a really bad day. I think that somewhere, deep within him, he instinctively felt that for us, this day would be of no consequence, as we would not be allowed to get married, anyway, as Hunter was no longer “of sound mind”— a prerequisite to enter the sacred state of matrimony. To ignore the day, to retreat into his own mind, was a coping mechanism of sorts.
No, I never envisioned writing “gay literature”, but I think I just had no choice. Our lives, our existence, to this very day, is so different from the rest that when a character is LGBT, so much around us changes, radically. And while my story doesn’t show a worst case scenario by a long shot, it could’ve been worse, as some U.S. states allow doctors to refuse LGBT patients care, or that simply being LGBT is lethal or illegal still, to this very day, in many countries across the world, and even in our protected “west”, there are political parties, groups and religious organizations who wish us ill.
No, I never wanted to write gay literature. I have a responsibility to highlight the ongoing discrimination against my people, my family. I am privileged. I have freedom of speech, I have the ability to put my thoughts in writing, and therefore the responsibility to speak up. It is, after all, still, to this very day, a matter of life and death.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend.
PS: Tomorrow is Bi-visibility day. My publisher has a great sale going on with all their books with prominent bi-characters. There’s also a great giveaway. Check it out, right here.
Individualism and society: is there a balance that allows us to combine the two?
We (in the west) live in societies where the “I” or the “me, me, me” is more important than ever. Call it entitlement, “human rights”, “civil rights” or whatever you find fitting for the situation (and I do NOT equate the terms). We are extremely individualistic societies, where each individual’s drive to maximize their own dreams and hopes are at the core. So far so good. However, sometimes, our drive to maximize our own “gain” or freedom clashes with what is best for society, that which all of us share together. Question is: is there a way to combine the two?
Allow me to exemplify: when I grew up, society and societal pressure was everywhere. It kept our societies relatively homogenous, individualism was frowned upon. Our freedom to express ourselves was limited. I recall the first wave of fashion with torn jeans, way back in the 1980s. I had just purchased my first pair when a lady on a bus glared at me and asked if I “couldn’t afford a whole pair of jeans?” I never wore them again. When two girls joined us at the central station of Zurich to depart on a four week language adventure in St. Malo back in 1983, both cried, having just been chewed out by their parents for having colored a lock (!) of hair, one in pink, the other in blue. A lock of hair! Not the entire head, mind you, just a lock. They were barely allowed to board the train. Over a colored lock. Today, nobody would bat an eyelash, for either things. Men color their hair, and even people my age still get to wear torn jeans. Nobody cares.
However, when it comes to other things, our liberal societies still find themselves in crosshairs. When two men or two women want to get married, the Christian right suddenly believes their own existence to be threatened. So there seems to be an aspect of individual liberty that affects others, or does it? I’ve followed the marriage equality debate in twenty-four countries, and the arguments are always the same. We are a threat to the very fabric of society, yet oddly, in the twenty-four countries who have marriage equality, nothing’s changed, no marriage has been adversely affected. The world is still spinning. The same will be true if and when Australia joins the civilized world as the twenty-fifth country, unless beaten to the punch by Chile…
On the other hand, there are things that disrupt society, and oddly they are often small things, such as parents not looking after their children in public, allowing them to behave pretty much any way they like, vandalism, feet on chairs on public transport etc. The English tried to make this illegal during the final Blairite years, and went too far (outlawing hoodies in public, duh!), but they were on to something important: have we, as societies, sacrificed our duties toward each other, the common good, for our individual, egotistical reasons? Because it’s too uncomfortable to tell a teen to take their feet off a chair on a bus, or to make sure our children don’t vandalize, or to make sure that we go to work, even if we don’t feel like it?
What do you think? I offer no solutions, but this is certainly something I think about a lot. Yesterday, we were picking mushrooms in a forest, and I saw this dump of old VHS tapes and DVDs, in the middle of the forest, some 50 ft from the nearest dirt road. Why? Why dump in the middle of nowhere? The poison released into the ground is just… #facepalm
Ross is bisexual, and most certainly a handyman I warmly recommend to anyone! 50% off this week as part of the #bivisibility week…
How can we draw the line between the “common good” and individual rights? Has the pendulum swung too far toward individualism? Curious to hear what you think…
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility this week, in literature, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
BUT, on to another topic, before I let you go for the week. My publisher is highlighting #bivisibility day on September 23, with a great discount on all books with bisexual characters. Have a look: http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/?ref=bivisibility
There’s also a great Rafflecopter giveaway you may want to enter to win some great books:
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Great offer, eh? Take advantage and find amazing reads. I know several of the authors and I can vouch for the quality! So what are you waiting for? 😉 If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week.
Facial Recognition, right or wrong?
I was one of many who watched the Apple keynote on Tuesday. It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us, and needless to say, ten years after the initial iPhone launch, we were more than curious to see what they’d come up with. Ten years ago, I was still 100% based in PC land, with an Ericsson phone (yeah, right? Seems forever ago…) in my pocket. But the iPhone, when I first saw one live in early 2008, had me convinced, and my husband and I bought the 3G version. We’ve upgraded every two years since. The iPhone X with facial recognition instead of fingerprint ID looks amazing, and as Apple fans, we’re excited. However, that same week, we’d read articles in the news about a Stanford study of an algorithm with an uncanny “gaydar”, with up to 81% chance of identifying gay men from a picture.
Countless people have suffered badly from the pseudoscience called phrenology. Including the Sami people of Scandinavia, as I’ve described in Last Winter’s Snow. Does this mean that Facial Recognition is going to be as bad? Photo credit: From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) and Wikimedia Commons.
This morning, I read an article which draws parallels between facial recognition software and nazi-time phrenology, where people’s abilities were supposedly determined by the shape of their skull. Debunked fake science, for sure, but even I was taken aback by the Standford study. Do we have reason to worry? First of all, let me just say that I’m surprised that this hasn’t been in the news before since Samsung and many android powered phones have been using facial recognition for some time. I guess this shows just how powerful Apple still is perceived to this day with their decisions to adopt a technology or not. Maybe it’s true that they are better than the rest. With regards to the use by Apple and the iPhone, it’s a matter of trust. Do you trust that your face measurements stay within the phone and aren’t transmitted to Apple servers? I can only answer that question for myself, and my trust in Apple is greater than my trust in say Google, whose entire business idea is based on extracting money from “data collection”…
But what about Facial Recognition per se? Well, I see it primarily as a tool, and just as any tool, it can be used to do good (protect my data, make my purchases more secure, allow me entry to another country etc.) or evil (the Stanford algorithm in the hands of evangelicals or Putin for instance). in the U.S. questions have been raised about forcing people to look at their phones by law enforcement to unlock their phones. Well, yes, that is obviously a threat, and legally, this isn’t resolved. Not there, not anywhere really. The technology is too new. However, law enforcement, if they have probable cause, can already search our devices, and the San Bernardino case shows that it is possible to even hack a relatively secure iPhone to get the data they want, even if the supplier (in that case Apple) doesn’t co-operate with the authorities for reasons of principle (which again goes to the whole trust issue).
Retina scans, facial recognition and other biometric features in e.g. passports have been in use for years. We don’t even flinch when we have our picture taken and our fingerprints scanned for our new passports, and when you use a kiosk to e.g. enter the U.S. or the EU, that data is scanned from live pictures and compared to the data stored in your passport, making it less likely that a passport is used by the wrong person. As the Stanford study shows, algorithms are better at comparing data than humans are. Changes in facial hair, hairdo, glasses etc. all have an impact on how we visually appear to an immigrations officer. Algorithms are less gullible.
As bad as nuclear weapons are, this is a photo of the planet’s first nuclear explosion, we also use nuclear power to power our Teslas… Just saying. Photo credit: Jack W. Aeby, July 16, 1945, Civilian worker at Los Alamos laboratory, working under the aegis of the Manhattan Project.
But as easily as algorithms can be used for good, so is their potential for use for nefarious purposes. The Manhattan Project is just one example for that. As a member of the LGBT community, I worry, of course, that countries, where we are persecuted, are going to use such technology against us. Ethics should always be discussed. However, using facial recognition in a phone won’t change that, either way. We don’t stop using knives to cut our food even though that same tool can be used to cause terrible harm to others. It’s illegal, period.
The problem with facial recognition or the Stanford algorithm isn’t the algorithm (which quite to the contrary actually proves that the gaydar is a real thing…) per se, it’s the fact that homosexuality and members of the LGBT community are still illegal and persecuted. It’s the legislation that is problematic, not a tool to identify us. Throughout history, nefarious groups have always found ways to “identify” us, even without technology, through e.g. infiltration etc., while we’ve found ways to try and hide, e.g. through marriage.
I welcome the advent of facial recognition and the applications it offers to us. Immigration kiosks shave valuable time off my entry to other countries, and the new iPhone technology will allow me to pay in stores, log into my bank account and other secure applications much more easily and securely (according to Apple, facial recognition is 20 times less likely to be fooled than a fingerprint). It makes my life easier and simpler. I welcome that. As for the threats, and I don’t deny their existence, they haven’t become any worse because of Apple’s adoption of the technology. We need to call out bigotry, homophobia, transphobia etc. wherever we see it.
What is your take? Curse or blessing?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Humans are never perfect. To put them on a pedestal as statues risks whitewashing their less than clean traits as well
Statutes, flags, historical monuments. We’re talking a lot about statues these days, or to use the great bard’s words (this is a literary blog after all): “to be, or not to be…” Statues, currently those raised after Confederate combatants and leaders in the U.S. have already caused the death of three people and several injured. So why are statues so controversial? Why do people care about a bronze statue of people long dead? Allow me an attempt to explain.
Humans are complex, statues aren’t
In order to understand a statue, we need to understand humanity. A human being is a complex creature. Few humans are perfect; if any. We have good sides, we have our bad sides. Allow me to exemplify: George Washington, first president of the United States, a war hero and a successful general. So far so good. But he was also a slave owner, and yeah, today, we don’t see that as a positive trait. Something the current president tried to exploit in one of his asinine press appearances. I’ll get back to that later. Most of us still see Washington as worthy of being a statue, name-giver to the capital, an entire state etc. Adolf Hitler on the other hand, the greatest villain of our times, he will never be cast as a statue, even though the man loved dogs and animals in general. Why wouldn’t you name a kennel after him or a dog shelter? The Adolf Hitler Dog Rescue Society? Nah, right? His name is just too tainted by the bad he’s done.
So what about good people?
One of my heroes, or idols, Nelson Mandela, serves as a beacon of light in this book. But in general, I’m wary of using real people as symbols. You never know when it comes back to haunt you…
I have very few idols, if any, but Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. I don’t know much about Mr. Mandela’s life before Robben Island except what you read in articles like the one quoted above, but I guess there was a reason he ended up there. His life in older years is well known to me though, and I’m sure there are plenty of schools named after the first freely elected president by all South Africans, and probably some statues, too. I even enshrined his nick name “Madiba” in one of my books (Willem of the Tafel). But it is not the human Mandela we praise. It’s the public persona, the president, the leader of a crucial time in South Africa’s history. And we do that not only against the backdrop of history but – much more importantly – in the context of how we interpret the present times. And while Mandela symbolizes South African freedom and democracy, Frederik Willem De Klerk, his predecessor as president, and also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate probably won’t get many statues, simply because he represents the old South Africa, the oppressor.
What about General Lee?
The big question here is why people created statues of General Lee (et al) in the first place. And why are statues of him criticized while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who even had illegitimate kids with his slaves) are okay? Again, history, and historical context. When Jefferson and Washington were active in society, Americans by large had no qualms about slavery. Remember, this is almost a century prior to the civil war. So while the vast majority today condemns slavery, nobody did so during the first years of the new republic. It was normal, just like women didn’t have the right to vote and gays couldn’t get married. That’s why it’s not really a factor in the equation. You can deplore that, but that doesn’t change things.
As a member of the LGBT community, I could decry every statue on Mount Rushmore, any statue anywhere really, because of their stance toward LGBT rights, but the general consensus back when they lived was another one. You could say the same about women’s rights. Which is why it’s so important that the constitution of a nation, particularly one as old as the U.S. one, is always re-interpreted and read against the backdrop of the current times (or it becomes as useless as reading the bible literally, and who does that?)
General Lee is THE figurehead of the Confederate States, more so even than their president. He symbolizes slavery because that was the #1 reason the southern states tried to leave the U.S. He is pretty much the poster boy for slavery, as the oppressor, just as Uncle Tom et al are poster boys for the victims. To erect a statue of General Lee (or defend it today) is therefore equivalent to condoning his stance on slavery, which basically means that you do not afford all humans the same value. That makes you a racist, a white supremacist (in U.S. terms), at least in today’s views. Was General Lee a good man? I’m sure. I’m sure he was a great husband and a devoted father, but that’s not why he stands as a statue, at least not today. So why did they erect statues of him? That’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I have the correct answer (in fact I know I don’t), but I would guess that – again – the answer lies somewhere in the historical context of a nascent civil rights movement. While blacks had been freed all across the Union in 1865, they had few civil rights, and in real terms, few things changed for them in the South. As the African American community began to voice their concerns and their claims to equal civil rights, this must’ve alarmed those who opposed equal rights. And therefore, symbols like General Lee or the Confederate flag resurfaces, even though, after 1865 they’d disappeared, symbols for loss and capitulation. Statues may have been raised to honor his valor, his strength, the loyalty to the state, etc. Sadly, it’s difficult to see such nuances in historical people. Even a statue of Hitler kneeling next to his dogs would do little to redeem him in the eyes of the public.
How statues and their perception changes
To the common people of the Soviet Union, statues of Stalin and Lenin were probably always seen as symbols of oppression. When the Stalinist era had ended, the Stalin statues vanished, by government order. After communism had collapsed, statues of Lenin disappeared almost throughout the entire empire, a symbol of the oppression of the past 60 years. Which is odd, because they had once been raised to honor the man who’d freed the Russian people from the Tzarevich oppression… The irony of history.
I’m convinced that statues, buildings, streets etc named after Confederate fighters were always a blight in the eye of the oppressed, but they didn’t have the means to do anything about it. Imagine how it must feel for a black student to attend Robert E. Lee High (exactly the same way it would feel for a Jew to attend Adolf Hitler High), and while I’m not comparing the two on equal footing, the analogy serves to drive home a point: history and our perception thereof changes, and it is interesting to see that while the civil war freed slaves on paper, the United States as a country didn’t begin to address its racist underbelly until the civil rights movement, and even then only reluctantly. Which is why racism in that country is so deeply rooted and institutionalized. Far too many people still believe that while slaves may have been freed, they’re still not treated/seen as equals, but that’s an entirely different post.
Yeah, Henri Guisan has statues of himself. Photo: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Roland Zumbühl (CC 3.0)
As new documents come to light, and we learn new things about historic people, our view of them might change. Let me exemplify with an example from my birth country, Switzerland. During WWII, our armed forces were led by General Guisan, a four-star general who was specifically appointed to lead the country’s defenses. Normally, Switzerland only has three-star generals. Anyway, about fifteen years ago, new research into General Guisan revealed him to be an anti-Semite. This led to a huge outcry and many in the older generations were deeply offended by how these young “socialist historians” soiled the memory of the greatest soldier in recent Swiss history. Well, here’s my take. When Hitler took power in Germany, most Europeans and Americans held anti-semitic views. It’s been that way since the beginning of the church. It was after all the Jews who were responsible for killing the founder of their church. Hardly an endearing act. However, Guisan, while probably sympathetic to some of Hitler’s views, was also first and foremost Swiss, and just because he (and most likely Lenin, and many other leaders of the time) felt the same way about Jews, there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and eradicating them. And there’s a huge difference in defending your country against a foreign oppressor, no matter what his views. And the Swiss have always been wary of Germany and the power it wields. Not to mention the fact that Guisan was French speaking. This doesn’t “excuse” his views, but explains them in a historical context. His actions speak for themselves, just as General Lee’s (despite privately opposing the secession) chose to actively fight for a losing cause.
Yet when it comes to statues and monuments, we must also see them in the light of when they were erected, and why. Which is why the men on Mt. Rushmore rest safely, even from BLM, feminist or LGBT activism, while the statues of southern fighters do not. Because what they stand for was disputed even when they were alive, not just today.
Echnaton, displayed at a Cairo Museum, not in public. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Néfermaât
Why weren’t they removed before? And why the fights now?
America is undergoing a rough patch in its history, having for the first time elected a racist and white supremacist to the presidency. While few people who voted for Trump share his vile views, racism is a red thread throughout his entire life, from the earliest days when he learned from his father not to rent to African Americans in New York, to his remarks about Mexicans “they don’t send their best people…” and finally to the comments (or lack thereof) last weekend. Suddenly, race is an issue on every news show, something that began with the Obama presidency, only now, we see the backlash, we see the ugly head rearing itself. For decades, white southerners walked by those statues not even thinking about what they meant. The Confederate flag was seen as a symbol or rebellion, of being an outcast, a southerner. All the while the black community didn’t have the voice to speak up, because they always felt the same way, and they still do, of course. Imagine seeing a police patrol. As a white person, you see them as a protector, no matter who sits behind the wheel. As a black person, you see the potential for being abused. Sometimes, you have to see things from the perspective of the minority, because the minority has always been told how the majority views things. The most interesting aspect though is that what we see in America now, is the majority becoming a minority. But, as was the case in South Africa, the minority is still in possession of the majority of power and money which enables them to hold on to power longer than they rightly deserve. What happens in the U.S. now is the white race’s final struggle as the “dominant” power. And unless they somehow manage to completely disenfranchise colored voters, this will resolve itself within a generation. Thank gods for natural selection…
But surely, every statue represents history? Mustn’t they be preserved?
I hear that argument from time to time from racists (45 using particularly loathsome “esthetic” arguments) and others, although I haven’t seen any blacks using that argument (yet). Two things: first of all, that’s not been the case, historically. In ancient Egypt and many other similar cultures, a new ruler might destroy any traces of his predecessor. Sometimes because they tried to revolutionize something, Echnaton is a great example, sometimes because they were defeated by another country etc. This has always been how humans have done things. New rulers, new statues, old statues destroyed. It’s only in very recent decades (and in democracies) that we’ve seemed to have changed our approach and somehow attribute statues artistic and historic value, rather than symbolic. And the answer is yes, absolutely, any statue represents history, but you won’t see statues of Hitler on display in German squares or statues of Pol Pot in Cambodia, but you’ll find them in museums, where their historical context is discussed. And that goes for a couple of artistically or historically valuable exhibits, but you can’t exhibit all of them. Some will forever be stored in warehouses, some melted down.
Statues, flags and historical symbols are a complex issue, for sure, and most certainly something I wish I could revisit the “outcome” of the current U.S. struggle in retrospect. It’s difficult to see all the complexities and all the finer nuances when you’re living in such times. The present serves badly as history commentator. No wonder they say “hindsight is the wiser”… What is your take on this? I’m curious to hear what your insights are. Anything I’ve missed? Interesting points of view? Particularly from the oppressed and I don’t mean white supremacists, because you’re NOT oppressed. You may see your privilege vain, but that’s hardly considered oppression. While other people gaining equal footage may hurt you emotionally, you don’t lose anything physical, no rights, nothing. So stop whining and grow a couple…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.
Is our time’s sense of entitlement at the root of the right-wing populist upswing we see?
It’s not about you, or me, at least not all the time, but it’s always about us, as a society and where we are heading. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across an article about a professor of literature in the U.S. who was dismissed from his tenure for apparently having “hurt” transgender students’ feelings. Sadly, I can’t seem to find the article anymore, but in one of the four instances mentioned that led to his dismissal, the professor was discussing a scientific theory about a book which two students found offensive because it didn’t match their world view. Another case involved the lack of a trigger warning in a literary novel about a rape which was discussed in class. A couple of days ago, a local paper in Sweden published a debate article about how “milk is a symbol of white supremacy“… I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder upon.
Today’s post, as explosive as the topic may be, isn’t about the specific articles quoted above. It’s about a phenomenon that I find in our society today, a sort of extremism of the “I”, or entitlement if you will, that is spreading like a wildfire through our midst. A couple of additional examples (random and anecdotal):
- There are people who feel that we should abolish gender pronouns. Period. Replace he, she, they, xe, s/he or whatever, with one gender neutral pronoun to be used for all of us. Now, I have absolutely no qualms calling people whatever they feel they are most comfortable with (and I beg for forgiveness if sometimes I slip back to a pronoun I may have used on them before), and I personally like to use the Swedish gender neutral pronoun in cases where the gender of the person in question is unknown (e.g. in job advertisements), but why take it to the extreme and force others to give up the pronoun they feel comfy with? Why do to others that which has (or may have) been done to you?
- In Sweden, some cities have begun to replace certain “job titles” with new ones, which are supposed to be less “laden” with negative connotations, gender neutral etc. There are always different reasons for different words of course. One of the typical examples is the word for “handicapped”, which was replaced a few years back with “funktionshindrad” (“disabled”). However, apparently, that wasn’t good enough. Now they use the word “funktionsvariation” (“functional variation”), while at the same time reducing public support for the very people they try to linguistically “upgrade”. I understand the drive for the new word but don’t ostracize people for using an older version, because “handicapped” is still much better than the words I grew up with… Tell them instead why you’re suggesting the new one?
- Veganism vs Omnivores. Yikes, what a nightmare this one is. But yeah, wouldn’t it be great if we, as a society, could reduce our dependence on animals as a food source? Particularly reducing the production of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy and move toward a more sustainable and species appropriate treatment of animals? To expect an entire population to go vegan overnight won’t accomplish this, but produce a huge backlash and pushback from the vast majority of omnivores amongst us.
I am who I am, and I expect people to accept me as such. Why can’t we grant each other that same courtesy? Photo: Alina Oswald
As a linguist, I’m acutely aware that language changes, evolves. However, it’s rarely a good idea to force change top down. It rarely works. When the new director for the Swedish medical board, Bror Rexed, announced to his staff in 1967, that he was going to use “du” (second person singular) in dealings with his staff, he was riding on a wave that had begun earlier. Sweden’s traditional honorific to that date had been “han/hon” (third person singular, or preferably a title). Within months, the entire country adopted the new way of talking, and it is a proud accomplishment of our egalitarian society to this day, although, in recent years, the service industry has begun using the German/French version of the second person plural instead, something I personally find strange, but that’s another post. But the du-reform is a linguistic exception. When Germany tried to “simplify” the use of German with the infamous Rechtschreibereform in the nineties, they failed miserably. You can’t have state ministers dictate how to spell mayo. People generally dislike the reform and to this date, over twenty years later, some of the biggest newspapers refuse to use it, and entire generations of German speakers feel disenfranchised because their spelling is “outdated”.
Sadly, these trends go deeper than just language, and I acknowledge that these government institutions, the researchers, and activists mean well. But, they overreach, and they scare some of the more conservative people. I can literally see my dad and his generation’s reaction to no longer being a man, but a person, to be addressed as “it” (or whatever pronoun of choice the know-its agree upon) rather than “he”. And I think this is exactly where the populists, the alt-right, and others, chime in and find feeding ground. They paint a rosy picture of a world where men were men and women were women, where men gave away women to other men at the altar, a world where men came home from work to a clean house and dinner on the table, wife, and kids eagerly waiting for them. A two-polar world, black & white. Simpler, easier to understand, comfortable, just the way we knew it when we were little (or from TV). A world without marriage equality, and no trans people. The world of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin and their likes.
These people don’t understand why we allow people to use whatever religious clothing they like here in the west, while we must adjust to strict local laws when we visit certain countries. They don’t understand how we can allow mosques, temples, and synagogues to be built in our western cities while other countries wouldn’t allow the same. And so they believe their own faith to be besieged and threatened, even though sharing is at the very core of the Christian faith they claim to uphold and defend (Jesus breaking the bread, holding the other cheek etc.)
We, as western societies are risking further division, if we don’t “chill out” for a bit, and allow the world around us to catch up. We’ve been caught up in a frenzy of “me, me, me” which – quite frankly – is scary. The Internet and modern communication devices certainly seem to be a part of the explanation, the seeming distance between the device and our next shutting down our inhibitions around human discourse, enabling us to lash out at others with the vilest commentary and language, words we would never use face to face. And because we get away with so much, it emboldens us and we push further, and before long, it’s all about me, me, me. My rights, my demands, my needs, regardless of your needs, your rights.
If I don’t feel like working today, that’s fine. Many employers see a significant increase in sick leave and “unexplained absence” during days of sunny weather in the summer, causing huge problems in e.g. care facilities. My husband tells me stories from his job that’ll make anyone gasp…
In this book, there is an entire chapter dedicated to change management, what works, what doesn’t and why. Have a look if you’re interested. Lots of other smart tips included, too.
So what can we do to improve things? Talk to each other, explain things. Use incremental steps, as hard as this may seem. Don’t ask for too much too quickly, and never ask others to change on your behalf. Now I understand this last one is tricky. I remember coming out (eons ago) and basically giving my parents an ultimatum in accepting me for who I was. They asked for time, and time they got. For a while, we barely spoke, but after a couple of years, they openly accepted my partner at the time, and later my husband. But still, to this day, at times, we argue, my dad and I, and he’ll never be the perfect “ally”. But I understand that I can’t change him. I had to learn to live with the discomfort of him disliking e.g. that small magnet of two men kissing on our fridge, and his fear of how it would affect my son’s sexuality. My take is simple: it’s none of his effing business what we put on our fridge door, our sexuality is not defined by pictures we see on the fridge when we grow up (or I’d be straight), and I have to accept that he probably won’t change his mind. Then again, he does, continuously, but at his pace. A few years ago he told me that “men can’t raise kids” and now he’s super proud of the job my husband and I do. People do change, but rarely under duress (unless it’s for their own benefit), there’s an entire chapter in my book Common Sense on that topic if you’re interested in reading more.
A society only works when most members work together. Every society can accept and live with a few outliers, but when too many forces pull in too many directions simultaneously, the very fabric of society begins to fail, and we can see tendencies of that in recent events like Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections, Poland, India, Russia etc. Rapid change, pluralism, followed by that “collective” urge for the good old days, which incidentally, in that picture presented by the populist, never even existed, but that’s a different story. So chill, forgive, move on, talk to each other, rather than explode, condemn and scream. It’s not about you, at least not always, only sometimes.
What’s your take? Do you share this (mind you, completely unscientific) analysis of mine? Am I onto something? Am I missing a piece of the puzzle? I welcome your thoughts on the matter… If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.