29 November 2007

Genocide, National Responsibility and Revisionists.

Discussion in my course on museum studies in the past several weeks has made me ashamed to live in the United States. We get an interesting perspective in the course from time because we have a student from Germany who occasionally makes insightful comments about US museum and ways they differ from the ones in her home country. She mentioned, in an off hand manner perhaps, about her surprise that US history or cultural museums never mentioned the "genocide." Anthropologists don't like this term because it has such harsh and evil connotations that it creates one-side support in situations that are far more complex. The US genocide this student refers to is, of course, what we could call "the discovery of the Americas" or "the foundation of our country;" something celebrated. Yet the fact that this continent was "discovered" long before Europeans arrived and the fact that the foundation of success of the United States relied heavily on the eradication of the indigenous inhabitants is indeed often left out of our national conscience.

Another topic that invoke similar feelings, which I will soon explain, was about the proposed Smithsonian exhibit on WWII and the atomic bombing of Japan that featured the Enola Gaye. This exhibit was eventually abandoned because of outcries from all angles of the spectrum. Veterans, peace-niks and the Japanese wanted to see a critical eye turned towards atomic weapons in this exhibit. Just as many veterans and US politicians however didn't want to see such an iconic artifact of US history belittled and shown as a bringer of evil. They accused the museum of being "revisionists," liberal scholars who wish to sully the good name of "America" (Need I mention again the foundation of the nation?). With the controversy flying left and right around the exhibit and a great fear of the Smithsonian losing federal money, the exhibit was abandoned.

Here are two examples of how the United States has managed to weasel its way out of taking responsibility for questionable periods in its history. National museums, notably in Germany (which hasn't hidden from the Holocaust legacy), create museums and exhibits devoted to things like "genocide." Meanwhile the US, which walks around with its head held high singing its own praises about being the protector of liberty, freedom an democracy, seems to live in a state of blissful ignorance of its own past. This nation has enjoyed so much power and influence (and lack of regulation) that it hasn't had to own up to its past. If either of the topics discussed above had made it into museums in their rawest forms, the controversy would be incredible but it would force the nation to deal with these topics. We may not like what happened in the past. We may want to respect that many young people have loved this nation so much that they fight for it, but we cannot forget that in fighting not only our US lives lost, but so are millions of others, many hundreds of thousands in mere seconds even. War is an interesting occurrence that at once calls for celebration and criticism. And it is not right to give one preference over the other for fear of getting "America" down. We don't have to visit the museums or feel good about them being there, but they should exist as reminders so that we no longer walk unaware and jaded in a world where we are so quick to judge other cultures and nations of their deeds.

There are many parallels between acts of violence throughout the history. The "American Genocide," September 11th, The Holocaust, The Crusades, Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment, the dropping of the Atomic Bomb, they're all on the same level as far as I'm concerned. Horrendous acts of violence that, despite their contested neccessity, unprovoked-ness, or senselessness, resulted in massive loss of life. Just note, for a second, that the Holocaust, The Crusades, Pearl Harbor and September 11th have all resulted in the perpetrator/s to be "dealt with" or at least to take responsibility for and commit such acts to national memory. Shouldn't we?

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