First as Tragedy… Then What?

After some conversations with folk online and off, I’ve had some time to think about MVRDV’s “The Cloud” project in Seoul, South Korea. I’d like to come at it with a certain angle, though, so I’ll start with this.

Since the end of World War II, Germans going through school are taught in almost excruciating detail about the Holocaust and Germany’s complicity in it. No one’s feelings are spared, and German students are reminded time and time again, not that “those Nazis” did this (in the way we, as non-Germans are taught that), but that “we” did this. The nation of Germany, which until 1871 wasn’t a nation in any true sense of the word (and after WW2 and until the fall of Berlin wall was again, a fractured nation), has taken full-on responsibility for the Holocaust and are properly commended for this. The victors write history, after all, and in the world’s history books, Germany was most certainly in the wrong.

But within the last generation or so, something interesting has begun to happen in Germany. German students are beginning to openly express frustration over what is still seen as their complicity in the Holocaust. Most superficial scholars of history paint all of Germany in one colour and as the nation that killed six million Jews and was lead blindly by Adolf Hitler in a mad bid to conquer the planet. Now imagine being a young German in Germany today: from a young age until the day you die, you’re constantly reminded of your nation’s shame and constantly told to carry that burden, even though you weren’t around in WW2 and your parents might have even been Holocaust victims themselves. Though my experience clearly pales in comparison to just about anyone else’s tale of discrimination, I have several times in my life been accused of being a Nazi or even Hitler himself on account of my German heritage. The accusation has nothing to do with fact, but it is still one made because of the actions of men long dead who I had nothing to do with.

So it is understandable that Germans want to move on. Every other year it seems there is either another Holocaust movie or a film that jokes about Germany and their complicity in that war. Whether it’s Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, or even that Fawlty Tower’s sketch from so long ago, Germans are constantly reminded that even Oskar Schindler, who is the protagonist and ostensible hero of Schindler’s List, was still a German complicit in the Holocaust and despite what he did for the Jews, there’s always a notion that he could have done more or that he was just motivated by profit. To some extent, Germans deserve to carry the shame of WW2 (as Angela Merkel recently confessed in an address in Israel), and again, to Germany’s credit, they have done a damn fine job of rooting out anti-semitism and racism in Germany to the point that collecting Nazi memorabilia, a social faux pas but source of interest for many enthusiasts in the world, is illegal in Germany, many European countries, and even eBay. And while one could argue that to ban Nazi memorabilia is to pretend it doesn’t exist and to, in a sense, rewrite history, Germany at least deserves a ton of credit for the burden their youth have to carry for the sins of their grandfathers. And while poking fun at Germans for their complicity (and even poking fun at the Holocaust itself) has gotten a bit more in vogue in mainstream culture, for some it remains wildly inappropriate (and, well, fair enough).

I think another example that (perhaps) is closer to home is the subject of Native Americans and colonialism. It goes without saying that in 1492 (when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc), Europeans showed up to North America and began killing its inhabitants. I mean, to be frank the destruction caused by the colonization of North America was genocide, whether you’re talking about giving out smallpox-infested blankets or declaring war on them for encroaching on the land you stole from them. I would hate to be a Native American living in North America because of the systematic discrimination you face on a daily basis.”The white man”, to be non-PC, has been raping Native Americans since day one, and government policy to this day still discriminates against Native Americans.

But like young Germans in Germany today, at what point do we say, o”k, we’re sorry, now let’s move on”? I, personally, had nothing to do with the European conquest of North America, and I think very few of my readers did as well. The argument can be made that our presence is just a reminder of that, or we contribute to it daily, or whatever, but I don’t make my living or spend my spare time oppressing Native Americans — but every day, by virtue of my whiteness, I’m reminded of what we did to them. In British Columbia especially, every major public funding announcement or building construction (or even on occasion, university lecture), we begin with the almost cursory declaration that “we acknowledge that we are on Unceded Coast Salish territory“. It is necessary, in BC, for us to begin by acknowledging that the only reason we’re standing where we’re standing is because we stole the ground we’re standing on. It can go beyond that. Take for example the recent Missing Women’s Inquiry here in BC, which was an investigation into why police forces didn’t do more to investigate the disappearance of women, the majority of whom were street people and/or native. The thing began with a prayer from a first nations elder. Sure, it is somewhat appropriate maybe, but they likely would have caught hell if they prayed to Allah or Christ. One just has to Google “unceded coast salish territory” to be bombarded with public shamings, ranging from press releases that begin with “VANCOUVER, Unceded Coast Salish Territory” or speeches from the government recognizing that this bridge/bank/park/convention centre/whatever is on unceded Coast Salish territory. It manifests itself in crazy ways, such as renaming the Queen Charlotte Islands (named after a boat named after Queen Charlotte) the Haida Gwaii or the recent proposal to rename Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC (named after the same Stanley for which the Stanley Cup is named) to Xwayxway. To me, the constant platitudes we lob towards Natives (as though renaming a bunch of islands people fish off of to Haida Gwaii is going to undo centuries of oppression) is insulting to both parties. At some point, whether we’re talking about The Crusades or the Crucifixion of Christ or Japanese internment camps in WW2 or genocide in Germany and in North America or Pearl Harbour or, well, 9/11, eventually we have to forgive and move on, maybe.

My point with “The Cloud” thing was several-fold: firstly, what you see is what you see. Everyone sees something different when they look at the world. Perception is inherently flawed, and anyone who suggests otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As a mundane example, I have major astigmatism in my left eye and minor in my right. While I can function just fine without glasses, the world does appear to me a bit different without glasses or contacts. You can look at an ink blot and see a man with a knife or look at a cloud and see a bunny: that’s perception. And, when it comes to perception, you can’t be told you’re wrong to some extent. What you see is what you see. If you see a ghost, you might be crazy or you may need to make a phone call, but the undebatable fact is that you saw x. If you look at The Cloud and see the World Trade Centre towers engulfed in flame, that is what you see. That may not be what the designers intended, but that’s what you saw. Language obviously has a huge role in what you see: had I (or anyone else) just posted the picture sans words, you may not have “seen 9/11”. As it stands, I introduced the buildings as having that appearance. It’s like lawyer-speak: the difference between did you see that car? and did you see that blue car run that red light? are two very similar yet very different questions that, by the nature of their formation, imprint information into the mind of the person receiving the question.

My second point was, isn’t it interesting that North Americans instantly see 9/11 in these buildings? I am sure that people from Norway or Spain or Australia or China or South Korea or Zimbabwe or England would be more likely to see something different. As it stands, I think it would be very interesting to take the picture and present it to various people of various ethnicities, living in various jurisdictions, and asking them what they see, because I guarantee you, people from different regions are likely to see different things. My girlfriend (an American) instantly saw the WTC buildings. As a Canadian, I did not instantly see them but after I read an opinion piece saying that’s what they look like (and S. Korea et al were being insensitive, etc), I saw it. And I think by virtue of the fact that 9/11 is a bigger deal in America than it is in Canada (though many in Canada still recognize 9/11 with a moment of silence), and obviously a bigger deal in America than it is in South Korea or Iran or North Korea or Taiwan or the Ukraine,  Americans are more likely to see 9/11 than any other nationality. Again, I don’t have any scientific evidence, but to suggest otherwise is to argue that nationality has nothing to do with one’s perception, which seems easily debatable.

Thirdly and finally, and this is why I opened with a thousand or so words talking about tragedy and it’s evolution, at what point can we, as a society, move on? Let’s assume that x% of Americans, when seeing the picture up top, “see 9/11”. In ten years, will that percentage go up and down? In twenty, thiry, forty — when will people not see 9/11? Three weeks after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried famously complained that he attempted to catch a flight but couldn’t get a direct flight because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” He was heckled, and though he won back the crowd, took a lot of flack for his joke. Holocaust jokes, Nazi jokes, Native jokes, and jokes about 9/11 are OK in some circles, but obviously not in others. I ended on “Too soon?”, if only because, well, when isn’t it too soon?


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