I came across a song with the lyrics “Heard talk of a country that valued its freedom, but when I protested, I was arrested and beaten.” It reminds me of the photographs I’ve seen from the Civil Rights era, with protesters marred with black eyes and broken noses. The textbooks I saw them in, and the classes that discussed them, had the goal to teach me the struggle some Americans went through for the American Dream. But, I also remember confusion with the reality of such suffering and oppression within the last fifty years—within my parent’s lifetime. It’s too real. Too close to home. That’s too hard to process. And I don’t think I’m alone in those thoughts.
The cognitive dissonance we experience when we learn history or when we hear the news, I think, is a factor of our political distance. And by we, I mean the vast body of citizens. US citizens have very infrequently dealt with the unveiled despotism that other nationals do. And that indeed is, in part, due to culture: some peoples confront governmental displeasure with Molotov cocktails before they try the ballot box. But it also seems that the more egregious tyrannies happen outside the US. Instead of slowly being boiled alive, certain foreign citizens feel the heat turned up all at once. Take Turkey for an example, when it shut down the internet. When was the last time Americans felt that sort of coercion?
Stalin is more right today than ever, that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Since Americans have it so cushy, it’s hard for us to sympathize (or to accurately empathize) with tragedy. I’m not forgetting 9/11 nor the hurricanes that have ravaged the South and East. Somehow I feel those are different. Perhaps because the storms had more an effect on materials than they had on life; and maybe the fact that September’s 2,996 died in an instant flash and crumble instead of via torture or languishing—in essence, they were here, but now they are instantaneously not, and their death seems like an illusion—that we feel the events differently. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the storytellers to say what it was like facing their oppressors. We have Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but I think we all agree that the war was muddied by ulterior motives, and that a homeland battlefront would have been different and made a case for what I’m driving at. Not since the sixties have Americans been in a physical struggle against unjust treatment (I am discounting the Rodney King and Treyvon Martin incidents, since they quickly became about looting and terror than they were about racial equality; plus, neither persons were the sanctimonious title bearers they were chalked-up to be).
Perhaps what I mean is that our cognitive dissonance is more due to our violence distance. And thank God for that. We are privileged to not need violent revolution every few years, nor to have a domestically violent government. But I wish to God that I felt more of an honest relating to those in tragedy—which is sort of like praying for humility: you will have humiliating things happen to you. I don’t want violence or aggression.
But it’s just an odd thought.