Spoiler Alert: I’m about to get a little political and quite serious. If you no longer have the patience for that sort of thing, you may be interested in this article I wrote a few years ago about the value of running in the fallout of a zombie apocalypse, so read that instead. On the other hand, if you can put up with just one more rant, read on…
When I was in my early twenties, I spent a month travelling through Europe. My bus tour, between stopping at numerous pubs and other exciting sightseeing locations, spent a somber trio of hours at the remains of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Upper Bavaria, near Munich (after checking out the nearby Oktoberfest party that was happening there.)
Having spent the prior evening in a beer tent, most of my travelling companions were hung over and probably fighting to stave off wicked headaches as we wandered through preserved bunkers and various brick buildings with disconcertingly large furnaces. I, on the other hand, was sober… and further sobered by the tour.
Whatever group now operates that site, showcasing it as a stark reminder of a terrible span in European history, they should pride themselves on the fact that of the thousands of things I saw on my month-long adventure through that continent there are only a few crystal clear memories still stuck in my heart today. One of the things that still haunts me nearly twenty years later is standing in the courtyard of that camp in Dachau and feeling the weight of that place on my shoulders. It was a boulder set upon my back, and surely chained there for the duration of my life. I’ve come to understand since that I did not feel that weight because I feared that I’d have been one of the millions who’d been queued up for their fate in a furnace. No, I felt the weight because I feared that I’d have so easily become one of those on the other side of the fence, one of those whose house was being dusted with the ash of human extermination each day and never questioned it, never stuck their neck out to say WTF?
Many folks online like to fend off any discussion of this sort by quoting Godwin’s law: the proposition that all online discussion eventually devolves into calling someone with an alternative opinion a Nazi and comparing their leader to Hitler. And surely, after reading the last couple paragraphs, some people reading this are already dismissing these words on that basis.
I’m not calling anyone a Nazi. I’m not comparing anyone to Hitler. Even I don’t agree that our broken government has devolved that far quite yet. But I am attempting to make a point that hinges on my experiences between those introspective moments in Dachau, my intervening years on and offline, and the frustrating discourse that has been given life in this recent election.
See, about mid-way through this election I was challenged by someone with words that he probably doesn’t recall saying, nor if he did would he probably own up to their impact. I was told to stop behaving like my education made me better than other people… that I was being arrogant because I was well-read, lettered, and had a viewpoint that (while imperfect) is something I’d always considered was based (with focused effort) on a balance of fact, trusted opinions, and societal empathy.
At first I took the insult at face value, and like the metaphorical slap in the face that it was, retracted a bit in shock and readied myself to re-evaluate my thinking on this accusation of arrogance. Maybe I was asserting my opinion too forcefully. Perhaps I was coming off as an asshole because I feel a responsibility to learn, read or think about things and then try to share that information with people who have different opinions, willing to listen or not.
And so, yes, I retreated a bit. I stepped back from writing about ideas and posting my position. While in my own head I’ve been angry and frustrated and ready to rail against political stupidity and divisive campaigning that seems to set ready to further crumble the foundations of this once-peace-loving nation, I kept to myself.
However, I stayed informed. I watched the discussion. I read the articles from all three major camps. And I voted in the advance polls, but because I couldn’t stand the lingering pressure of that nagging self-doubt and minuscule possibility that having picked my ballot choice based on years of their actions rather than weeks of their promises, that my fortitude might somehow crumble in the remaining days and I’d sway in some unforeseen direction I’d later regret. All the while, I kept to myself, afraid of arrogance.
Then that stone still chained to my back felt too heavy again: I remembered Dachau Concentration Camp.
I remembered that millions of people were murdered because of fear. Yet, not only because of their own fear. They were murdered because over a decade of gradual erosion of trust, after years of divisive political nudges, through subtle defacing of checks and balances in the system, erosion of the rights of one vaguely defined group over another vaguely defined group, persistent xenophobia and the never-ending threat of aggression from some foreign state or terror-minded actor, Hitler made everyone else afraid. Afraid of questioning. Afraid of speaking out. Afraid of forcefully claiming that hell, yes they knew better: because they were smart, educated, or had access to information that others might not. Perhaps dozens or hundreds of houses in Dachau were daily covered in ash, the burnt remains of millions of systematically destroyed people raining down on other people, too afraid to step out of line and fight that fear.
I’ve kept to myself, and been afraid to be labeled as arrogant because of fear itself. While yes, this election has presented us with valid issues of true economic weight, topics of hefty environmental importance, and discussions around the security of all of our jobs, drugs (legal and otherwise), service delivery and cuts, and funding for everything imaginable, there has been one blazing red light issue outshining the rest in this election for those who are well-read enough to recognize its hue. I glimpse it. And me, I just want to shout out from the roof of my house: “Don’t you see it? How can you value of a few years of fat paycheques over a generation of social harmony? How can you ignore that our lack of scientific evidence about environmental change is only because of government muzzling? How do you sleep peacefully knowing our government is slowly, methodically allowing our aboriginal population to suffer while subtly turning the blame back on the victims of that slow genocide? How does your math not add up that one crazy young man taking a gun into parliament should never have equated to police-state-like powers granted to a government agency?”
Listen: we are not so special as to be immune to any possible fate, evil or otherwise. Yet, I have hope that we can avert it. I have trust that we are not so far gone down a dark path that our future together can be long and prosperous and peaceful and full of hope.
But in a world where information really can be made into power, the only thing we should truly fear is someone who tries to control, muzzle, restrict, or twist that information: be that you, I, or anyone else.
Our fear to governments is like honey to a hungry bear.
In the coming years when partisan politics, racially charged xenophobia, control of the media, and the vilification of science become the weapons of choice for the government to control the people, your knights and our champions will be the educated and the well-read. Your front line will be those arrogant enough to know that their education is so powerful that it is one of the few things oppressive governments actually fear. The best of these become Warrior-Poets, whose words are like arrows and whose ideas are like swords. They train by learning, and they fight by spreading thoughts and freeing facts, and yes, their pride in their finely crafted skills can sometimes be mistaken for arrogance just as their rage against misinformation and fallacy can be mistaken for intolerance.
Many aspire to their ranks, but few are so worthy. Yet, their studies in the words, facts, knowledge, and the power to move and motivate people with the same are what will truly make us free, safe, and prosperous for generations.
Most importantly though? We should never assert that knowledge is about arrogance. It’s never been so clear cut as black hearts and white ivory towers, because education is not a yes or no question. It’s not about who has intelligence or who lacks it. We are all smart, or able to seek being it. We’re all of us capable of hearing both sides, judging facts against opinions, and of using information, experience and truth to fight the irrationality that builds fear. We, all of us, can use our brains to make this the society and nation we want it to be: the difference is not arrogance versus intelligence, nor pride versus intollerance.
The difference will be judged much later: Someday it will be asked who was hiding in their house as the ashes fell from above, and who stepped out and asked why.