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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, August 12, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager’s Journal: ‘It’s Alive! It’s Alive!’

Source Manager’s Journal: ‘It’s Alive! It’s Alive!’

For those who don’t recognize the title reference, it is from the original horror thriller, Frankenstein. When Dr. Frankenstein sees the hand of the monster that he has created from stitched-together body parts move, he shouts, “It’s alive! It’s Alive!”

People sometimes refer to the past as being dead and buried. Let’s move on. Don’t “dwell” on it. On a recent trip to the Holy Land, a message that was driven home on an almost hourly basis was that “It’s Alive! It’s Alive! Alive and not-so-well.” The past, distant and recent, lives on in the present and pops up constantly.

Most of the ways in which it pops up are negative, tales – in modern parlance, “narratives” – of either victimization or self-justification. In most instances, these narratives reinforce differences between us – innocent, hard-working, honorable – and them – evil, violent, untrustworthy. The French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs called this “collective memory.” He said, “a collective memory…is understood to express some eternal or essential truth about the group – usually tragic.”

And so it is in the Holy Land. I thought that I had seen an extreme case of collective memory in my parents’ native country, the former Yugoslavia. There, you could ask a Serb what they had for breakfast and, within seconds, be hearing about the Serb defeat at the Battle of Kosovo 600 years ago. Note the celebration of defeat, not victory. Poor us. We always get screwed.

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In the Holy Land, 600 years is small potatoes. We visited the fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea. There, the Romans crushed Jewish resistance in 73 AD. It became – and remains – a symbol of Jewish resolve and courage. More recently, because the Jews at Masada fought and died alone, the message is intended to convey fear and mistrust: we are alone and can’t trust anyone but ourselves. In this latest message, Masada, the Holocaust and Israel’s current situation are all tied together.

The other narrative is that of the Palestinians. It is a story of even more modern victimization, following immediately on the heels of the Holocaust, with the establishment of the State of Israel. Zionists convinced Europeans, especially the British, that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land.” Except that there were people.

The result was the displacement of large numbers of Palestinians, driven from their homes in the Israeli war of independence. Next came the disastrous – for Palestinians and, over the long-term, probably for Israel as well – Six Day War in which Israel occupied all of the West Bank of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem. It has been there ever since.

For the last 47 years, Palestinians have lived under a harsh occupation, a system of passes, zones, inconvenience and, most important, ongoing humiliation and the denial of dignity. Until recently, the Palestinian response, justified by their victimization, has been violence and acts of terrorism. The result: hardened lines and the security wall now separating the two peoples.

In his famous quote, Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembering is one thing; obsessing and using the past as a club is something else again. In the Holy Land, even archeological digs are put to work to reinforce our group’s version of history. “Look! That rock proves that we were here first 3,000 years ago. See, this is our land.” (And, if you don’t get the right answer the first time, just keep digging. You’re bound to find something to reinforce your position deeper down.)

Like most people everywhere, Israelis and Palestinians believe that they – and their conflict – are unique. In the details and its high profile, they are correct. But the problems they face – and the uses and misuses of history – are very common. They are almost universal where groups or minorities are in conflict.

History and victimization as “tools” have both become more popular in recent decades. Examples in the United States include the Civil War reenactment craze and the recent rewriting of racial history to portray white people as victims. There are peculiar forms like these everywhere, including the Virgin Islands.

There is always a risk of oversimplifying, but, in the territory, collective memory seems to take several forms. Older black Virgin Islanders, especially those with family histories in the territory, are steeped in history, much of it negative and tied to oppression and discrimination. This seems particularly true on St. Croix. White Virgin Islanders, more recent arrivals in most cases, tend to believe that history began the day they got off the plane. And young people often seem to be unaware that there is such a thing as history and “roots.”

In most places, rather than an in-depth discussion of group narratives, the purpose of which would be to build a collective “we,” something else happens. History becomes symbolism and remembrances that reinforce our group’s innocence and historic victimization. The result is that “we” and “they” lines harden, and the process of otherization is advanced a bit.

If there is a core theme, a takeaway, from the experience of the Holy Land in modern times, it is the tragic inability of groups of people to live together peacefully and to resolve their differences. The misuses of history have contributed to this sad situation. In day-to-day practice, the past equals blaming and self-justification. And blaming and self-justification prevent us from dealing with what is in front of us today. We can’t because we are always looking back.

Symbols, remembrances and sloganeering may make people feel good for the moment, but it is not clear how they contribute to solving any of the problems that we face. This is as true in the Virgin Islands as it is in Israel and Palestine.

In the movie Men In Black, from time to time, the agents come across earthlings who have seen space aliens that they were not supposed to see. Thankfully the Men in Black are equipped with Neural Neutralizers. When the earthlings look at the little red light that blinks, they forget everything.

With all due deference to Santayana, the longer someone travels in the Holy Land, the more you think everyone would be better off if the whole population could be neuralized and just start over with no history. The same may be true in other places as well.

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For those who don’t recognize the title reference, it is from the original horror thriller, Frankenstein. When Dr. Frankenstein sees the hand of the monster that he has created from stitched-together body parts move, he shouts, “It’s alive! It’s Alive!”

People sometimes refer to the past as being dead and buried. Let’s move on. Don’t “dwell” on it. On a recent trip to the Holy Land, a message that was driven home on an almost hourly basis was that “It’s Alive! It’s Alive! Alive and not-so-well.” The past, distant and recent, lives on in the present and pops up constantly.

Most of the ways in which it pops up are negative, tales – in modern parlance, “narratives” – of either victimization or self-justification. In most instances, these narratives reinforce differences between us – innocent, hard-working, honorable – and them – evil, violent, untrustworthy. The French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs called this “collective memory.” He said, “a collective memory…is understood to express some eternal or essential truth about the group – usually tragic.”

And so it is in the Holy Land. I thought that I had seen an extreme case of collective memory in my parents’ native country, the former Yugoslavia. There, you could ask a Serb what they had for breakfast and, within seconds, be hearing about the Serb defeat at the Battle of Kosovo 600 years ago. Note the celebration of defeat, not victory. Poor us. We always get screwed.

In the Holy Land, 600 years is small potatoes. We visited the fortress of Masada on the Dead Sea. There, the Romans crushed Jewish resistance in 73 AD. It became – and remains – a symbol of Jewish resolve and courage. More recently, because the Jews at Masada fought and died alone, the message is intended to convey fear and mistrust: we are alone and can’t trust anyone but ourselves. In this latest message, Masada, the Holocaust and Israel’s current situation are all tied together.

The other narrative is that of the Palestinians. It is a story of even more modern victimization, following immediately on the heels of the Holocaust, with the establishment of the State of Israel. Zionists convinced Europeans, especially the British, that Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land.” Except that there were people.

The result was the displacement of large numbers of Palestinians, driven from their homes in the Israeli war of independence. Next came the disastrous – for Palestinians and, over the long-term, probably for Israel as well – Six Day War in which Israel occupied all of the West Bank of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem. It has been there ever since.

For the last 47 years, Palestinians have lived under a harsh occupation, a system of passes, zones, inconvenience and, most important, ongoing humiliation and the denial of dignity. Until recently, the Palestinian response, justified by their victimization, has been violence and acts of terrorism. The result: hardened lines and the security wall now separating the two peoples.

In his famous quote, Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembering is one thing; obsessing and using the past as a club is something else again. In the Holy Land, even archeological digs are put to work to reinforce our group’s version of history. “Look! That rock proves that we were here first 3,000 years ago. See, this is our land.” (And, if you don’t get the right answer the first time, just keep digging. You’re bound to find something to reinforce your position deeper down.)

Like most people everywhere, Israelis and Palestinians believe that they – and their conflict – are unique. In the details and its high profile, they are correct. But the problems they face – and the uses and misuses of history – are very common. They are almost universal where groups or minorities are in conflict.

History and victimization as “tools” have both become more popular in recent decades. Examples in the United States include the Civil War reenactment craze and the recent rewriting of racial history to portray white people as victims. There are peculiar forms like these everywhere, including the Virgin Islands.

There is always a risk of oversimplifying, but, in the territory, collective memory seems to take several forms. Older black Virgin Islanders, especially those with family histories in the territory, are steeped in history, much of it negative and tied to oppression and discrimination. This seems particularly true on St. Croix. White Virgin Islanders, more recent arrivals in most cases, tend to believe that history began the day they got off the plane. And young people often seem to be unaware that there is such a thing as history and “roots.”

In most places, rather than an in-depth discussion of group narratives, the purpose of which would be to build a collective “we,” something else happens. History becomes symbolism and remembrances that reinforce our group’s innocence and historic victimization. The result is that “we” and “they” lines harden, and the process of otherization is advanced a bit.

If there is a core theme, a takeaway, from the experience of the Holy Land in modern times, it is the tragic inability of groups of people to live together peacefully and to resolve their differences. The misuses of history have contributed to this sad situation. In day-to-day practice, the past equals blaming and self-justification. And blaming and self-justification prevent us from dealing with what is in front of us today. We can’t because we are always looking back.

Symbols, remembrances and sloganeering may make people feel good for the moment, but it is not clear how they contribute to solving any of the problems that we face. This is as true in the Virgin Islands as it is in Israel and Palestine.

In the movie Men In Black, from time to time, the agents come across earthlings who have seen space aliens that they were not supposed to see. Thankfully the Men in Black are equipped with Neural Neutralizers. When the earthlings look at the little red light that blinks, they forget everything.

With all due deference to Santayana, the longer someone travels in the Holy Land, the more you think everyone would be better off if the whole population could be neuralized and just start over with no history. The same may be true in other places as well.