‘I Won’t Back Down’

 

70 years ago yesterday, Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviets. We now mark the date as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

An important thing to remember, indeed. All of us. In all the nations of the world.

Indifference, antisemitism, silence. Fear of, contempt for, lack of understanding the ‘other’. These are among the things that enabled Auschwitz -and the other concentration and extermination camps that were at the heart of the Final Solution that the Nazis saw as the response to the Jewish Question.

Contrary to what too many of us might like to think, the Jewish Question was an ongoing subject of discussion in much of Europe from as early as 1750.

You read that correctly. 1750.

It was first used, according to Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz, as “a neutral expression for the negative attitude toward the apparent and persistent singularity of the Jews as a people against the background of the rising political nationalisms.” (from the Wikipedia) Essentially, the nations of Europe were trying to suss out the specific status of Jews as minority micro-communities in the the social order of the nation-states of Europe. The question arose and developed under the influence of such things as the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

In discussing how integration of these differing cultures might work, a fair bit of time was spent on a back-and-forth debate about whether or not religious belief had any role to play in secular societies- and therefore whether or not Jews should be required to relinquish their religious beliefs in order to attain full citizenship.

Then, from the 1860’s onward, the ‘question’, in many places, took on increasingly antisemitic tendencies that reached their peak in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Their Final Solution was enacted through persecutions, the revocation of citizenship under the Nuremberg Laws and then the state-mandated internment and murder of Jews in the concentration and extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But. At its origin, the Jewish Question began a discussion of assimilation versus separation in increasingly multicultural societies (however colonial and Xian-centric those societies may have been at the time).

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

The ‘melting pot’ or the ‘cultural mosaic’? How should we shape a community in which people from different cultural backgrounds, with different religious beliefs, seek to live together under laws and standards that might govern us all?

Here in Canada, we’ve opted for the latter- as a matter of government policy. Does it work? Imperfectly- like most other governments policies. Is is better than the assimilation of the melting pot that countries like the US favour?

Given that neither we nor the US can boast a completely harmonious relationship with all of our constituent parts, I think the jury is still out. The question lies at the heart of what happened a couple of weeks ago in Paris. The social anomie experienced by immigrant populations can lead to radicalization- and we are seeing examples of this in any number of places- local and not-so-local.  Do we accept and embrace the cultural differences, or do we demand full assimilation?

Can we even expect assimilation- when we’re dealing with something as closely and deeply held as religious belief and practice?

This is one of the sociological questions being discussed in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo– specifically as it pertains to France and their claims of secularization. And it’s happening closer to home…

A clear, current and North American example of how religion can interfere with the smooth running of secular societies? They are in the process of choosing a jury for the trial of the accused in the Boston Marathon bombings- and running into issues with RCs in the jurist pool who might have an issue with the death penalty. In Boston. A town that has a pretty substantial RC population.

My bottom line: Belief does not trump law. It CANNOT. Not in a democratic society in which the laws were arrived at through evidence-based discussion and the application of policies that are meant to ensure the maintenance of just and equitable social order. A social order that allows that laws can be challenged- and changed- as required when we have new and better information. Like when we realize that gender equality is, in fact, a thing. Or that a superficial thing like ‘race’ means not a whit in terms of the freedoms or rights of all us members of the human race.

I’ve said before that I’m a little concerned about my past inclination to just accept that others believe different stuff from what I believe- that I know that I see the world differently than many others do- and that I’ve always been ‘okay’ with that. My perspective comes out of specific set of contextual criteria- that differ from the contextual criteria of the next person.

That inclination- which I share(d) with a whole lot of people who call themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’- has been permitted to run amok. Pandering to the lesser freedoms is messing with our larger ones.

We need to use our larger freedoms to speak up when people are violating- or re-writing- the higher laws of the land in favour of laws that respond directly to interpretations of this or that ‘sacred’ scripture.

Lawrence Krauss, groovy Canadian science-dude and vocal atheist, wrote a little bit o’ something about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. While I disagree with his point that Judaism and Xianity- unlike Islam- have ‘had the time’ to look at their sacred scriptures and develop a ‘thicker skin’ when it comes to criticism and questions regarding who really wrote the things and to what purpose (if he were correct, there wouldn’t be nearly as many biblical apologists about- and I’m not even speaking about the literalists…), I very much agree with his point about hate speech involving people, not ideas.

He says: “No idea should be sacred in the modern world. Instead, in order for us to progress as a species, every claim, every idea should be subject to debate, intelligent discussion, and, when necessary, ridicule.” 

And:

“The biggest threat to the peaceful and sustainable progress of human civilization in the 21st century, with challenges ranging from global climate change, to energy and water shortages, and the oppression of women throughout the world, is a refusal to accept the empirical evidence of reality as a basis for action. Those who feel they know the truth in advance, and therefore cannot even listen to alternative arguments, are not just part of the problem, they are the problem.

This is the reason that religion is, in my opinion, on the whole a negative force in the world. In spite of the charity and empathy it may generate among many, because it asserts as true notions that clearly are incompatible with the evidence of reality, it inevitably engenders actions that are irrational. These range from the innocuous to the deadly.”

I had a very different post in mind when I started this one last evening. I have a growing number of bits and pieces in the drafts folder that need attention if they are ever to see the light of day.

Trying for a lightening of subjects, my eye was drawn to the whole Sam Smith/Tom Petty exchange of royalties sitch. You know I love Tom. And Jeff Lynne, who was his writing partner on the solo album that included ‘I Won’t Back Down’.

The Sam Smith thing is really just another example of our human tendency towards repetition of theme/recurrence of concepts.

I hadn’t really heard of Sam (full disclosure- last week a colleague attended his local show and raved about his performance. I had to admit to not having first clue who he was. Finding out that he was ripping off Tom didn’t much ingratiate him to me, tbh). When I read the article I was a little defensive of Tom (and Jeff) even before I listened to the song that ‘borrowed’ from them.

Evidently, it’s something that happens to Tom a lot.

I’m not surprised, really. He has written some pretty awesome tunes (alone, with the Heartbreakers and with super-cool dudes like Jeff). Which is all the more reason to grant credit where it’s due.

Once I listened to the songs back-to-back, I heard the resemblance, and I appreciate the amicability with which the issue was apparently resolved. Still, the original, as is often the case, is by far the better song.

I admit that I’m biased. And that the video features 50% of the Beatles and that Jeff Lynne-guy. So it’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges. No new kid is going to be able to compete with the chops of those who were present for the original ditty (although Ringo didn’t really play on the track- he’s nothing but eye-candy, assuming you can call Ringo ‘eye candy’…).

Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

No, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down

(I won’t back down)
Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
(I won’t back down)
Hey, I will stand my ground and I won’t back down

Well, I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down

The song was politicized following 9/11- as it became a rallying call about standing up in the face of terrorism.

Interesting that it’s popped back into our popular attention at this particular moment in time…

The things I took away from watching the Memorial from Auschwitz yesterday? That the prison- and what happened there- remain as a scar on our shared humanity. The past is always present- and it often isn’t pretty. Yet humanity endures- even in the face of extermination and ideologically-driven hatred and horror. That hate can never be permitted to win. Ideas that suborn hatred and violence cannot be allowed to flourish.

There ain’t no easy way out of this quagmire of culture clashing. We’ve been talking about it for almost 300 years. THREE HUNDRED. But it’s a conversation we need to continue. We need to prevent comparable ‘solutions’ from seeing the light of day.

Vilifying the ‘other’- based on things like religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability- this is never going to be acceptable. Not with the empirical evidence of reality we can access. All ideas- and laws- must be subjected to rigorous examination, and we must remain accountable for the responsibilities that come with participation in the societies we create.

We have the scars- ever-present and always remembered- from the last time the world failed to stop an idea based in hatred.

We must revisit that lesson- and re-learn it, as required- as we reexamine the realities of multicultural and globalized communities.

We got just one life.

Stand your ground for what is right.