My first day at the Business Journal was April 15, six years ago. I’d almost forgotten the anniversary this year, until Notre Dame burned.
Unlike my first days at other jobs, I will always remember that one for three reasons. 1) It was tax day. 2) I was immediately assigned several articles with just five days to complete them, and all about a subject I knew nothing about – international trade. 3) I left for lunch to have my panic attack elsewhere, but while eating a sandwich at the local deli wondering what I’d just gotten myself into, I saw the news of the Boston Marathon bombing break.
Six years later Notre Dame burned as I transcribed interviews about the same subject. Two disasters, six years apart: enough to make a person ruminate. And I did.
Mourning with the rest of the world, I began to think of what humanity has lost since the coming of age of my generation, the Millennial generation, began. For Millennials, you have to mark the beginning of that process with 9/11. Everything for us falls into two categories: before 9/11 and after 9/11.
While the world media fixated upon France, I began to think about how many other significant sites have been lost in the time since 9/11, an event itself representative of a loss so colossal that is still, in many ways, unfathomable.
Many ancient historic sites and relics were wiped out by ISIS in an effort to control the narrative of history, to, I suspect, wipe out evidence of greater civilizations so that they might seem more venerable. Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria, was occupied by ISIS periodically between 2011 and 2017, and in that time almost totally destroyed. Before and after photos of the ancient city, which dates back at least as far as the first and second centuries, are gut wrenching. ISIS also had a hand in destroying many other ancient monuments and relics in Syria and Iraq.
Beyond ancient cultural sites and relics, though, humanity has suffered other losses in recent years that stand to impact our collective memory and our culture moving forward.
One that worries me most is the slowly fading generation of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who have been so crucial in keeping the memory of one of the darkest periods in recent human history alive. We have photos, history books, museums, and oral history – but something happens when the last of a generation to remember an event dies. It makes it easier to make revisions as history is retold, or, on the extreme end of the scale, to deny such events occurred entirely.
In my first column of 2019, I wrote about the problem of growing anti-Semitism. Since then, several other widely publicized incidents of anti-Semitism have occurred, including in nearby Newport Beach. I decline to rehash the details because I frankly don’t want to run the risk of anyone delighting in them. But I will say that my alma mater, Chapman University, was able to step in. The college had invited Eva Schloss, Anne Frank’s stepsister, to come speak that same week – the university has a Holocaust center, and is very proactive about Holocaust education – and connected her with the Newport Beach high school so that she could visit those involved and put a human face to their wrongdoing.
And now, I have to wonder: what will happen when there are no more Eva Schlosses?
Humanity has suffered some significant intangible losses to our culture as well in recent years. I have a feeling I am going to catch some flak for touching on this first one, but so be it: we seem to have thrown out the concept of due process. We no longer try people by jury – we try them in the court of public opinion, hosted by social media. All it takes is one accusation (no proof required), or one off-color comment made 10 years ago when it was not off-color, for the social media hivemind to ostracize someone from society.
Sometimes, as we all well know, those who are outcast deserve it. But sometimes, the lines are too blurred to know for sure. R. Kelly, as far as I am concerned, belongs in jail. When you have literal throngs of people accusing one person, the adage of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” ought to transform to: “there’s a whole forest on fire, why has this slow-burning disaster been allowed to continue for so long?!”
On the other hand, you have people like Aziz Ansari, a comedian one woman wrote a disparaging essay about, characterizing her sexual experience with him as assault. But while her descriptions of the incident depicted a man who was at best, selfish and clueless, and at worst, manipulative and domineering, it did not depict a situation that would have met the parameters of sexual assault in any courtroom. Yet Ansari was effectively pushed out of the public sphere as though the social media audience were his priest prescribing exile as penance. (Can you tell I was raised Catholic?)
Did he do something wrong? Yes. Did he do something criminal? It doesn’t seem like it. But we, as a society, essentially threw him out with the same bathwater that the likes of Bill Cosby are in. The court of public opinion does not act with thought, does not weigh facts in the balance before issuing a verdict. It is swift and immediate, and, many times, final. Should it be?
Another aspect of our society I fear is on the verge of being lost to time is bipartisanship. Slowly dying for years now, bipartisanship seemed to meet its symbolic demise with the death of Senator John McCain, a figure who, although not loved by every single person in America, certainly was respected by many individuals from both prevailing political parties in the U.S. in a way few others were in this century and the last. His public viewing and funeral befit an American hero respected by many from different walks of life. Will we see someone like that again, as our politics continue to become more fractured and divisive?
What does the loss of these aspects of our cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, mean for humanity? I’d say the first people who should be asking themselves this question are the Millennials. We’re old enough to remember, yet young enough to forget. It is our responsibility to pass on memories to younger generations as our elders fade. As technology continues to change society at a more rapid pace than ever before, and war and random calamity take away other aspects of history, how will we react? Will we work to save the memories of what we’ve lost? Or will we allow them to fade?