17 July, 2013

"Some French guy who lived a few hundred years ago" - or an "epidemic of ignorance"?

Pat and I have just returned from a week or so away in “the low countries” – Belgium and the Netherlands. We had a wonderful time – we enjoyed travelling by Eurostar for the first time, fell in love with the ancient city of Bruges, enjoyed far too much food and loved wandering around the Dutch city of Amsterdam. We brought back hundreds of pictures and many memories of places visited, people met and things enjoyed – Bruges chocolate shops and magnificent ancient buildings, the Australian couple that we met whilst queuing in Amsterdam, the brilliance of the newly re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (the main reason for our trip), the thousands of young people in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark all enjoying the warm summer weather, the  canal trips we took, the thousands of cyclists whizzing around Amsterdam and on a more solemn note the Anne Frank museum.

By sheer chance I had just finished reading  The Price of Civilization the excellent analysis by American academic and economist  Jeffrey Sachs. The book is primarily about America and has gained international recognition. In his book Sachs, at one point, forcefully discusses what he calls “the epidemic of ignorance”. Briefly, he suggests that in America at least (but, I think, this is equally true of the UK), the growth of untrammelled commercial TV and its “race to the bottom” programming based upon lowest common denominator entertainment rather than instructive public education, the growth in internet use  and, at the same time, the demise of newspapers and reading as an activity has meant, Sachs suggests, that his fellow citizens are increasingly ignorant of basic facts about important issues. He comments “It would be a profound irony if the new information age coincides with the collapse of the public’s basic knowledge regarding key issues that we confront as individuals or citizens.” He goes on “The insulated mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast becoming a common, shame free condition”.

I had finished Sachs’ book the night before we set off for Bruges and as I sat on Eurostar thundering through northern France I was pondering some of the points he had made. As I did so I thought back to my home in Nottingham. Pat and I had just had a new digital recorder which allowed us to view programmes “on demand” – we could stream items into our living room – films, interests, missed programmes and the rest. Great! But it occurred to me that there might be a downside – “on demand” means that in allowing us to be super selective about what we watch it also means that we can also choose to omit what we don’t like or what doesn't interest us. In other words reinforcing what we like and know but not exposing us to what is new and different! The world of the internet – Google, Wikipedia and the rest – allow us to find specific items in whatever we are interested in – but at the same time just maybe be quite ignorant of the bigger picture. In the past people browsed newspapers and books and in doing so picked up on other things that might not have been immediately of importance or interest but quietly became part of their experience  Similarly when we had to watch TV as it was broadcast one could be exposed to other things when the TV was on and maybe we weren't actually watching it. For example, mum and dad watch the news and the children play in the back ground – but all the time just maybe they are “soaking up” bits of information about the world. Similarly, internet enthusiasts (like me!) might be in contact with like minded people on the other side of the world – indeed via this blog I know this to be the case – but again this is a kind of reinforcement of what we know or like rather than a widening of our horizons. We like what we know and we know what we like – what we don’t know or don’t like is potentially excluded. In an age of information we are actively making ourselves ignorant!

Rene Descartes lived here!
But back to Sachs - he further says that, in America, at least, academic scores are declining. It might be argued that if all this be the case then the consequences for individuals and the society will be profound at an economic level – as politicians never cease to tell the young that they must get the best qualifications possible so that you can get a job and earn a living and thus contribute to the GDP. This is a well rehearsed cry from our politicians in the UK and across the Atlantic and undoubtedly has some truth. Sachs, however, raises another fear – namely that ignorance can threaten the very soul of the society. “....when the country must grapple with complex choices about taxes, spending, military involvement and outlays and all the rest, the lack of basic knowledge becomes dangerous. A poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvrings of special interest groups that pull the strings in Washington.”  
Anne Frank's house
He is unquestionably right and his analysis is not restricted to the USA – it is equally applicable in the UK. In recent months democracy has been under scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic and powerful forces have been at work as western nations have grappled with issues such as the financial collapse, the power of big business, the role of the media and organisations such as News International, the recent revelations by Edward Snowden about the US National Security Agency, the power of lobbyists and a myriad of other issues that are at the heart of the society’s governance. If the electorate is increasingly intellectually unable grasp the issues or unwilling to understand them because the next episode of Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother or the next Premiership football match is more appealing or because they accept, unquestioning, Fox News or News International warped view of the world then democracy is indeed under threat and Sachs is right. If the world is to be increasingly populated by Homer Simpson clones unable to ask pertinent questions or use their knowledge and minds to consider and make judgements upon what they are presented with by peers, politicians,  and the media; if these Homer Simpsons know what they like and like only what they know and are interested only in lowest common denominator views and entertainment then society is at risk of a scenario where  powerful lobbies and potential extremism and evil will flourish. It is easy to influence the unthinking and,  as Edmund Burke – the Enlightenment philosopher - reminded everyone “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

Sachs’ viewpoint and my own ramblings were still nibbling away at the back of my mind as last Saturday morning we stood in a very long queue to visit to Anne Frank House and museum in Amsterdam. We stood for over an hour in the sunshine chatting to a delightful Australian couple who were on a world tour. Behind us stood a small group of Americans. As we stood there one of the Americans noticed a plaque on the side of one of the houses. She ran across to read it and on her return proclaimed to her friends “It’s about some French guy that lived there a few hundred years ago”. Intrigued, I peered, squinting my eyes in the sunshine at the plaque across the street – she was correct. It informed that over three centuries ago the French philosopher and mathematician  René Descartes had lived there. Pat and I both looked at each other, eyebrows raised eyes looking to heaven in disbelief at the woman’s comment! “Some French guy” – clearly unknown to this woman and yet  not only one of the world’s great minds and regarded as the father of modern philosophy but someone whose thoughts and writings as an early Enlightenment philosopher were a direct influence upon the Founding Fathers of her nation and upon the drawing up of the  American Constitution. Such was this young woman’s ignorance of her nation’s history that his name and role meant nothing to her.  It is quite inconceivable that America would exist in its present form where it not for the views, opinions and writing of people like Descartes. Alexis de Tocqeville, a writer oft quoted by Americans suggested that the idea of what it might mean to be American and the role of America in the modern world is very much based on the views of Descartes and his Enlightenment peers – but to this young American he was just “Some French guy”. The comment “Ignorance is bliss” might be appropriate if it was not so worrying.

The bookcase and the steps behind it.

As I stood in the queue I remembered an incident over thirty years ago. We had a brief visit from an elderly distant relative of Pat’s. Emily had lived in the USA for much of her life after emigrating there as a girl. She was by then in her 80s. It was probably going to be her final trip to England and she stayed with us for a few days. On a day out we took her to Lincoln Cathedral and there in the Treasury at the Cathedral she stood and looked at the Magna Carta – the Bishop of Lincoln in 1215 was present at the signing by King John at Runnymede and Lincoln Cathedral retains one of the four remaining originals of the great document. As Emily gazed at the document tears ran down her face – “It’s what our American Constitution is based on” she said “wait till I get home to tell my friends”. I’m pretty sure that had Emily stood in the queue with us last week she would not have described Descartes as “some French guy” and would not have been totally unaware of his significance – indeed, she would have been jumping up and down with glee at seeing it. She would have wanted to tell the world – but I wonder if the woman in the queue would have known what the Magna Carta was and its significance to the modern world – or would it have just been “Some old bit of paper with funny writing”.
Climbing the creaking hidden staircase (not us!)
I am tempted to believe that Sachs is right – an epidemic of ignorance.

And, for me, it is not insignificant that the house that Descartes lived in is in the same block as the house that became Anne Frank’s “home” for two years as she and her Jewish family hid from the Nazi’s. Hitler’s Germany was the classic case of a country taken over by dark forces and ruled by propaganda – just a Sachs suggested. It is easy for those who would gain power to attain their goals when people don’t question or understand the issues or don’t care. When ignorance or lack of concern becomes part of the culture then we should all be worried. Descartes, and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers, were very much the touch paper that lit the modern world with its ideas of personal freedom and our modern concept of democracy – so beloved and espoused by America “the land of the free”. That his house should share a block with that of Anne Frank’s  is perhaps a reminder  to us all of how closely reason and right can sit with terror and wrong.
Anne Frank

And at last we entered the House. Written on the wall as we entered the main part of the house was an inscription – a quote by Anne Frank’s father, Otto “To build up a future, you have to know the past” – apposite, I thought, having witnessed the conversation outside!

We had been advised that the visit would be thought provoking and solemn. Indeed it is. Beautifully done – no glamorisation, no unnecessary distractions, no facile technology or dumbing down – just bleak rooms, a selection of beautifully laid out documents, photographs and artefacts,  the occasional video with interviews with Otto Frank and one or two of those brave people that supported the Frank’s during their period in hiding – and perhaps most tellingly just a few remnants of their stay there such as the photographs and newspaper clippings that Anne stuck on the wall of her room – still there for all to see. It gave a powerful feeling of bleakness and frighteningly “touching the past”.
Anne's bedroom - the pictures that she stuck on
the walls still there. I noticed as we walked through here
teenage girls in their trendy clothes and 21st century
 lifestyles put their hands to their mouths - I think in
 awe and some emotion. It brought home a terrible
 reality to these young modern women (and to the rest of us)
that this was a real person just like them and us.

We made our way silently up the creaking stairs (how the Franks must have worried about those creaks!), through the small opening behind the bookcase, through the gloomy kitchen and living area and the tiny room that was Anne’s home - everyone, I felt, quite overcome by the forbidding atmosphere of the place. The blacked out windows making the whole place claustrophobic and it indeed brought a constriction to the throat so heavy was the atmosphere. 
Occasionally a quote from Anne’s diary was inscribed on the wall of a particular room – some were simply a reflection of their conditions: “Our little room looked very bare at first with nothing on the walls; but thanks to Daddy who had brought my film-star collection and picture postcards on beforehand, and with the aid of a paste pot and brush, I have transformed the walls into one gigantic picture. This makes it look much more cheerful…”. Others reflected the horror of the situation:“As of tomorrow, we won’t have  a scrap of fat, butter or margarine. Lunch today consists of mashed potatoes and pickled kale. You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old”  or “Kugler  [one of the brave Dutch people who assisted them] at times finds the enormous responsibility for the eight of us overwhelming, can hardly talk from the pent up tension and strain” “And others reflected the profoundness of Anne’s mind: “One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews” .
Otto Frank - Anne's father

As we walked around, feeling intruders in this nightmare world – tourists, free and happy in place which less than a life time ago had been a place of imprisonment and terror – it was especially sobering to watch the reactions of youngsters. I was pleased to see, many teenagers and young people of many nationalities – all with their trendy clothes, casual approach to life, mobile phones and all the other must have’s of the modern world. But, from the minute we entered the house they, too, it seemed were overcome by the place and what it stood for. Their happy chatter was stilled as the atmosphere and history of the house seemed to overcome them. Girls would put their hands over their mouths in horror and sadness as they looked at  a page from the diary or watched a short video or witnessed the conditions that the family lived in. They recognised the feelings that Anne expressed in her comments as a young woman and yet knew how different her world was from the freedoms that they enjoy today and take for granted as a matter of course. They would have related to Anne when, in her Diary she tells how she argued with her mother about the role of women and how she and other girls of her generation were going to have a career and not just stay at home. For the young women tourists walking around the Frank's hideout with us that morning, that aspiration is largely today a right and a reality. To Anne it was a distant dream and an ambition.  And I think, too, that they understood the ironic poignancy of one of the quotes inscribed on the wall which said “I wish to go on living even after my death” - a wish that Anne Frank undeniably was granted but not perhaps in the way that she could have imagined. 

Some of the pages of the Diary in Anne's handwriting
But hopefully the comment by Otto Frank when his daughter’s Diary was published will have a special resonance to the young: “We cannot change what happened any more. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice.’’  

And so we stepped outside and back into the sunshine, back onto the busy, cyclist rushing streets of Amsterdam. For half an hour or so we had been back in time, in a different world. One could tell that others were affected like us – no happy chattering as people left – just, for a few minutes we were all solemn and sobered by what we had seen, letting it all soak in. 

And we stepped solemnly  back outside into the Amsterdam
sunlight,and the canals and the bicycles
And I thought of Otto Frank’s comment that “To build up a future, you have to know the past” and again sadly reflected on the American woman in the queue whose knowledge of the world’s past and of the basis of her society and nation was so limited that she described one of the world’s greatest thinkers as “Some French guy”. I wondered is the world one great Disney theme park to people such as this? How do they make sense of even the most basic of news and events? And, as we walked off down the street and passed over one of the lovely Amsterdam canals I thought of Robespierre’s famous comment made at the height of the French Revolution: “The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is ignorance”. Robespierre’s  revolution and the birth of the French Republic based on liberty fraternity and equality was closely allied to that getting off the ground in far off America and both were rooted in the philosophies of people like Descartes. But, the grim story of Anne Frank and the house only a few doors from where Descartes spent much of his life bears witness to the fact that good can quickly turn to evil unless people are watchful and alert – and have the knowledge and commitment to protect their freedoms. But then again I suppose Robespierre, like Descartes, was only some French guy who lived a few hundred years ago!