I’m sure you have had this experience. You read something and soon discover that you really hadn’t understood something you previously believed you were familiar with. I recently had this experience twice in one week - enough to shake ones sense of reality.
The first “shake” occurred while reading Wade Davis’ recent book on the life of George Mallory (Into the Silence). The book casts a sufficiently wide net to allow the reader to set the first attempts on Mount Everest in a political and cultural context and there is sufficient detail on the actual climbs that one feels you were there. One element of that broad context was World War 1 as all of the members of the first attempt on the mountain had been in the war or experienced the loss of countless family and friends. Davis’ account of World War 1 is graphic and at the same time almost poetic; an amazing piece of writing. I have been privileged to be part of a generation for whom war was not a personal reality; I knew from an early age I was not going to join the military and given the times was quite anti-military. However, my father and two uncles had been in World War 2, my wife’s uncle had died in World War 1, but that is now 90 years in the past and an aunt I never knew lost her husband in World War 1. So, I had to ask myself why I never knew, or cared to know, about the most terrible war in history. Why didn’t the numbers of dead from that war ever get through to me previously? I really don’t know. I did, however, go back through family histories and very quickly came up with a list of 16 men who had served in the war, 4 of whom died from injuries. So now this was has my attention. Primarily in terms of the social consequences of this horrendous event on communities and on societies as well as on individual men as in the story of George Mallory.
The second shake was on reading Massacre in Mexico (1971) by Elena Poniatowska. Poniatowska spent her career as a journalist and when it came to the two most significant events in Mexican history of the past 50 years she developed a very modern style. Rather than tell her story or attempt to provide an analysis of the event she simply let people speak for themselves. Almost the entirety of the book is made up of short clips from interviews with people. It is like reading a contemporary twitter feed from the front lines. The reader gradually pieces events together and forms a powerful image of what happened. The event of course was the state killing of approximately 320 students at the Plaza of Three Cultures located at Tlateloloco just days before the 1968 olympics were to begin in Mexico City. Student protests had been going on for some time regarding significant issues of the time (not about tuition, etc) and as the Olympics approached it seemed that the government made a decision to bring events to a close. Although there is not a strong consensus about events because of the technology available and the ability of the government to control the press and to intercept any photos which may have come out of the plaza.
The strong view, and I think the right view, is that the military prepared and then virtually trapped the students in the plaza and assisted by an armed helicopter and forces with machine guns, bayonets, and guns set about killing as many people as they could. We have become accustomed to the police roughing up protesters and occasionally wounding them or, as in the case at Kent State University, killing four and wounding 9 others. More intentional incidents are associated with communist states like China (Tiananmen Square, 1989) or autocratic states where dissent is not tolerated and few are able to resist without serious repercussions. But here was Mexico, our neighbor, engaging in behaviour which should not have been tolerated at a state level. Further, I was old enough and developing sufficient political consciousness to be more aware. The 1967 Detroit Riots were close at hand, resulting in 43 deaths. and this did shape my political awareness of the USA. I should have known to expect the worst of politicians.
I have now started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow and things may never be the same for me. Although, for any thinking person, it is not new, the way the author frames the analysis is does leave you at least trembling.
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