I’ve been reading The Gulag Archipelago, the 20th Century classic by Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I remember my father and uncles reading it when I was a child, and it was a relatively new book. I am broken by it. I am disgusted by it. I am changed by it
I am saddened that it took me this long to start. But then, almost nobody ever talked about it when I was in high school or college. We learned about suffering. But it seems, in terms of human inhumanity, our education higlighted slavery in the Americas and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. Both things of gut-wrenching horror that stretch our belief that humans can be good at all.
But I have been moving through the pages of Gulag, each chapter describing another level of human wickedness and depravity; another list of ways in which humans can torment, torture and murder others without so much as the bat of an eye, and all for ideology. Arrest and conviction without trial. Murder couched in soaring revolutionary rhetoric, and often as pretext for revenge, greed or simple lust. All as a means to power. And power the means to more murder in a vast Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist experiment in positively reinforcing terror.
I knew it was bad. I had no idea how bad. I shake my head.
There’s a lot of bad out there today as well. Open slave markets in Libya in which sub-Saharan Africans are put on the block. Ongoing civil wars in Syria and in Nigeria which have left hundreds of thousands dead. Muslims in concentration camps in China, being ‘re-educated’ as good citizens.
Oddly, things in the world are getting steadily better…even though there is much to be done. I just want to point out that if we spend all our time on our ridiculous phones and on our ludicrious social media accounts, we’ll miss a lot of things happening in the world. (And if we manipulate the past to make our students more comfortable, then neither they (nor we) will be able to catalog and discuss its collected miseries.)
And worst, we’ll begin to believe, to really believe, that the arguments, push-back, name-calling and even marginalization we experience are among the worst things in the world. Even as we surf that web and buy our phones and chain ourselves to them in what is quite literally the most free and equal nation on earth.
History calls. The world weeps and beckons. Look up and look around. Turn off the ad-driven drivel that occupies your mind and see what men and women, boys and girls endure domestically and internationally. Study the past, study the present and prepare to make the future better. Or else, sit back in numb entertainment and you can experience the horrors yourself when they return due to human sloth, wickedness, envy and ignorance.
But if you learn, if you really try, then you may decide how much you suffer (or don’t) by comparison, how horrible your own life is (or isn’t) by comparison and what you can do for the rest of the suffering world and for the children yet to populate it.