About three years ago, in a college class, I had a run-in with cultural illiteracy that I will never forget. It taught me a lesson, but one I only realized recently.
To set the stage, imagine an English 102 class at a medium-sized mid-western university. I'm attempting to make some sort of pointless point about some opaque essay the students were forced to read when I asked the students to name a dictator from the twentieth century.
Crickets. No eye contact. Maybe a bit of drool.
I gave a hint. "Ummm...think World War Two."
Shifting asses, thoughtful upward glances by the brown-nosers but still no answer ventured.
I lifted my index finger to my upper lip, raised my arm in the Nazi salute, and goose-stepped stupidly back and forth in front of the chalkboard.
Bewildered glances, reddened faces, little mouth Os, and wide eyes. Desks scraped back fractionally.
"Really?" I pleaded. "Really? Hitler. You've not heard of Hitler?"
When this initially happened, like many people teaching at this level, I was outraged. "How the hell can they not know about Hitler? Who do I call? What senseless teach-to-the-test moron in the "No Child Left Behind" gulag decided that Hitler should be dropped as a point of historical interest?"
I've told the story again and again, garnering support and nods of approval followed by similar stories of ignorance from my fellow instructors.
Then, I had an epiphany, one blistering Kansas day, when I'd begun the story for the umpteenth time and in mid-telling faltered as I realized that this bit of information, like a word repeated aloud rapidly for a minute or so, had become meaningless. Or, simply--common.
The truth is, we live not only in an era of dictators, both the sugar and shit-coated variety, but are at the end of a long chain of dictators running back to the beginning of agriculture. Looking at our horrific history, we can't swing a dead cat without hitting a psychopath in a suit (of armor).
What has "civilization" been other than a long chain of dictators stretching back to the first agriculturalists who arose from the welter of tribes in the fertile crescent some eight to ten thousand years ago to march across the planet killing the indigenous and the complexity of nature in the pursuit of ever more Lebensraum for the ultimate Reich.
Look at history and you will see a long list of dictators, conquerors, and tyrants: Thutmose III of Egypt; Cyrus and Darius the Great of the Persian empire; Philip II of Macedon; Alexander the Great; Hannibal of Carthage; Scipio Africanus; Pompey the Great; Julius Caesar; Attila the Hun; Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor; William the Conqueror; Ghengis Khan; the Crusades; Tamerlane the Great; the Spanish Conquerors; the English invasion of the Americas; Napoleon; Andrew Jackson, with his Indian genocide; James K. Polk, Mexican American War; William McKinley, the Spanish-American War and on and on. We need not note the big names of the twentieth century. I presume my good readers are familiar with that history.
My point in that woefully inadequate list is that all of "civilized" history has been nothing more than a series of brutal military adventures designed to take away either the lands of the indigenous or to take away the lands of someone who had already taken away those indigenous lands. Once the relative peace of the hunter gatherer era was broken, a free for all began where "civilization" immersed itself in blood while writing its own history, lauding its adventures as a series of just wars which were by no means merely land and resource grabs. Even now, we toil away at war in the Middle East claiming all manner of absurd reasons for our mayhem, from TERROR--to women are treated badly--to TERROR!! when we know that oil is the only reason we are really there.
So, can I blame my feckless class for not remembering a truly cruel dictator? When one realizes that these students are immersed in a world full of so many other cruel dictators who are not only treated as okay, such as the King of Saudi Arabia, but marvelous, like George W. Bush, it seems reasonable in a warped way that they couldn't identify a dictator if they bit them on the ass, locked them up for life, or gave them a lap dance.
The problem is, for the indigenous, their sustainable way of life that had lasted for tens of thousands, if not millions of years, has been crushed by the moral equivalent of Hitler, if he had been an ever-spreading evil that continues to kill and destroy up to this day, an eight thousand year old conqueror who has seen the Arawak Indians skinned alive, the Germanic tribes enslaved, the Cherokee force-marched to reservations, and the indigenous of the Amazon dying for oil.
They barely notice their shackles, let alone notice their world.