Sunday, June 14, 2020

Technology Matters

I once saw a documentary about a Guatemalan refuge who escaped to the U.S. and became a hairdresser in a small Midwestern town. In the course of the film, she decides to return to Guatemala to uncover the truth of what happened to the family left behind and who was responsible. She discovers the role of the C.I.A. in training and supporting the soldiers who terrorized and murdered innocent Guatemalan citizens. When she returns to the U.S. town, she tells the story to her church. These good-hearted citizens were aghast and answered the unspoken question: “How could you Americans let this happen?” 

And the all-too-common answer: “We didn’t know. If only we had known.”

And there you have it. So much evil is allowed to continue when people don’t know. Take slavery. Through minstrel shows, postage stamps, songs and stories, most Americans were fed a portrait of slavery as a happy experience, black folks singing and dancing and eating watermelon. Long after slavery was officially abolished, the images and stories continued—witness Gone with the Wind. And the lynchings and K.K.K. murders and terrorism were mostly hidden, despite a few photos and songs like Strange Fruit.

When did things begin to turn around in the Civil Rights Movement? Many people linked the tipping point to the TV cameras televising the fire-hosing of young children. In ways I still can’t understand, many would see that and not be moved, but there is a large population of innocent, good-hearted people like the folks in that midwestern town who finally see what’s happening and something shifts. “No. This cannot be. This must stop.” The footage coming in from Vietnam on the 6 O'clock News also helped the usual rah-rah heroics of the good American war get brought down to the knees of its horrific reality. In short, the television cameras made a significant difference.

And here we are again, but now with the cameras in the hands of any cell-phone user (read “everyone") who is within shooting distance and a social media that doesn’t depend on journalists or news outlets deciding what to show. Though those who have taken the time to educate themselves and just about every black person in this country knows that such things have been happening forever, here was finally the wake-up call that made a difference, that people with an ounce of an open heart (apparently not Senate Repugnanticans and their supporters) could finally understand, “This must stop.”

Yes, there has been other footage that could have, should have, made that same difference, but for whatever reason, this was the firehose moment over a half-century past that earlier form of government-sanctioned brutality. 

Gunter Grass once said, “Your job as a citizen is to keep your mouth open.”

The modern addendum, “And your phone open ready to video.”

Technology matters. But not in the way we thought.

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