Anyone who is surprised by the doomed attempts of 31 United States governors to block Syrian refugees need not look further than the 1930’s, when American politicians barred Jewish women and children fleeing Nazi Germany. A recent Washington Post poll showed that more than half of all Americans oppose Syrian refugees relocating to the United States. For now, we’ll just have to add that to the list of embarrassing social opinions backed by most Americans.
We belong to a generation unlike any other before. Past generations participated in regressive politics, but this is undoubtedly the first generation to bear the weight of an ever-present catalog of unacceptable behavior. With the birth of the internet, the past is only a few clicks away. Neatly archived and accessible, one click allows us to instantly revisit devastating moments in our nation’s history.
The internet actively authenticates our denials and delusions. We proudly assert that slavery ended one hundred and fifty years ago, and yet, we fail to recall that the last recorded lynching was in 1981, in Alabama. Governors sicced dogs on protesters when my parents were young, and my great-grandparents were alive when 61% of Americans opposed 10,000 mostly Jewish refugees fleeing Germany, in 1939.
My generation will be the first to carry these ugly moments in American history, in full HD, for generations and generations to come.
It seems sometimes that the only thing more taboo than discrimination is talking about it. As a nation, we are socially dissuaded from scavenging through dust-covered archives to discover past atrocities. Public schools have long implemented course work that attempts to showcase the United States in the most positive light, glossing over any blemishes or misgivings that are objectively problematic. Recently, a McGraw-Hill textbook referred to African slaves as “workers.” Generations past, students learned that millions of Native Americans were savages and were simply “reorganized” in a fair way.
And now, blemishes on our nation’s character are less easily scrubbed away with the passing of time. We may only be able to watch short-clipped, grainy footage of police dogs terrorizing protesters in Birmingham, or read through aged newspaper clippings that stoke resistance to welcoming Jewish refugees from Germany. As much as we want to say we didn’t know any better, the songs remain the same, and some things never change.
My generation has given birth to the first digital natives – children who will undoubtedly navigate the internet with ease, children who can’t be deceived or lied to if they have the volition to pursue the truth. My generation will be the first to carry these ugly moments in American history, in full HD, for generations and generations to come.
Our grandchildren will likely re-watch videos of Latino protesters being beaten and spit on during Trump rallies, while the police stood idly by. Our children will be able to see television anchors shamelessly calling for war and soft-balling questions to politicians. In high school history classes, 50 years from now, students will watch videos of armed Americans surrounding mosques, and politicians demonizing immigrants. The only difference is that we will not be able to look back and say we didn’t know better, or let time soften the narrative of these events.
Although we have failed to learn from our mistakes in the past, the dawn of the digital archive has already helped shape the way we view the past and make policy on eerily familiar subjects. The internet allowed us to review public records and begin the early stages of self-reflection before history repeats itself. Now, more than ever, the United States is using its digital archives to re-examine cases of injustice or political oddities in order to preemptively assess social blunders.
For example, recent footage has shown the Reagan administrations abhorrent or otherwise ignorant reaction to the AIDS crisis, where Larry Speakes laughed off questions about AIDS by jokingly accusing a reporter of being homosexual. At the very least, just as before, we can say that this administration “didn’t know any better.” Nevertheless, this is an excellent example of digital archives that have allowed the reexamination of sociopolitical shortcomings before we’re faced with another, where personal politics encumber national progress.
We can also argue that the internet gives way to new forms of misinformation. Surely digital archives allow us access to subjective material that can easily be contorted to fringe ideologies. This is true in many instances, as social selection and confirmation bias often creates impenetrable alcoves of political ideology in online communities. However, the very presence of a digital archive provides an amount of transparency that starts a robust conversation. Unlike any period of history before, moral conversations are allowed to take place on public forums like Twitter or Facebook, granting the average American his or her own podium in a national debate of morals.
With any luck, our generation’s social policies regarding immigration will be out-shined by the woefully asinine things that some fringe groups still believe today; for example, theories suggesting that President Obama is a secret Muslim plotting to destroy the country or the idea that school shootings are staged events to seize civilian guns.