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Understand or Repeat

Of the three purposes of my visit to Austria (Sound of Music / WWII / Mozart), it is Mozart that has gotten short shrift, I’m afraid. I’m headed to Vienna so I expect I’ll rectify that.

The Salzburg Museum has an entire floor dedicated to the times leading to WWI, the war itself from Austria’s point of view, and the aftermath in Austria. Without knowing a bit about WWI, WWII is completely lacking in context. It isn’t until you get to that last bit about what happened to Austria, Germany and other European economies and societies after WWI that the context for the rise of the far right/Nazi movement becomes clear. The war devastated this central part of Europe. People were starving, dying and completely demoralized. They had no particular reason to hope given that the particular depression they were experiencing was underpinned by a new type of class system.  Let me frame that differently – people who worked hard, who existed in a working class space and never expected to struggle beyond the normal challenges of life, who never had ancestors struggle without resources to be self-reliant – these are the people who were in trouble. Consider that generations prior to the industrial revolution trained men (specifically) in skills and trades passed down and valued over centuries. With the industrial revolution, people started to rely on a system not of their own choosing or making rather than relying on themselves. The system failed. In that kind of environment, any voice that comes along to blame someone else (Jews, perhaps?) for your troubles will eventually get air time.

Currently, we do see the rise of the far-right in Europe, and lots of blame-naming (foreigners, perhaps?) and a drive by some countries to isolate from the EU. It seems a relatively small movement, perhaps. Remember that Hitler was laughed off the stage the first few times he tried to get some public traction for his ideas. He had only a handful of followers, at first. But the public context for his views shifted, moreso than his views did. The times changed. The people changed. Economies all over Europe collapsed.

Now? Speaking from a North American perspective, ordinary working people have trouble finding meaningful work, the kind that both satisfies their souls and keeps them in a positive cash flow and a decent standard of living. Low-paying, low-skill jobs keep even experienced workers at entry level work, often at more than one job. Personal and public debt is rising. This makes people scared and vulnerable. Education is becoming positioned for the elite – intellectualism and scientific pursuits are seen, by some in the far-right, as oh so much nonsensical waste of time. A lack of access to education within a general population makes simple political messages have wider appeal.

We, globally, need to tread carefully at this particular juncture in time. Thanks to the recent study tour I had the crazy wonderful opportunity to be on recently, I’m understanding more the true purpose of the European Union, as complex, unwieldy and expensive as it is. The core purpose is the avoidance of war through dialogue and highly structured, regulated interdependence. The rest – economic leverage to participate in a global market, free movement of goods/services, a mobile labour force – is fine print.  A key success factor, pardon the MBA-speak, is maintaining an internationalistic, rather than a nationalistic, perspective.  We need to listen carefully and select out voices that seek to elevate, or isolate, one group or culture of people to the exclusion of all others. We may start hearing more such voices … and we need to remember where such sentiments can lead.

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2 comments to “Understand or Repeat”

  1. Underlines the importance of the community college system to me — I’ve developed an even deeper appreciation of the kinds of learning that lead people to feeling a sense of accomplishment and purpose in their work through that model from my work with Humber.

  2. Posting a comment two years late: With respect to North America, I would like to add one thing further; yes, there are a lack of jobs that provide a living wage, yes the social economic gap is widening and we are falling more and more into a class system, but this is exacerbated by advertising. If we could make only one change, I vote for banning advertising. Think about it. What is the purpose of advertising? To create wants that didn’t exist, and would not exist if advertising did not exist. In the beginning, advertising had a reasonable role – to tell us about a product that existed. Somewhere that has been perverted into shaming us if we don’t own the product. And that brings me to my second point. A secondary effect of advertising is to make us feel bad about ourselves. Take a Cosmo cover for example. What’s the headline likely to be? 10 ways to make your guy more (insert whatever is on this months cover). But the subtext, that is not explicitly stated but is implied, is that you are lacking, that you are not enough for your partner. My mental health improved tremendously when I banned magazine, ALL of them, from my life.

    Two years after you’ve written this, I worry for the European Union. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to live there, if for a brief time. I fear that it will implode. At the very least, it will change. I hope that, in struggling through the present situation, it re-invents itself to be even better.

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