Monday, May 16, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: History Forgets

Anger fills Roger Sterling's heart at the thought of doing business with Japanese businessmen for a Honda Motorcycle campaign in 1965 on a season 4 episode of Mad Men. Memories remain in his heart of friends lost in World War II. The world has moved on, Roger, so should you. Let it go.

I couldn't help think about Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, the nearly unbelievable story of Louis Zamperini and his fellow servicemen in World War II and the suffering inflicted by the Japanese on our troops and our allies. We hear much of the German atrocities, but relatively little in contrast of what happened in Japan and of the nations they conquered.

I read Unbroken as part of a book group club, and will tell you if you know what happened to Zamperini and his fellow servicemen, you are a better person for it, and a better American. Their story will stay with me always. And while I don't think anyone should redirect anger on civilians who may have had nothing to do with the war, Roger Sterling's anger how quickly the world moved on can give you pause if you think about it coming from someone who served in the war. As Gregory Peck said in the film "The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit," about a World War II vet, you went from catching the train every day as a civilian, to the horrors of war, to come home to catch the train every day.

Consider in Japan, just a wink of an eye in the scheme of time really after the war ended,

"By 1958, every war criminal who had not been executed would be free, and on December 30 of that year, all would be granted amnesty. Sugamo [the prison where so many endured a fate too cruel to imagine] would be torn down, and the epic ordeals of POWs in Japan would fade from the world's memory."

All those who caused untold suffering on American troops - savage beatings, starvation and dehydration, infliction of diseases sometimes for medical experimentation, outright torture and death - would be forgotten. Given the time - 1965 - it is quite possible Roger Sterling or his friends could have faced those across the conference room on the battlefield. Wasn't it so that America moved on as now it was expedient to use Japan as an ally, and Honda was a much needed account for the new firm?

Lest we think America has a clean conscience, Lillenbrand reminds us of quite the opposite. While she a bit bewilderingly didn't include the internment of innocent Japanese civilians in American camps, she does highlight this during Louis' youth:

"In the 1930s, America was infatuated with the pseudoscience of eugenics and its promise of strengthening the human race by culling the "unfit" from the gene pool. Along with the "feebleminded," insane, and criminal, those classified included women who had sex out of wedlock (considered a mental illness), orphans, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, epileptics, masturbators, the blind and deaf, alcoholics, and girls who whose genitals exceeded certain measurements. Some eugenicists advocated euthanasia, and in mental hospitals, this was quietly carried out on scores of people through "lethal neglect" or outright murder. At one Illinois mental hospital, new patients were doused with milk from cows infected with tuberculosis, in the belief that only the undesirable would perish. As many as four in ten of these patients died. A more popular tool of eugenics was forced sterilization, employed on a raft of lost souls who, through misbehavior or misfortune, fell into the hands of state governments. By 1930...California was enraptured with eugenics, and would ultimately sterilize some twenty thousand people."

Do you worry or wonder what could be happening in present times? Do you think history too easily forgets? While for Roger it might have been about forgiveness, I viewed it as about forgetfulness of our own history - so short in time as span, yet so quickly faded. We concern ourselves so much with the present and what's beneficial to just us - not looking forward at potential consequences, or to the past for lessons learned, and for perspective.


  1. History forgets what we allow it to, and your conversation here in the blog is an important reminder to pay attention. Thank you for the thoughtful points you make. I do worry about what is done in the name of science, and the examples you give are not really widely known, but should be. See "the experiment" on prison conditioning, and US experiments on cruelty, quite disturbing.

  2. We seem to have a disturbing fondness for harming segments of the population we marginalize due to appearance or perceived lifestyle. Most recently, we're going after fat folks and most people feel fully justified in doing so thanks to "medical evidence" supporting the cause. But to compare such things to the joy of eugenics? People scoff and immediately justify, clamoring about how this is totally different. (It's not.)

    Naomi Klein makes a disturbing case for how torture and "experiments" are used in crushing nations across the globe in favor of "free" market economies. The most recent torture episodes have been at the hands of our own men in Iraq and countless secret torture facilities across the globe (naturally, Americans are not the only ones engaged in these heinous acts). All, I would argue, in favor of privitizing war and therefore increasing the profits of a few at the expense of the many.

    I guess this is my really long winded way of saying that we haven't really forgotten, because we are still actively engaged in such behavior.

  3. Thanks so much for the comments.

    Perhaps "History Ignores" is more appropriate. The private citizen concerned with these matters can feel helpless because what can be done behind closed doors in the name of science and security that is unchecked?

    What's alarming is how little we know of our own history, and current events which will soon be tomorrow's history. An unquestioning, uninterested population is one ripe for control.

  4. "An unquestioning, uninterested population is one ripe for control." That, my dear, needs to be a billboard.