Sunday, June 29, 2014

Israeli Young People Taking 'Selfies' at Auschwitz?

Four teenagers huddle together, striking a severe pose like a boy band. In the background, just overhead, a sign looms: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” A girl kneels down next to some austere-looking, moss-ridden stairs. Wearing a black beanie and red lipstick, she makes a duck face and an inverse peace sign as the camera snaps. Two girlfriends draped in Israeli flags stand side by side, smiling, in a snow-topped forest. The caption reads, “#Trablinka #poland #jewish.” Underneath, a single comment: “Oh my god, beauties!!!” 
The Instagram era has now brought us the selfie in a concentration camp. Or, as the phenomenon was identified in the title of a new Israeli Facebook page (translated here loosely), With My Besties in Auschwitz. The page, taken down on Wednesday, culled from real-life photos—most of them also taken down recently—that had been posted on social-media sites by Israeli kids on school trips to Poland. From the self-absorbed faux seriousness of some (meditating on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau!) to the jarring jokiness of others (hitching a ride by the train tracks!), the pictures have fed a perception of today’s youth as a bunch of technology-obsessed, self-indulgent narcissists.
The very thought that teenagers and other young people would take "selfies" at Auschwitz is disgusting and contemptible. I am often not at a loss for words; this is one of those moments where I am struggling with what to say.

While out of fashion in too many circles, the politics of black respectability still have great meaning and importance for me.

My home training and upbringing have socialized me to include phrases like "you are an embarrassment to your race" or "damn, a black man is President and you need to pull up your pants and you over there need to stop having babies with all manner of street hoodlums who don't have jobs" as part of my lingua franca.

A central element of the black respectability politics oeuvre--and perhaps of self-aware and politically conscious and aware black folks more generally--is that African-Americans need to be more like our Jewish brothers and sisters. In that logic, "they"--meaning Jewish folks--know their history, do not disparage their ancestors' struggles, do not publicly disparage each other with racial slurs, value education and literacy, are entrepreneurial and economically self-sustaining, and created a State (with the largess of the American taxpayer) that will kick the literal and metaphorical butts of anyone who dares to oppose it.

If the story about young Israelis mocking and making fun of death camps as a means of getting "hits" and online attention is correct, then perhaps the Afrotopian black respectability idealization of "the Jews" needs to be reconsidered.

The millennial Facebook social media generation has been diagnosed as possessing clinical levels of narcissism. In the United States, their self-esteem has been amplified by helicopter parents who have lied to them about being the most special, capable, smart, and best people in the world.

Too many of the Facebook and Millennial generation receive trophies for simply showing up at the game.

This leaves them unprepared for the realities of a vicious world where no one really cares if mommy or daddy told you how special you are by virtue of your ability to wake up and breath air each day.

Of course, gross generalizations lead to imprecise claims that may not hold for every case. I have been lucky to know quite a few young(er) people that are part of the Millennial or Facebook generation who defy all of those descriptions--and find the behavior of their peers to be embarrassing and pathetic.

Several years ago, one of the smartest and more self-aware students which I have been fortunate enough to teach offered up the following observation during a conversation about social media, young people's political identities, and narcissism. His peers were none too pleased.

He said that the arguments about the narcissism and low self-esteem issues of his fellow undergraduates makes total sense. However, we need to be careful about context and causality. This student smartly said that "imagine you are in high school or middle school, what have you accomplished in life? nothing at all of importance, but you go online and everyone looks fabulous and great. Too many of us don't have the smarts or experience to realize that it is mostly bullshit because we want to live a lie that we are fabulous and great too when haven't done a damn thing in our lives either". I smiled. Someone was paying attention and thinking that day.

Said student's sharing was a CBGB moment. His peers looked at him, angry and aghast at his truth-telling.

As the truism suggests, maybe the selfie clique defiling Auschwitz and other death camps, is proof that youth is wasted on the young. Such an explanation seems very flat to me. How else can/should we try to understand the events detailed by The New Yorker's "Should Auschwitz be a site for Selfies?"

I have no doubt that too many black students would be guilty of doing much the same thing during a tour of a slave plantation in the United States. That history seems far away for them (decades and a century have gone by in their simplistic post racial historiography of the Transatlantic Slave Trade). However, young people in Israel are members of a political community in which "never again" and surviving The Holocaust are central tenets of their collective identity as a people.

How do we make sense of this puzzle?


KissedByTheSun said...

I guess I'm that out of touch with "what's up " in the streets. For the life of me I just can't get into social media. For all the appeals to its ability to connect and reconnect people I can't help but see it solely as a paradise for narcissist. But then again I've never been into taking pictures or excited about seeing others pictures. Nor do I have an inflated sense of the importance of my opinion. Taking pictures of my own face, with words about the place that my face happens to be in, just seems utterly pointless to me. To make sense of it is to justify this madness.

AryanBob said...

I hope they do forget, that way we can give them another one bigger than the last one. Then we'll see how chosen they are.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I think a lot of young people don't know how to locate themselves in the present moment. They don't know who or what they are (not that I'm talking about these particular Israeli people).

I think our consumer culture had been preparing society for the current social media narcissism. Our society rewards whimsical fantasy. You can have anything you want and it is all replaceable and can be upgraded. As for social media, the world has been made much smaller, it is a computer chip that can be deciphered at the palm of your hand. It draws out the ego in ways that had never before been able. People are almost forced to hold on to their ego as a form of protection against those you come across on the internet.

iamfantastikate said...

Whenever there's talk of Millennials...

Elly said...

I dunno... As a kid, I can recall being squicked out by "Hogan's Heroes" (I grew up pre-internet - so sue me). Even today, people love that show - go look at the reviews. But methinks a TV show featuring heeelarious and incompetent-but-lovable Nazis overseeing a happy-go-lucky group of POWs is easily as tasteless as selfies-at-Auschwitz, and the producers of the show didn't have youth as an excuse. Even worse, some of the cast members were Jews who fled Germany during WWII.

When history meets pop culture, history is usually the loser.

Insofar as this goes:

"I have been lucky to know quite a few young(er) people that are part of
the Millennial or Facebook generation who defy all of those
descriptions--and find the behavior of their peers to be embarrassing
and pathetic."

Me too. They're my kids and their circle of friends, who I find are kinder, more thoughtful and more self-aware than I was at their ages. IMHO, there have always been thoughtless, cruel and ignorant teenagers... it's just that these days - thanks to social media - they have more scope, opportunity and visibility.

joe manning said...

Public ed is doing a poor job of teaching us to memorialize the Holocaust and Israeli public ed should especially take note. If the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwanda Massacre, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade were more in the foreground we would not be witnessing said selfie exhibition, let alone the white nationalist recrudescence with its scapegoating and vigilantism. Mass insensitivity has a demoralizing effect which makes us highly susceptible to personal degeneracy. The ability of Jews and blacks to beat impossible odds should be an inspiration to us all.

Nina Flowers said...

Frankly I think you see the white nationalist mobilization due to the fact that these struggles get any mention. White flight to suburbia was due to the struggles of us black folks and us finally getting some semblance of justice. Whites created this "sanctuary" of the suburbs solely for the purpose of keeping us out. They could not do it legally, so they used their control of the financial and real estate industries to do so. It's still in full effect.
I don't know if you are aware of the big deal in Louisiana where white folks in Shreveport (I think it was) want to break away and create their own city because they don't want blacks in their schools. They argue that it's just an issue of class... Middle class people should have their own schools and not "pay for the poor". The issues of segregation are in the forefront of course but, they've got a black conservative mouthpiece "reverend" to speak for them. Check out PBS' Frontline who featured this whole mess. The white folks are upset and screaming that segregation is not a problem, therefore they should be able to practice it !

joe manning said...

Sadly, political reaction in general and segregation in particular are back with a vengeance.