The school where I teach does not have a cafeteria, so the students eat in the classrooms. Those who come to my room mostly ignore me, which allows me to eavesdrop on the bizarre world of the modern teenager. One day last quarter, Jon and Leo were sitting at the back of my classroom, eating pizza and having one of their outlandish discussions. I watched as Leo picked off slices of pepperoni and popped them in his mouth.
“You know what’s funny, Jon?” Leo said as he picked away at some cheese, looking for a faux-meat treasure, “I read recently about this law of internet discourse where every argument will always inevitably degenerate to the point where someone will compare somebody else to the Nazis.”
Jon laughed, “That’s totally true.”
My ears were perking up at that point, because Jon and Leo are exceptionally bright young men and I never knew where one of their discussions might go. On that day, however, they were more engrossed in their pizza and didn’t pursue it any further. It got me thinking about Nazis, though, and mulling over the role they have come to play in our culture as symbolic of the evil Other.
Weeks later, when a student in one of my art classes started complaining because he couldn’t find an eraser, I slammed a hand down on my desk and said, loudly and half-joking, “You’re right! It’s a complete travesty that you can’t find an eraser. I, for one, am completely appalled and chagrined at the dearth of erasers in this room and you know what!?! I blame the Nazis!”
This vocabulary-heavy outburst left the room silent save a few repressed giggles, until one brave girl in the front row said, “What the heck are you talking about, Mr. Barkey?”
I explained myself:
“It all started back after World War One, when this funny-mustached little dude named Hitler was wandering around Vienna getting kicked out of art school for incompetence.
"My grasp of history has always been a bit, er, sketchy,” I went on, "so I am not saying that sucking at art necessarily turns you into a despotic, genocidal tyrant—I would never say that—but let that be a lesson to you: pay attention in art class, kids.
"Anyways, Hitler went and became the leader of Nazi Germany and started World War II, which resulted in a whole lot of death, destruction, and the utter defeat of Germany. This all created a power vacuum in Europe, a vacuum which the United States was in a unique position to fill. As a latecomer to a war that was fought on foreign soil, the United States came out of it as the least-damaged emerging Industrial Economy, with the necessary infrastructure to meet the demands of a world newly-interconnected by the whole tragedy. It rose to the challenge with gusto and an often bombastic disregard for any considerations of values, morals, health and wisdom.
"What followed was a period of unchecked growth and economic expansion unparalleled in the history of the world, a mix of good and horrendous developments that pretty much blew the roof off of all previous conceptions of wealth and any sort of sane, holistic understanding of what “the pursuit of happiness” should really look like. As a result, the past thirty years have been a ludicrous orgy of selfish consumerism that has had our country riding the wave of leisure right down the backs of the world’s poor, a ride that (I hope, at least) seems to be coming to an end.
"This is where the erasers come in. You all are a generation three or four times removed from the horrors of the War and the Great Depression. You are therefore incapable of conceiving of a world in which an eraser that is ripped to bits, thrown at classmates, or surreptitiously taken from this classroom will not be immediately replaced by another (preferably better) eraser. In your world, there is always more and more interesting stuff, in ever-growing quantities. And although this is a fool’s paradise—a fact that will likely be brought crashing down on you as soon as you leave school and try to enter this new rat-bagged economy of ours—I can’t bring myself to blame you.
"Your parents have given you everything this culture has to offer and in turn have left you nothing for which to be grateful. Even if Immanuel Kant is wrong and ingratitude is not the essence of vileness, it is pretty clear from the number of y’all who are on mood-altering drugs that the world you’ve inherited has put you in a really bad place. And for all this, I say to you again, we must blame the Nazis.”
That, more or less, is what I said… probably more, though, because I prefer to survive the next parent-teacher night. I, for one, am extremely grateful to have a job I love—one that gives me the opportunity to help these young men and women challenge their cultural presuppositions.
It's a messed-up world they live in, and it is comforting to think we can blame the Nazis and congratulate ourselves that we are so superior and would never, ever sink to that level. But the truth is that we make our own ugly, selfish choices every day. The Nazis may have made it possible for us to become this ostentatiously wealthy, but they certainly didn't force the credit cards into our hands. They didn't make us slaves to the consumerism that binds us. Gratitude, I think, can show us how to be free.