Deleting Humankind’s Cultural Heritage, There’s An App For That

Of all the milestones along the road to human civilization, none is more profound than the advent of reading and writing. But in the name of interactivity, the 21st century is marked by the shallow language of social media that risks burning all our acqui

Swiped away...
Swiped away...
Jaime Pinsky


SAO PAULO â€" The process of civilizing society hasn't stopped since the first appearance of human beings. The discovery of fire and invention of the wheel, domestication of animals, the creation of gods and structuring of cities were all milestones in the history of humankind.

But after the emergence of spoken language, it becomes difficult to pinpoint civilizing factors that have had greater impact than the invention, the rationalization and the universalization of writing. Through it, humankind became capable not only of producing culture, but also of preserving it efficiently and passing it on to both contemporaries and future generations.

Presenting discoveries, describing inventions, revealing techniques, explaining ideas and concepts, admitting weaknesses and sharing feelings became far easier with writing. But initially practiced among elites only, writing spread the accumulated knowledge parsimoniously. The conservatism of those who held power was such that it blocked the democratization of progress in material as well as immaterial culture.

Initially with papyrus and parchment, then with paper, and later with the invention of movable type printing, culture and an accumulated heritage reached an ever-growing number of people, popularizing knowledge and giving new opportunities to a larger segment of the population. The whole history of humankind would have been very different without writing and books.

The 19th century saw the populations of developed countries learn to read and to write on an unprecedented scale. As machines began to replace manual work, agricultural productivity grew, as did the services sector and cities, seemingly placing the world on the path to a reality that, up until then, had been only the dream of utopians.

By reading books, writing letters, putting the result of complex reflexions on paper, citizens were sharing ideas, thoughts, feelings, and they were all the stronger depending on their ability to use writing and reading techniques. Back then, it was possible to dream of a universal society of literate people whose opportunities to move up the social ladder would be determined solely on their merits.

But in our 21st century, utopias seem like a bad remembrance of a distant past. Although many people don't like the world we live in, it seems as if we've given up on changing it. We live in societies that are either consumerist or bureaucratic, when they're not fundamentalist. We pretend we can find happiness in buying stuff, obeying rules or believing in an improbable afterlife.

We’re throwing away thousands of years of advancing civilization so we can turn into app-driven consumers. We're losing the ability to read complex texts, and we content ourselves with the poverty of social media language.

In the name of interactivity, we're becoming unremarkable, common. Without serious readings, we're abdicating humankind's cultural heritage, which previous generations took thousands of years to build.

We don't even need a Big Brother to order that books be burned. We're burning our unused, unnecessary bookshelves ourselves, and not even to replace them with e-books. Instead, we're leaving knowledge in the sole hands of software creators.

*Jaime Pinsky is an historian and professor at the University of Campinas. He's also the founder and CEO of Brazilian publishing company Contexto.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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