Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Reading, Part 1

The month of July was especially rainy this year in Bratislava, which left me with quite a few wet weekend afternoons and weekday evenings after work without outside entertainment as an option. In addition to revising my resume, writing cover letters and spending long hours tweaking the code of my website, this summer, and especially this July, I've had chance to read for pleasure for the first time in years.

I've just finished two books. The first is Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (I apparently never got around to reading the unabridged version as a kid - which is sad because it's not even a long story) and the second is Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which I found on my boss' bookshelf.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of Dickens' more popular works for a reason. What Dickens lacks in character development and realistic characters, he makes up in colorful descriptions, gripping plot twists and a way of building a heavy cloud of oncoming doom. However, this post will not be a third grade book report, although I'm sure this novel is often assigned for things like that.

What really made me think while I was reading this classic and for some reason is sticking with me after I've finished is the idea of hate. A Tale of Two Cities describes the uncontrollable and destructive hatred of the French Revolution. This hatred is not a personal hatred, but a hatred for a whole group of people. It's what I call bias motivated hatred and it has a dehumanizing effect on the target of the emotion, whether it is a member of a social class, ethnic group, nationality, religion or political group. History is filled with examples of the violence that stems from blind hatred toward whole groups. This emotion has allowed for perfectly normal people to accuse, expel, imprison and even murder their neighbors and countrymen in tragedies like the Greco-Turkish War, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, the Indian Partition, the Bosnian War, and the Rwandan Genocide.

This destructive human emotion is best illustrated by Dickens at the climax of the story, when the characters (and the reader) discover that the only surviving victim of an innocent family destroyed by two evil aristocratic brothers was a young girl who had subsequently grown up to become Madame Defarge, a cynical, hate-filled woman who desires nothing more than to exterminate her family's oppressors and all their kin. She calls for blood and cares not that her intended victims include a noble who had given up his inheritance out of disgust of the oppression of the ancien régime and a small child who has no knowledge of her aristocratic heritage.

Every great human tragedy in history seems to play out this way. A person, a family, a community, a nation is wronged. The wrong is repaid with purges, revolution, war or genocide, which only serves to add to the tragedy rather than right a wrong. Is it in our nature to prejudge and hate whole groups of people that we couldn't possibly know? It seems that as a species, we haven't learned our lesson on this whole hatred thing.

Sorry if that was kind of a downer post - at least the story has a happy ending!