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Day 66 - Learning during an Epidemic


So two new cases of coronavirus disease have been found amongst Mauritian passengers recently returned from India. So, the virus continues to plague us. And we go on learning about it. And about other things.

One life-changing thing I’ve learnt during the lockdown is that you can make faratas with gluten-free flour if you use a level teaspoon of Xantham Gum to a small cup of this flour. I knew this before, but only in theory. I had read it. But now I know in practice. So, we eat faratas at home again, after a few years without, after I could no longer eat anything containing gluten. I also learnt that you can keep bananas in the fridge to slow their ripening. Before that, it was, to me, a well-known fact that you can’t. I had even tried. So what’s the trick? A neighbour-friend Prabawtee shared her knowledge: you wrap the bananas gently in cotton cloth. Try it. But, that means our life has changed in another way. We will eat banann flanbé less often, and gato banann even less often because there will be less over-ripe bananas lying around.

But, the point here is that the knowledge came to us in our household from trying things we had read about in books and articles, on the one hand, or had heard about from someone older than us, on the other hand. Then we confirmed the knowledge by putting it to the test. 

And so, in general, we learn from reading a good book or listening to good advice, and then checking on it in action. But, any new knowledge, as we acquire it, has to fit into an already-existing mental structure in our heads. We need always to be building this structure. That is what is called “training the mind to think”. Otherwise facts, however true they are, remain one big jumble. For example, I already know how to make good faratas with ordinary flour. I already know that lots of kinds of fruit do ripen slowly in the fridge. This previous knowledge is stored in an orderly fashion of some sort, in my head. The new knowledge restructures already existing structures. 

So, for politics. As the children of May ’75 remind us, we have to learn via reading. Perhaps we need to re-nurture a culture of reading books, or Kindle books. Reading gives us a knowledge of all things past. And then we test any new idea against our existing ones by discussion with someone else, or in a group. For this to become a political vision of any sort, our existing ideas need to be constantly ordered and re-ordered. When there is new scientific work on a theme, it means that old constructs in our heads need modification. We also need to learn from listening to what others know from their experience of life and analyzing it, and indeed by analyzing our own past experience – again and again. So, it is wonderful to read all the memories from the May ’75 uprising that individual people are writing up. It is history told by those who were in it.

Another life-changing thing I’ve learnt is that, in order to integrate new political analyses via a documentary (as opposed to reading), it is essential for me to watch the film or series twice – and during the second viewing, to concentrate on taking notes on key points. For reading, it helps, too, to re-read and to take notes. But, for a more visual medium like film, it is even more important to have that possibility. Here is an example. 

During the lockdown, we have had the time to watch the 6-part series The Nazis: A Lesson from History twice. With the rise of the extreme right – in Germany, many other European countries – and its coming to power in India, the USA, Brazil, Hungary and Philippines – the very title is arresting. In fact, the film-maker Laurence Rees, and historian advisor Ian Kershaw, took the title from the Karl Jaspers quotation about the rise of Nazism: “That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It was possible for this to happen and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute.” 

Adolf Hitler’s enduring aim was revenge, revenge against those who organized the failed uprising in Munich, which he blamed for Germany’s losing WWI and surrendering. He said the uprising was the work of “Communists and Jews”, a “stab in the back” against the Kaiser (or King) and Country. This remained Hitler’s leitmotif: vengeance for this and for the further humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles a year later. He then created the idea of a great German empire or Reich so that there would never again be such a socialist uprising as at Munich and so that Germany would never surrender again. He managed these, technically. He allowed Germany to be annihilated by WW II before killing himself by shooting himself in the head when the Soviet troops were literally metres from the bunker he was hiding in. There could be no surrender because he had caused Germany’s total annihilation. Nor could there be the kind of revolution that there was in Russia after WW I. The USA could then walk in and impose its military and economic occupation in one half of Germany and the Soviet union could stay where it had got to in the war, in the other half. Even though finally re-unified, Germany still puts up with 35,000 USA military occupiers. There is a lot to unpick in all that, it seems, with the rise of the extreme right in Germany today. Another series will be needed for that. 

Anyway. Adolf Hitler, as he rose to being leader of the Nazis, was viewed by most Germans then just as Trump is viewed by most Americans today: as an idiot so laughable that it won’t be long before he is replaced. The same can probably be said for Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte when they rose to power. I also learnt from the series something I did not realize before: the extent of the chaos of the Nazi leadership under Adolf Hitler. In this, too, Trump is the same. 

I was previously taken in by the synchronization of the marching Nazis in their fancy uniforms and the mechanical salutes and Heil Hitlers. In fact, Hitler got up late every day, sometimes he made it to lunch. Then immediately after supper he watched two sentimental German feature films or films to the glory of British colonial rule in India. In between, he extolled vague plans for a future German empire, castles in the air. Nothing orderly there. Just sloth and putrid day-dreams.

But what he could do well, and that from the beginning when a couple of German Bosses and a few Army Chiefs first “discovered” this rabble-rouser and “employed” him, as they put it, was to speak to big crowds. He was an orator. Slightly deranged, but mesmerizing, he kept crowds spellbound with his simple phrases. This way, he galvanized the German lower-middle classes already disoriented by the defeat in WW I and the crippling war reparations of Versailles, then the depression, and he could invent the same old handy scapegoats again and again – “the Communists and the Jews” who he thought of as interchangeable. Later he took over as leader of the German youth from boy-scout-like movements that had grown. He hypnotized these very young people – often against the wishes of their family – with his words and imagery. 

Hitler did not give orders to his adjuncts – whether in the party or in the army. They gleaned his wishes direct from his speeches at rallies or from his private ranting. Each then did exactly as he thought fit. His adjuncts were locked in perpetual in-fighting and back-stabbing, adding to the chaos of his reign. There was no plan. There was no program. Just play it by ear, based on a few hideous prejudices here and there: “People have been taking advantage of us”, “We’re sick of being humiliated,”, “We will build up the economy and the armed forces,” and for all ills just blame the “Communists and Jews”. That was about as much of a plan as there was. Remind us of some others?

The Nazis are indeed a warning from history as Karl Jaspers put it. And as we come out of lockdown and face up to a new political reality, we must remember this and learn all we can not just about xantham gum and bananas but also about politics – from reading, from studying films, from stories, from experience of the past. 

And meanwhile, there is a new TV series just out on the same subject showing right now: The Plot Against America, based on Philip Roth’s book. It shows the rise of fascism in the USA, based on autobiographical details from Roth’s childhood in New Jersey. It is what is called a “what-if” historical fiction. “What if” when Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) ran for President in 1940, instead of winning a third term over a Republican businessman, he lost to the real American aviator hero, Charles Lindbergh, a real anti-Semite fascist, who in fiction stood as candidate for President and won. In fact, the real fascist Lindbergh was co-member of something called the “America First Committee” (ring a bell?) set up at Yale University together with people like Henry Ford, another real-life anti-Semite fascist. Don’t miss the film series. At the end of the first series of 6 episodes, you realize, because it ends on a cliff-hanger, that there will be another series.  


Lindsey Collen

for LALIT, a personal view.