Jun 27, 2006

America the gulag

Brian M. Carney gets a jolt upon visiting a traveling exhibition devoted to the Soviet gulag.

But then, abruptly, the spell is broken, and in a dispiriting if not alarming way. "Brutal systems have played a prominent role in many countries, including the United States," one of the exhibit's last panels tells visitors. By itself, that one clause--"including the United States"--would be bad enough. But the panel continues. "Although slavery ended after the American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of the Holocaust in Europe and apartheid in South Africa reverberate even today. Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the gulag. How can citizens in these countries face up to the horrors of the past?"

Just as it is the small details of the Gulag exhibit that lead one to consider the depth of the deprivation its captives endured, it is the word "similarly" that so effectively undermines what has just been shown. After all, if the Gulag is "similar" to anything in American life or history, does it teach us anything about the Soviet Union--or about anything at all? "If you cannot distinguish between levels of evil, you are a cause of evil." Such was the astute reaction of a man whose father spent a decade in the Gulag, when confronted with this moral equivalence in the paragraph above.

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