First-Hand Experience is Flawed (or why millennials don't hate communism)

"You weren't there."

Being a man of only thirty-one years, I hear this a lot. I wasn't alive during the Great Depression, World War II, and most of the Cold War. These were significant moments in American history, and they greatly shaped the generations that experienced them.

My generation, on the other hand, grew up without any real threat of war or economic collapse. Yes, we saw 9/11, but none of us were drafted into the various Middle Eastern campaigns. Yes, there was a recession in 2008, but it's peak unemployment rate of 10% pales in comparison to the depression's 25%.

By all accounts, those of us born after 1980 are extremely fortunate having been formed by an era relatively free of adversity. Perhaps that's why so many of us don't share our parents' and grandparents' values: we didn't experience what they did and if we had, we might not be so different.

When people say "you weren't there", they're saying that their experience is superior to yours because they believe the present is more objective than the past or future. They saw Hitler's rise to power and heard Gorbachev's speeches. Contrary to the popular wisdom that hindsight is 20/20, they're convinced that missing the forest for the trees is the ultimate perspective.

We should never discredit the smell of war or poverty, but history has a way of broadening the context of our moments. Sure, the stock market collapsed in 1929, but the causes of the panic selling range from overproduction to overconsumption. In the moment, the depression was a freak accident but in retrospect, it was a ticking time bomb.

The closer you are to a situation, the more you feel it but the less you understand it. For example, our parents and grandparents feel a certain way about Communism because they experienced it during a period of rapid, bloody expansion.

By the time of the Cold War, there were seventeen Communist nations (not including the twenty-one Soviet satellite states). Today, there are only five remaining. Consequently, my generation has experienced Communism less as a dangerous ideal and more as the choice economy of a handful of mad dictators.

Of course, the builders and boomers witnessed the devastation of Communism every day. And with their context shrouded in death, most of them came to the same conclusion: Communism is evil. They can't understand why a character like Bernie Sanders captivated so many in our generation because his ideals are the first step towards to greatest evil they've ever known.

But history shows that Communism was nothing more than a tool in the hands of corrupt men, originally intended to combat another tool that had become corrupted.

Like many economic systems, Communism was meant to correct an imbalance in the age-old class disparity between the rich and the poor. Friedrich Engels, one of Communism's founding fathers, claimed that capitalism viz a viz industrialism had made the life of a working person worse by introducing competition. 

The working class used to be able to lead a simple life making what they needed and selling the surplus for profit. But with the advent of industrialism, this life was replaced with factories and machines which could produce greater quantity at lower prices. Similar to how big box stores push out small businesses today, the nineteenth century working class was forced to work in those factories for long hours and low pay or risk starvation.

Communism was an attempt to create class parity by forcing equality between the working and ruling classes. Ironically, Vladimir Lenin formed the first "soviet" or council of workers in response to the same conditions that led America to form labor unions around the same time. Indeed, Communism might have taken root here as well had it had a more charismatic instigator like Lenin.

Of course, one might speculate that FDR's sudden death during his fourth term in office was the only thing that prevented the death of American democracy. No president in history has created a larger government program (Social Security) and no president was closer to becoming a genuine dictator--further proof that the crimes of Communism are indebted to the ones who wield it.

Still, many Americans are more inclined to blame ideas than the people actually responsible for them. In fact, the resistance to Communism (and by misinformed extension, socialism) stems from the long-held myth that the American Dream solved the class warfare riddle.

According to believers in the land of opportunity, Americans are born tabula rasa with an equal chance to become self-made successes if they work hard enough. But the rags-to-riches narrative simply isn't true.

A recent report found that only 35% of the Forbes 400 list in 2011 came from a lower or middle class background. Over 20% were born onto the list while 40.5% were already upper-class or received significant start-up capital from family or an inheritance. In other words, the wealth disparity is as much a result of inherited privilege as it is hard work.

Knowing that Communism is just a benign idea created by corrupt humanity to combat another idea they also corrupted, it's a little hard to call it evil. Previous generations may have condemned it out of hand because of its effects, but that's no different than how some condemn Christianity because of its association with human tragedies such the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust.

Furthermore, first-hand experience is flawed with myopia and a lack of context. It's tempting to feel entitled and monopolize the interpretation of an event we saw for ourselves, but history is the closest thing we have to objectivity and history takes more time than our fragile egos allow.

So do yourself a favor. The next time you think you know best--when you desperately want to shut down someone with a petty "you weren't there"--ask an honest friend if they agree with your perspective. You may be right, but there's a good chance you're seeing what you want to see.

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