[May 6, 2019] Two things came together yesterday that got me to thinking about a post-modern rallying-cry of many young people today. Collective responsibility – individual responsibility for the actions of others – is not new but its application to a range of modern problems is now more noticeable.
Earlier in the day, I was listening to a professor at Harvard University speak about the importance of personal responsibility and how certain aspects are related to success over one’s lifetime: work hard and stay out of trouble were the two main factors. A young female college student asked him how we could even fathom individual responsibility when we should be more concerned about bigger world problems and thus the importance of collective responsibility.
Later, I sat down on my couch to watch a movie with my wife; one that I’d not seen in decades but got me to thinking about the same subject. The movie, starring Burt Lancaster, called The Train (1964), is loosely based on the non-fiction book Le front de l’art1 by Rose Valland. The Train, like the recent movie Monuments Men, centers on Nazi-stolen art. As the Nazi army tries to move a cache of stolen art pieces, the French Resistance undermines the effort. I was surprised at how the movie showed the bravery and the sacrifices made by so many of those in the French Resistance and the great difficulties they worked under.
The contrast between the plump, spoiled college student sitting in a safe lecture hall versus the men and women of the French Resistance of occupied WWII France was dramatic. I find it hard even to find a word that describes and distinguishes these differences, yet the college student was loudly complaining about how hard it was to live in this world of “horrible unfairness.”
Alas, The Train is just a movie. But it does help in giving some insight into the lives and conditions that those before us have experienced. Their lives of those before us were much more difficult and the lives of them, their families, and friends were at a higher risk than anyone can reasonably imagine today. For example, in my grandparent’s generation infant mortality rates were 15 times higher than when I was born.
Collective responsibility is a subject that should be discussed; at least discussed reasonably. We should also seek out examples in the past that help us get a better understanding. In the Old Testament, some examples are the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. If we truly want to learn about collective responsibility, this is a good place to start.
- This is the autobiography of Rose Valland, the heroine of the French resistance and human art during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ERR, the Nazi unit in charge of stealing works of art, chose the Jeu de Paume as a repository for the artworks taken from Jewish collectors, artists, and art merchants, eventually accumulating around 20,000 works. Using her secret but good command of German and her prodigious memory, Rose spied daily on the works that came in, the owners they had been stolen from, and (if they were sent elsewhere) their disposition. She entered all these bits of information by hand into her secret notebooks, which, at the end of the war, proved invaluable for tracing thousands of pieces of art so that they could be returned to the families of the rightful owners. She was highly decorated in France and received the US Medal of Freedom in 1951. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL485344M/Le_front_de_l’art