A colleague recently lamented to me that she had been talking to a group of Chinese undergrads who hadn’t heard of the Holocaust.
My initial reaction was, of course, the furrowed brow. My next thought was, well, I didn’t know about the events of the Nanking Massacre until I was in my 20s.
The teaching and telling of history is fraught.
Nineteen-year-old teen star Justin Bieber paid a recent visit to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The Biebs concluded his visit by signing the guest book: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.”
There are quite a few interesting things about this story. The first is why anyone beyond his legion of teenybopper fans cares even a little about what Justin Bieber thinks or says. The second is how on earth we allowed ourselves to expect better from him.
Justin Bieber is a teenager who sings earworms for teenagers. This is his thing. He sings songs that consist largely of repeating the word “baby” over and over again, and he has developed a reputation for dabbling in altercations with the paparazzi. That’s it.
He’s not a diplomat, he’s not an ambassador, he’s just a kid who can sell records. That we expect heartfelt poetry from him in the Anne Frank House guestbook is laughably ludicrous. That we expect cultural sensitivity on his part equally so.
Bieber is a kid who became a star barely into his teens. He’s lived a life – and a level of celebrity – completely removed from the ordinary. Sure, perhaps we could speculate on the gaps in his education, but equally so, the kid didn’t stage an Amsterdam press conference waxing lyrical about his vast knowledge of World War II history. We only know about this story because it was seized upon by the tabloids.
Something I find particularly interesting here is the question of sensitivity. Accusations are being bandied around that Bieber was insensitive to write such a stupid, self-promoting thing in the guestbook. Equally so, that he was insensitive to keep his sunglasses on as he toured the house.
An idiot sure, but insensitive?
Sensitivity is on the table here because Anne Frank House is the place where the now famous diary was written and has acquired historical significance. The house is, however, also an enormously popular tourist attraction.
Bieber visited as a tourist and signed the guest book accordingly. We’re probing his words simply because the guestbook wasn’t at Disneyland or the Graceland Mansion; because it’s the Holocaust and different rules apply.
While I am not for a moment downplaying the horrific circumstances of Anne Frank’s hiding or death, a little bit of context is useful here.
I recently reread the Anne Frank diary while writing a book on menstruation. Not only did she write about waiting for her first period, about getting her first period; she also wrote about masturbation, about crushes, about her genitals. A useful reminder if ever there was one that she was a teenage girl.
Yes, she became famous because she lived during a horrific time in history, but she was also just a teenage girl. A teenage girl who, if she wasn’t a victim of the atrocities of her time, quite possibly would have been listening to pop music and rushing to the defence of her idol.
Maybe Bieber considered this point, maybe he didn’t. En masse we most certainly should.
Offense is personal and not for a moment would I dare downplay the upset this may have caused some people. But I think Bieber’s comments need to be taken with a grain of salt at most.
He’s not the voice of a generation – he’s not testimony to a culture of narcissism and educational deficits. He’s a singer of questionable quality and undisputed popularity. Reading anything more than this is playing into the hands of the tabloids.
April 16, 2013
© Lauren Rosewarne