Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

hiroshima5-crop

     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

Peaceful, Evil Man

To Tony Judt, With Humility and Apologies

     There are minds so strong and lovely that one quails at the idea of disagreeing with them.  The error must be yours, you think, because their thinking is so sure and clean and reliable.

     When I find a discrepancy between my thinking and that of a greater mind, I usually retire, but every once and awhile, an admired intellect will assert something that I feel strongly is incorrect, and I find myself unable to give way.

     That happened to me this week.  I have been reading, with enormous pleasure, ‘When the Facts Change‘ by Tony Judt, the lucid, moderate, incisive historian of post-World War Europe. Judt is the sort of author is who is so reasonable and articulate that he is dangerously persuasive, and I find myself, usually, in total agreement with him.

     So I was caught up short when I read something in this book with which I disagree pretty categorically:

“It is war, not racism or ethnic antagonism or religious fervor, that leads to atrocity.  War – total war – has been the crucial antecedent condition for mass criminality in the modern era.  The first primitive concentration camps were set up by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.  Without World War I there would have been no Armenian genocide and it is highly unlikely that either Communism or Fascism would have seized hold of modern states.  Without World War II there would have been no Holocaust.  Absent the forcible involvement of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, we would never have heard of Pol Pot.” (p. 274)

     These data are cherry-picked.  

     First of all, it is certainly coherent to lay the victory (though not the rise) of Communism in Russia at the feet of World War I, but to suggest that, for example, the millions of deaths in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) were a result most proximately of World War I is ridiculous – the People’s Republic wasn’t even established until 1949!

1966 Struggle Session
A ‘struggle session’ in Harbin in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, featuring public humiliation.  From scmp.com

     Or: perhaps the first British concentration camps in Africa were built because of the Boer War, but what about the detention camps they used for massive deportations of Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950’s?  Describing the “Mau Mau Uprising” as ‘total war’ seems like an enormous stretch, even when one considers how reluctant the British have been to be honest about it.

Mau Mau
British soldiers looking for Mau Mau fighters in Kenya in 1954.  From guardian.com

     Or: what about the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the truly blood-curdling actions taken by the occupying forces there?  

Rape of Nanking
A Japanese soldier poses with decapitated heads in Nanking in 1937.  From ‘The Rape of Nanking’ by Iris Chang

     Or: if we must restrict ourselves to the treatment of African-Americans in modernity, what about the Jim Crow era in the United States, which was nothing if not atrocious?

Lynching
From atlantablackstar.com

     There are more.  The truth is, there is no limiting circumstance on human evil.  To suggest that there is, is to indulge in optimism completely without cause.

     Judt’s assertion offends me because it implies that, in the absence of war, people can be trusted not to lash out at each other genocidally, and this is clearly not the case.  The arc of human history does not bear this out; the history of the twentieth century does not bear this out; neither the history of my nation or his bears this out.

     Humans require no special context to commit evil.  They do not require war to commit genocide.  They do not need to be in extremis to commit atrocities.  They do it in all places at all times whether or not they have war as an excuse.

     This capacity to annihilate one another is not a limited or circumscribed capacity – it is a human capacity.  If we keep looking for reasons why we could never have done the same terrible things as other people, if we keep looking for special circumstances which explain why cruelty and murder and evil are not universal, then we aren’t going to see the next evil coming.

     We have to take responsibility, not for the evil we have or have not done, but the evil we are capable of doing.  To say that only people in certain circumstances might commit atrocities is logic preliminary to explaining why we cannot commit them.

     But every nation, people, or creed will have the opportunity to strike cruelly at another people, and, if they are convinced beforehand that they are not capable of it, then they will think less critically about what they do.  It is only by acknowledging that we may all do terrible things unless we are careful that we will see the need to take care.

     And we must take care.

 

Featured Image from law.georgetown.edu/library

Where All Are Guilty

     I’m not sure what we’re all doing here, exactly.

     I think it’s fair to say that when the Allies liberated the German concentration camps in 1945, most of the world was shocked by what they saw there.  They had not known that mankind was willing to commit an enormity of that measure.

     And so we learned then what we were really capable of.  Maybe we should have known before – the record of man committing evil against man is as old as history itself – but, for whatever reason, we did not even seem to suspect before then.  Certainly, we knew after.

     We saw that we were monsters, that we would tear each other apart for the sheer joy of it, that we would grind out the lives of the young and the vulnerable by the million to sate our own blood-thirsty needs.

     The Germans were not the first people to commit genocide, and they weren’t the last. But they were a fully modern, secular nation, and that proved to us that no creed or technology of thought yet devised places a people out of the reach of those terrible impulses.  It seems we carry our capacity for annihilation with us, that we are born with it, like our capacity for love or language.

     Those camps were our own darkest heart brought to light, and when we looked them full in the face, we faced a choice: we could abandon ourselves to the despair of the wicked, embrace the nihilism that such evil implied, or we could repudiate it.

     However, since human evil is a fact, since it has touched every age and every nation, in order to deny it in ourselves, we must believe that we can change.  And, in order to change, we must be able to learn.  If we cannot learn, history will bend again and again towards those camps, towards the ovens and mass graves, and we will be monsters still.

     But what would it mean to learn away evil?  Presumably, it would not merely mean that we refrained from rounding Jews into camps and exterminating them, or rounding anyone into camps and exterminating them.  It would mean understanding the grave errors in thinking which led us there.

     The most serious error is this: that it is useful or correct to think about groups: national, religious, socieconomic, racial groups, as moral units, to fear or condemn them as though they were individuals.  Treating groups as individuals, as though they possessed the characteristics of individuals (‘values’, ‘intelligence’, ‘trustworthiness’, ‘criminality’), is rarely useful and often evil, and the events of the last century (not just the Holocaust, but also the American Civil Rights movement, the advances of women’s rights in much of the world, the slow death of European colonialism, the enormous genocides in China and the USSR) should have convinced absolutely every thinking person of that.

Brexit 'Breaking Point'
UKIP Pro-Brexit, Anti-Immigration ‘Leave’ Ad

     But my own countrymen have just elected a man to the office of the President of the United States in a large part because of his propensity for exactly this kind of thinking: his willingness to treat Mexicans as a group, “blacks” as a group, Muslims as a group, to act upon them as though they were individuals, to register or ban them.  We are still making this same mistake.  We aren’t learning.

 

     This lesson is so important, so necessary to the functioning of a moral society, that, if we have failed to grasp it after everything we’ve seen, then all our manners and petty ethics and customs are so much farse: play-acting at true civilization, and I don’t understand why we bother.  If the dark evil still beats within us which causes us to drive the other out into the cold because he is the other, to strike him down or deny him, then why are we bothering to honor our speeding tickets or queue at supermarkets or refrain from parking in the handicap spots?  If we still haven’t learned that children are children wherever they come from, if we are still willing to let them die because we can’t look past their category designation, then we are doomed and I don’t understand why I pay my taxes or say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.  These are the trifling rituals of civilization – we have failed to grasp the fundamentals.

     I will pay my taxes; I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because I wish to participate in a civil and good society.  But these gestures do not make a society civil or good – they are just niceties propping up a rotten structure unless we can learn and move forward, can understand our mistakes and become better.  And we aren’t better yet.

 

Header Image:

Selection of Hungarian Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Poland, May 1944.— Yad Vashem Photo Archives, taken from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org

“Welcome Tae Yer Gory Bed, or Tae Victorie”

     I wish that I could have seen the battle at Bannockburn.

     It wasn’t, by modern standards, a very big battle, but it was a long one, lasting two full days.  It was a failed attempt by the English army, under Edward II, to relieve Stirling Castle from siege by Scottish independence forces led by Robert the Bruce during the First War of Scottish Independence.

     By the year of Bannockburn, 1314, Edward II was losing the hold his father, Edward I, had consolidated on Scotland.  Robert the Bruce had claimed the Scottish throne in 1306, and was retaking Scottish strongholds one by one.

     Robert the Bruce is one of history’s warrior-giants.  He was physically enormous, a multi-lingual and well-educated nobleman, and he absolutely scared the pants off the English.  He would have scared the pants off you, too: he embodied that unusual and frightening combination of physical size, martial competence, and charismatic leadership.  He is described, at one point in the Battle of Bannockburn, as splitting Henry de Bohun’s helmeted head at full charge with one blow of his axe.

     Estimates put the English force at Bannockburn at approximately 15,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry; the Scots fielded somewhere less than 10,000, a small percentage of which would have been mounted.

     These nearly-30,000 men hurled themselves at each other for two days, charging and recharging, until approximately two-thirds of the English infantry were dead.  Even if Scottish casualties were light, something like 15,000 men probably died at Bannockburn.

     And I wish that I had seen it.  I do not believe that it was cinematic or noble or good, and I certainly do not wish to have participated in it – I am no reenactor, and I do not hanker after olden and blood-soaked days.  One of the great privileges of living in our age is that one has a much lower chance of dying in battle.

     But battles, armed clashes between large groups of people, are part of the human experience.  They must have been terrible and awesome to see: thousands and tens of thousands of men bent on nothing but their own survival and the destruction of the other.

     There really isn’t anything else like battle in the human experience, and it has happened in every culture in every time in recorded human history.  War is one of man’s unique characteristics – our ability to abstract and organize violence is one of the things which sets us apart from other animals (with the possible exception of chimps).

     War isn’t a universal masculine experience, but it is a defining one.  Men everywhere and through all times have done battle with other men, and have measured their strength by their ability to do so.  They marched and ran and rode in lines – they hacked each other to pieces with swords, rained arrows on each other, ran each other down with horses, and blew each other apart with guns.

     William James wrote, in ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘, “We inherit the warlike type; and for most of the capabilities of heroism that the human race is full of we have to thank this cruel history.”  I think that may be an over-simplification, and I know James would agree with me (for it is one of the main thrusts of the essay) that war is a blight, the reduction of which is an unalloyed good for mankind.  

     Nevertheless, the ability to steel one’s nerve, to run or ride headlong into an advancing or overwhelming enemy, to die not for necessity but for a rule or for a principle, is an astonishing and human ability.  It’s part of who we are, a capability which informs the collective human psyche, which defines at one stroke the best and worst limits of ourselves, and it is strange to think that I will never see something which has been so fundamental to the self-conception of so many.

     And I wish I could have.

Title is from the song ‘Scots Wha Hae’, the lyrics written by Robert Burns as a speech given by Robert the Bruce before Bannockburn.

Image is of the statue of Robert the Bruce at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, taken from the BBC.

The Founding Father Problem

     Since you’ve insisted, I will admit it to you: I really dislike Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, I dislike him personally and profoundly, almost violently – I try not to dwell on my feelings in public, lest I become agitated and make a spectacle of myself, but the truth is, if I think about him for too long at a stretch, I will end ranting and cursing, even to myself.

     There are many good reasons to dislike Thomas Jefferson: you might loathe the American farmer.  You might have sided strongly with Alexander Hamilton.  You might date the decline in American culture to the introduction of the dumbwaiter to the continent.  You might be a banker.

     I hate him because he was an accomplished hypocrite, and I believe that his moral janus-face helped lodge something poisonous at the heart of the American story.

     I’m not talking about slavery.  Well, I am, but I’m not.  Slavery was disgusting – obviously, the decision of the founding fathers to allow the practice to continue in their new nation was despicable.

     But the problem with Jefferson, in particular, is subtler: more than any other founding father (with the possible exception of George Washington), we identify with Jefferson our particularly American virtues.  He was, after all, the author of our most exalted sentence:

     We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

     It’s magnificent – it fills Americans with patriotic feeling.  It expresses the quality about which we are most proud.  For this reason, we have always cherished Thomas Jefferson, as though he embodied in his person, and not merely in his words, our best self.

     But, of course, he didn’t.  Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves.  It’s all well and good to crow about universal human rights, but when you go home and rape the humans you own, you should have no claim on the affections of any nation which prizes those rights.

     We ought to have repudiated Jefferson when we repudiated slavery, but we didn’t: we tried to keep the man while ignoring the slave owner, and I don’t think we can do that.

     Slavery, the keeping of people in bondage, is an unpardonable crime – why do we pardon it for the sake of our founders?  Jefferson gives us no reason to forgive him – he did not even manumit his slaves after his death, like Washington, despite recognizing that the institution was morally repugnant.

     He also cannot take refuge in his age – many of Jefferson’s contemporaries realized that slavery was evil and acted accordingly, including Benjamin Franklin and the aforementioned Alexander Hamilton.  And even if his peers had not seen their way to moral clarity on the issue of slavery, I don’t believe we would be unreasonable in nurturing higher hopes for Jefferson than for other men: he was, after all, the author of our guiding moral statement.

     And Jefferson did realize that slavery was an immoral institution.  He even took steps to limit its spread in the new world; he just stopped short of implementing measures which would have personally diminished him, and that is evil.  A man who looked at black Americans and failed to see the crimes being committed against them would be morally, fatally, blind; a man who saw, but would not act for love of profit, should be damned by history.

     If we are to grapple properly with slavery, we need to stop excusing the men who committed it.  We don’t allow other nations to excuse their own crimes against humanity, or the men who commit them.  Jefferson wasn’t merely a slave owner – he was a head of state, a powerful man who’s interventions helped perpetuate the institution.

     We would not forgive the Germans if they exalted a Nazi statesman because he was the author of some beautiful words, enshrined his image on their currency, named towns and roads and hospitals after him.  The ownership of a race, the complete refusal to admit its humanity, is not less evil than its extermination.  We should not pretend that Jefferson is anything less than a monster.

     It shouldn’t shock anyone that a nation which persists in revering Thomas Jefferson would, in 2016, essentially allow police to shoot black men without reason or repercussion.  If we were, as a nation, serious about valuing black lives, we would not celebrate men who traded in them.

Whoso Rewardeth Evil for Good, Evil Shall Not Depart from His House

Sometimes, I’m glib.

Actually, I’m often glib.  Usually, even.  Always, maybe.

Anyway, I was glib last week when, while addressing a recent Bookends column in the New York Times, I wrote, “Reading is great”.

The fact that I was glib does not mean that I was wrong: reading really is great.  I believe, in all sincerity, that written language, our ability to record, preserve, and transmit information, is humankind’s greatest achievement, our best, perhaps only, hope of progress.

But while the ability to read is our paramount intellectual accomplishment and the great joy of my life, it can still bite me in the ass.  There is so much to read, and not all of it brings welcome news.

This month, the cover article of The Atlantic magazine is by Jeffrey Goldberg, and is called, ‘Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?’

Goldberg’s thesis is this: the Holocaust caused a temporary recession, or perhaps merely a masking, of Europe’s historically endemic anti-Semitism.  The effect is now wearing off, and a new wave of anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants has exacerbated it.  The hatred that was always there is creeping back out into the open, and while Goldberg doesn’t believe that Europe has found itself back in 1933, he wonders whether it might not have found itself back in 1929.

The evidence which Goldberg marshals to support the existence of significant anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France and Sweden, is persuasive; less persuasive, perhaps, is the evidence in support of its increase.  But this is pretty cold comfort: first of all, I find Goldberg essentially credible, and so extend him the benefit of the doubt.  But secondly, isn’t it bad enough that there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

Anti-Semitism is primitive, and appalling, and stupid.  It was primitive, and appalling, and stupid in 1933, and then we were all given a terrible lesson.

Of course, the Holocaust was much, much more than a lesson – it was a genocide.  But, at the very least, it should have been a lesson.  Millions of people fell victim to a base prejudice: a lesson is the very barest minimum of what that should have been.

The Holocaust should have obliterated anti-Semitism in the mind of every civilized person of every race, religion, nation, or creed on the planet.  That it didn’t, that the deaths of six million innocents only bought Europe’s Jews a century of reprieve, makes me despair.

Six million lives was far, far too high a price to pay to rid us of one prejudice – if it could not even do that, then we are hopeless, a wretched and evil species doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over and over, hamsters on the Devil’s own wheel.

What is the point of recording information if we cannot or will not learn from it?  The act of writing is hopeful: it supposes that knowledge might be cumulative, that every human might not have to start from scratch, that the path to wisdom might be shortened.

But if six million deaths will not teach us, then what chance does the written word have?  What can the reason, the argument, the logic, or the witness of past persons do for us if their very deaths leave us unmoved, as stupid, vile, and ignorant as we were before?

And we are stupid, vile, and ignorant.  We cherish our bigotries and our hatreds more than we cherish each other; we preserve them and pass them on from generation to generation like twisted little heirlooms.  Truly, what pieces of shit we have proved to be.

I have read too much history to have any faith in us anymore.  No one has any right to surprised by Goldberg’s article: given a long enough timeline, man will always turn on man.

I’m not surprised; I’m sad.  More than that, I’m disgusted: what a pathetic excuse for a species we are.  Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?  The evil in man has made itself felt in every place, in every time – perhaps the better question is, where would they go?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.

Chairman Mao Will Seat You Now

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read, I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.”

Mao was a nobody from Hunan province, and he was ignored by the prominent intellectuals he so admired.

This passage is excerpted very early in Philip Short’s biography of Mao, and I am well past what was, in the grand scheme of things, a brief episode in his life.  But this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

Mao Zedong would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that would kill tens of millions of people.  He would become, by some estimates, the most accomplished mass murderer in this history of humankind.

But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten, and this story has haunted me since I read it.

With how many people do you interact every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pull your car around, pump your gas, see you to your table?

And those are the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

And what if one of them will become Mao?

There are two aspects of this idea I find disturbing.  The first, and the more ordinary, is the possibility of our unwitting proximity to evil.  It’s not pleasant, imagining that history’s next great killer might be taking your order.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, the clerk in the Beijing University Library wasn’t evil.  He would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but he had not yet.  And maybe, he need not have,

And if it is a question not of ‘When’, but of ‘If’, if he might but might not, then who else might?  Might one of my brothers?  My husband?  Might I?

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, he would find his way to his role, he would make space in history for himself.

But is it equally possible that history had an opening and that it would fill it?  Who is to say that Mao was the only man who might?  Perhaps many men might have done the job – perhaps most.  It may be that the murderers will out; it may also be that history could make murderers of us all, and she chooses.

This isn’t a lifetime movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters aren’t borne of a diathesis-stress model: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues and nightmares?

I don’t like my reflection in this mirror: I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me into shape to order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one.

But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?

Featured image taken from Wikipedia.