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

Dear Secretary Clinton

     Dear Secretary Clinton,

     I owe you an apology.

     When you first ran for President, in 2008, I didn’t think that you were the best candidate to be the first female President of the United States of America.  As a woman myself, I felt that the fact that you had first achieved national prominence as First Lady was compromising; I wanted our first female President to be uncontaminated by her husband’s status.

     I also had a notion that the Clintons were beset by scandals, and that they must certainly be to blame for that, at least in part.  I suppose I hoped that the first female President would be covered in glory and uncomplicated, and I believed that the nation would allow such a person to exist.

     I was wrong – I was naive.

     I didn’t anticipate how the first serious woman candidate for President would be treated.  I didn’t anticipate the intensity of the hostility to her, the demeaning and vile things that would be said about her, the contempt with which she and her accomplishments would be treated.  I believed the world was better than it has proven to be .

     I’ve been shocked and hurt by the things that have been said about and to you, by the incoherence people have been willing to entertain in order to vilify you.  I was shocked, but, somehow, I don’t think you were.  I believe you knew exactly what awaited you, what you were in for, and you ran anyway.

     I am not so naive to think you were unmotivated by personal ambition – that would be absurd.  No one reaches for the presidency without ambition.

     But I also believe that you sought the presidency for our sake, for the sake of all the women of this country, who have never seen one of ourselves hold that office and who, before you, have never had a reasonable hope of doing so.

     There is going to be a great deal written and said about the ways in which you were the wrong candidate.  It is going to be asked whether you were destined to lose, whether your inherent political and electoral weaknesses allowed Trump to win.  And so I just wanted to say to say to you, as one woman to another:

     I’m glad it was you.

     I think it had to be you: there aren’t many people strong enough to be bear hate and then smile – there aren’t many people brave enough to let the wave break on their back.  You did that for us, and the fact that you didn’t win doesn’t mean that you didn’t do it well.

     I’m sorry for how you were treated.  I’m glad that you ran – thank you for running.

     It was an honor to vote for you.

     J.S. Burton

“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.

It Definitely Follows

Review of ‘It Follows

I finally, after many weeks of reading reviews and absorbing buzz, went to see ‘It Follows’.

Horror fans, of which I am one, tend to maintain a carefully calibrated set of expectations.  Horror movies can be characterized according to several sub-genres, all of which observe certain tropes and obey certain rules.  Movies rarely transcend their sub-genre, and part of enjoying horror movies is appreciating the limitations and traditions of these categories.

But it’s nice to see something a little different once and a while.  ‘It Follows’ is unusual in a couple of ways: the premise is unfamiliar and completely unexplained: the creepiness is simply allowed to exist – it is never demystified or justified.  There is no reveal: it’s an alien!  It’s a demon!  It’s a girl who was drowned!  It’s a cyborg!  It simply is, and must be contended with.

But perhaps the most novel thing about ‘It Follows’, the genre convention which is most surprising in its abandonment, is this: the teenage characters in it do relatively few stupid things.

Stupid actions done by teenagers are the sine qua non of horror plots.  Split up the group, go explore the weird noise alone, break into the boarded-up asylum, don’t check under the bed, in the closet, or behind the door: without this basic toolkit, pretty much no horror movie could advance its plot.

And that’s fine, but it gets a little old: you watch a blonde in a crop top walk into another obvious trap, and you think, “Haven’t these people ever seen a horror movie?  Can’t she hear the ominous music?”

But what’s cool about ‘It Follows’ is that, with one or two exceptions, most of the kids in the movie act exactly the way you would act if you or someone you knew had contracted a sexually-transmitted zombie.

The central problem, besides the zombie, obviously, is this: how, exactly, could you come to be sure that something was following you?  If it could take any form, and could only walk after you, that thing would kill you long before you even knew you were being chased.  And how would you ever convince anyone else, your friends and family, who couldn’t even see it?

It Follows’ deals with this efficiently and well, getting the first part, convincing the main character, Jay (played by Maika Monroe), of her danger, out of the way with plenty of time leftover to watch that creepy thing walk after her.

And it’s really creepy.  Because the creature walks everywhere, you must adjust your horror-movie expectations again: you are no longer looking into shadows waiting for something to spring out at you – rather, you spend the movie scanning crowds, like a secret service agent, looking for someone, anyone at all, walking in a straight line.  The thing follows Jay to public places, schools, beaches, and it comes day and night.  And because she’s not safe anywhere, you’re not safe anywhere.  You can’t relax and wait for the normal cues to alert you that trouble is coming – trouble is always coming, slowly, but inexorably, in any guise it chooses.

All of which makes ‘It Follows’ the best horror movie I’ve seen in a while, certainly the scariest.  I saw it days ago, and I won’t lie: I’m glad Spouse wasn’t away at all this week.  I’m not a kid anymore  – it’s an unusual horror movie that leaves me uneasy in my mind.  This was one.

Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times

Here Endeth the Lesson

When I was very young, about eight or nine, my parents made a disastrous error of judgement.

In my house, we were absolutely not allowed to watch movies before the Motion Picture Association of America thought we should – if a movie was rated PG-13, then we would wait until the stroke of midnight on our thirteenth birthday to watch it.

There was only one exception to this rule: we could plead historical relevance.  This was my father’s particular weakness, and it could be relied upon: if a movie took as its subject a historical event in which we had expressed an interest, then we could almost always convince him to rent it, no matter the rating.

Which is how we ended up watching ‘The Untouchables’ one Friday night.  To this day, I wonder how he got that past my mother, who was of less amenable mind.  But no matter – by the time everyone figured out that it was an enormous mistake, the damage was done.

‘The Untouchables’ was written by David Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro. It tells the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of Al Capone in Chicago in the later 1920s, which culminated in Capone’s conviction for tax evasion in 1931.  The title of the film refers to the team of men Ness built for that investigation, which includes, in the movie, a gruff old Irish police officer named Jimmy Malone.  Malone’s character is based on a man named Marty Lahart, and is played by Sean Connery.

Sean Connery
Jimmy Malone – adorable.

Of course, ‘gruff but lovable’ describes pretty much every character Sean Connery has ever played, but I was too young to realize that, and I fell completely for Jimmy Malone.  It is safe to say that, after about ten minutes of screen exposure, I loved and trusted him.

So, when he was gunned down, when he dragged himself bloody and dying through his apartment to write the name of his killer in his own blood on the floor, I was frightened and inconsolable.  My parents had to stop the movie; I lay my head down on the sofa cushions and sobbed for an hour.

maxresdefault
Creepy Guy Jimmy Malone’s death, achieved by this creepy dude.

I thought about that this week, as I binge-watched Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’.

As has been noted by all and sundry, ‘Daredevil’ is pretty violent.  And I’m fine with it.  Actually, I kind of appreciate it: the Marvel universe was getting way too cute.  I would rather unrelenting violence than unrelenting self-referential smugness.

And I like violent movies, at least some of the time.  But violence in movies is like horror in movies: it’s supposed to have an effect.  But this week, as I was watching Vincent D’Onofrio beat a guy to death in a car door, just slamming him over and over until the car door decapitated him, all I thought was, ‘That interior is gonna be impossible to get clean.’

I love action movies, and horror movies, fighting movies, gory movies, and I hope I always will.  I don’t ever want to be one of those flinching people who wring their hands about violence in movies, or video games, or AC/DC lyrics – I don’t care if teenagers play Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never seen persuasive evidence that exposure to representational violence creates or encourages violent behavior in audiences.

But just because exposure to representational violence does not cause violence in life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any adverse effect, and it seems to me that I have changed a great deal since I lay down on the couch and wept about Sean Connery.  Some of that change is doubtless due to growing up, and some due to better reality testing.  But I don’t remember being confused about reality back then – I didn’t think that Sean Connery was really dead, and I wasn’t confused about the fact that he was an actor.  I was shocked by the violence, and I knew that the ‘The Untouchables’ was based on a true story, and I was crushed, absolutely crushed, by the visceral realization that good people die horrible deaths.

And that is how violence probably should feel; at least, we should be able to feel that way.  I’m not comfortable with my own lack of reaction now, which is a sort of a wimpy meta-concern, I know.  I mean, I am human: I cried at the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode of Futurama – if ‘Daredevil’ didn’t ruin my evening, that isn’t the end of the world.

But ultimately, this isn’t about ‘Daredevil’ – this is about me.  I don’t want to become blasé about violence.  I am not over-endowed with empathy to begin with, and I don’t want to lose what little I have.  Maybe it’s too late, or maybe it’s just part of being an adult.  But if I can’t still be that humane, it’s important that I at least remember the time when I was.