True Or False?

I begin with a rather lengthy quote from Wikipedia regarding one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by one group of human beings against another. I refer, of course, to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, also referred to as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, between 1941 and 1945. Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event involving the persecution and murder of other groups, including in particular the Roma and “incurably sick”, as well as ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, gay men and Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in up to 17 million deaths overall.

Germany implemented the persecution in stages. Following Adolf Hitler‘s rise to power in 1933, the government passed laws to exclude Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Starting in 1933, the Nazis built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and people deemed “undesirable”. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Over 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other detention sites were established.

The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question“, discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout German-occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.

There are those among us who would insist that we cannot judge the Nazis because we haven’t walked in their boots. Seriously. There are also those among us who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, who insist that it is a fiction. These people also believe, many of them at any rate, that the moon landing was staged and never happened. I suspect these people also believe the earth is flat and that the sitting President of the United States is an exemplary human being.

What we need to think about when it comes to truth and falsity — which are being conflated these days in order to carry forth hidden agendas by those in power, I strongly suspect — is that the truth need not be pleasant. It need not fit in with our preconceptions and predilections. It can even be a bit ugly — like the truth about the Holocaust. The sheer numbers in the above quote beggar belief. And since the quote is from Wikipedia there are many who would question the truth of those claims. But there is a considerable body of evidence — available to anyone who wants to examine it — that those figures are accurate. Indeed, this is the nature of truth and how we can separate it from the falsehoods that parade as true because we (or someone out there) wants to (us) believe them. The truth can be corroborated by anyone at any time and in any place. Falsehoods cannot: they dissolve in the face of evidence, criticism, and sound argumentation. More than ever before, perhaps, it is imperative that we insist upon the difference between the two.

The way one goes about proving a statement, as we know from the hard sciences, is to seek to disprove the statement. If we cannot do so, we must accept it as true, like it or not. This was once known as the “Socratic method,” the method Socrates used in pleasant conversations with young men in Athens to test the claims that were floating about in the air — seeing if he could prove them to be mere “wind-eggs.” So much of what we hear today is in that category and we, as responsible adults, should dismiss them out of hand and insist that we be told the truth.

There is much to learn from history and we ignore it to our peril. We must test all claims, including those of historians — and if they are any good they would insist that we do so. But if those claims can stand the test of criticism and review then we must accept them, like it or not. That’s the nature of truth.

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Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

Moral Dilemmas

In an interesting blog forwarded to me by my friend “Z” in Ecuador, I was able to learn a good bit about Argentina’s “Dirty War” — the military dictatorship that took an estimated 30,000 Argentine lives during the years from 1976 to 1983. Need I say that War was largely financed by the United States, with the help of Henry Kissinger, including billions of dollars in military aid and weapons to assist the dictatorship? But also of interest is the fact that the new Pope of the Catholic Church was head of the Jesuits during that period in Argentina and has been charged with doing little or nothing to stop the carnage that was taking place at the time. As an article titled “The Scotsman” tells us:

Pope Francis (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Pope Francis
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Relatives of those who disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War” criticised the new Pope yesterday, saying Francis had failed to confront the military dictatorship in his country.

Some 30,000 people were killed during the war and relatives of victims have claimed the new pontiff had a “very cowardly attitude” towards the regime.

I am reminded of Pope Pius XII’s unwillingness to take a stand against Nazism during the Second World War, a situation that inspired Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, focusing on the Pope’s struggles to determine the right course of action to take in the light of Nazi atrocities. The Pope does not emerge from this examination squeaky clean. As Hannah Arendt said in an essay on Pius’s silence: “No one has denied that the Pope was in possession of all the pertinent information regarding the Nazi deportation and ‘resettlement’ of the Jews. No one has denied that the Pope did not even raise his voice in protest when, during the German occupation of Rome, the Jews, including Catholic Jews (that is, Jews converted to Catholicism), were rounded up, right under the windows of the Vatican, to be included in the Final Solution.” In Hochhuth’s play, the Pope’s dilemma is made clear: speak out against Nazism at the risk of angering Mussolini and Hitler and perhaps rendering it impossible to do any good whatever, or say nothing and do what one can to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi purge. The Pope chose the latter course in a calculation involving a certain amount of self-interest that gives one pause in light of the fact that the Head of the Catholic Church, one would think, ought to take and hold the moral high ground regardless of consequences. As the British representative to the Vatican wrote in 1942, “A policy of silence in regard to such offenses against the conscience of the world must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence of the Vatican.” Indeed, Hochhuth dwells on the nature of the Pope’s dilemma and hints that even though a  number of Jews were reportedly assisted by the Church to escape to safety it is not clear that this justifies the Pope’s silence in the face of the enormity of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. As has been noted, the fear that things would have been made worse for the Jews had the Pope spoken out ignores the fact that their situation couldn’t possibly have been worse for them.

In the case of Pope Francis and his role in the “Dirty War’ in Argentina, it is not clear how many people, if any, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as he was then called, was able to save. His biographer insists that he took risks to save  a number of the “subversives” tagged by the dictatorship for imprisonment and even death. What we do know is that 30,000 people were killed mainly for political reasons, and a week after Fr. Bergoglio dismissed two priests for being too “progressive” they were kidnapped, held, and tortured. This does not bode well for those who hope this Pope will drag the Catholic Church, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. It was even rumored at the time that Bergoglio was complicitous in the kidnapping, but this was never verified. But what is clear is that Fr. Bergoglio made the same decision as Pope Pious XII and did not take a stand against the evil he saw around him. As the article referred to above goes on to say:

It is generally agreed upon that the church in Argentina did little to oppose or stand up to the dictatorship during the Dirty War. Argentine bishops admitted as much as recently as October 2012. At the very least, they’re being forced to remember.

While none of us might choose to be placed in either man’s shoes, one must ask the question whether an ethical calculation designed to weigh alternatives and select the lesser of evils is an appropriate stand for two of the most influential men of the Church in Catholic countries in a time of crisis. As the medieval theologians whose thinking formed the warp and woof of Catholic dogma would have said, theirs was a “sin of omission.” Their silence resonates in the face of known atrocities on a mammoth scale.