Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.

Is Tolerance A Good Thing?

I have encountered few minds I would readily call “brilliant.” I must confess a prejudice on my part to restrict the term to those who lived and wrote long ago; contemporary writers seem to be satisfied to skim the surface for the most part. One exception is Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to repeatedly in these blogs. I find myself drawn back to his books when I feel the need for insights into our current cultural malaise. I have read no one who seems to have his finger on the pulse of today’s difficulties more than this social historian who seems to have read, and understood, everything. He has a great deal to say about what bothers us most these days and in his book The Revolt of The Elites he talks about intolerance in the context of the question whether our democracy is worth saving — an interesting question in itself. Lasch is convinced that our democratic system is in serious trouble and while democracy is in principle certainly worth saving, it is not clear that today’s version of democracy in this country is. He is especially critical of the shallow relativism that is widespread today together with the growing tendency to refuse to critique other cultures; he worried about the tendency of intellectuals to avoid the really important questions, such as the place of religion and belief in today’s world. On the subject of tolerance, which we like to think is the major virtue of our democracy, he has much to say and I can do no better than to record him at some length.

“In the absence of common standards . . . tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of the connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. The suspension of ethical judgment, in the conception or misconception of pluralism now current, makes it inappropriate to speak of “ethical commitments” at all. Aesthetic appreciation is all that can be achieved under current definitions of cultural diversity. . .  The deeper question [we should address] is the question How should I live? [which today] also becomes a matter of taste, of idiosyncratic personal preference, at best of religious or ethnic identification. But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood,requires us to speak of impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for our adversaries. If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

“Democracy requires a more invigorating ethic than tolerance. Tolerance is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition. We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves — worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we have given little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative life-styles and communities.’ This is the tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed character, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.

“There are far more important issues confronting friends of democracy [than the issue of cultural pluralism]: the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value “openness” above all. In the 1870s Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.’ Those words are as timely as ever.

“. . .it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. . . Democracy in our time is  more likely to die of indifference than intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

Lasch owes much to his reading of Hanna Arendt. Indeed, she insisted that our failure to exercise judgment is one of the most serious shortcomings of an age in which “being judgmental” has become a thing to avoid at all costs. As Arendt pointed out in her writings, if the Germans in the early years of the last century had been more judgmental, (and therefore less tolerant) then perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. Like Arendt, who is another brilliant mind, Lach gives us all a great deal to think about. And that is what great writers do.

At year’s end, then, it might be a good thing for us all to resolve to be tolerant only of those things that do not warrant condemnation in ourselves and in others as well. We must beware that our tolerance not degenerate into indifference and apathy, lacking any sense of real concern about the world in which we live. Lasch reminds us that we must have convictions, and have the strength to speak out about those convictions. Otherwise we are simply taking up space in an increasingly crowded world.

Rejecting the Righteous

It was recently reported that Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum, will not recognize the heroism of a man who risked his life saving more than two dozen Jews by hiding them out on his farm during the Hitler regime. This is most unusual because 23,000 men and women who risked their lives are memorialized and there is no question that this man did indeed risk his life to save others. In fact there are numerous testimonies to his heroism, but twice he has been turned down. He is not regarded by those who elect as one of the “righteous.”

The story was recently reported in the New York Times and the writer hints that the decision was based on prejudice: the man, Khaled Abdul Wahab, was an Arab Muslim. He is now deceased. His bravery took place on the eastern shores of occupied Tunesia during the 1940s, but it will go unrecognized for reasons that seem suspect — he didn’t “risk his life” by suffering actual physical harm — though among those recognized in the museum, there are numerous people who saved Jews without suffering any physical harm themselves. Wahab most certainly did risk his life, however, as did anyone in those days who attempted to save Jews from the Nazis.

The conclusion does seem unavoidable: the “Commission for the Designation of the Righteous” can’t see beyond their own prejudice, despite the fact that the Jews have themselves been persecuted for centuries by bigots. How ironic, and how sad.

While morally indefensible, the prejudice is understandable, since the Jews live among the Arabs and there is deep-seated hatred between the Muslims and the Jews. One can understand the bigotry on the part of the Commission, but one cannot condone it. It is simply wrong. There is a fundamental difference between explaining someone’s behavior and justifying it. In this case, we might be able to explain why this decision was made — twice — but we cannot say it is justifiable. Explanation involves the cultural and psychological reasons why people do the things they do. Justification requires the giving of moral reasons to support a moral claim. There can be no moral support in this case. The man should be recognized for his courage in saving lives at the risk of his own. It’s fairly straightforward.

One does wonder, however, how one would behave if he were in Wahab’s shoes: would he or she do the right thing, or take the easy road? This suggests another key difference: what one would do and what one should do. Clearly, one ought to try to alleviate suffering and act as Wahab did. But in the circumstances, with the enemy at your very doorstep, would you be able to do the right thing?

Hannah Arendt, who spent a great deal of time pondering these limiting situations, thinks it is a question of whether or not we can face ourselves in the mirror. It is not a matter of conscience, strictly, nor is it a calculation of pros and cons. “There comes a point where all objective standards — truth, rewards, and punishments in a hereafter, etc. — yield precedence to the ‘subjective’ criterion of the kind of person I wish to be and to live with.” Resistance was not a matter of intelligence: Bonhoeffer resisted, while Heidegger capitulated. It was unpredictable. At some point some folks simply said “no.” Could I live with myself knowing I sacrificed the lives of other innocent people to save my own? Could I say,”No”? That, according to Arendt, is the central question. I’m not sure how I would answer it in the circumstances. But I am confident in saying that Wahab’s heroism should not go unrecognized and unrewarded.