Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.

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Death of Affect

The title of this post is words borrowed from J.G. Ballard and they put me in mind of the fact that one of the things that sets our era apart from preceding ones is the various movements that have resulted in the widespread death of millions of innocent people. We use words like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe those movements, but those words hardly describe the systematic elimination of whole groups of people — such as an estimated 22 million souls under the various programs initiated by Joseph Stalin in the last century. And it behooves us to mention the current use of drones by this country to “take out” terrorists while killing thousands of innocent civilians. Indeed, the inclusion of ordinary citizens in the death count in recent wars is something relatively new in human history. In order to distinguish these events from the systematic “removal” of eight million Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis the term “Holocaust” was coined in the mid 1960s and it does a fairly good job of establishing the uniqueness of the events surrounding the “Final Solution” that was carried out by such people as Adolph Eichmann under Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s.

The term “Holocaust” enjoys special status and has not (yet) been borrowed or stolen by historians or social scientists in their efforts to describe other such events — such as the more recent “ethnic cleansing” in Eastern Europe. But it matters not. What happens is that we hear the word, or the words, so often that we become inured to them. They cease to have any real meaning.  How can any of us imagine, for example, what the words “twenty million” even mean when applied to the death of civilians who have done nothing whatever to deserve those deaths, except that they were different? We cannot.

Eventually, the words cease to have any real meaning and, worse yet, the events that those words are supposed to describe cease to have any reality for us. Those are things that happened to other people somewhere else. We adopt what has been called a “survival strategy” that protects us from such harsh realities. We exhibit “selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time,” as Christopher Lasch said in describing the mindset of those in the death camps who had given up all hope. After all, if a nation decides to systematically “remove” its own citizens what recourse does anyone have? The only option is to focus exclusively on one’s own survival. Nothing else matters.

The point of all this is to draw attention to the distinct possibility that we may already be adopting the same strategy in the face of the facts and descriptions of the mass killings that fill our newspapers and television on a daily basis — not to mention the constant reminders about world-wide terrorism and the violence that has become the order of the day on television, video games and American movies. After a while, those words and those events take on an abstract, unreal existence. We turn into ourselves and focus attention elsewhere rather than confront the terrible fact that there are maniacs who, heavily armed as they all seem to be, can decide who will and who will not live. As happens with medical doctors and policemen, after a while these events become the norm and our feelings shut down.

It is quite possible — he said, risking the charge of conspiracy theorist — that the powers that be in this country (mainly such powers as the N.R.A.) — are quite content that we should become desensitized to the daily mass killings by maniacs with automatic weapons who kill indiscriminately. It’s hard to turn on the television, or turn to the computer, or read a newspaper, without being told about another killing of numerous people by another maniac. And the hope may well be (one I do not share) that eventually we will become so desensitized to this news that we will stop paying attention altogether and cease to be concerned. After all, what can we do in the face of such powerful entities as the N.R.A. that has the Congress in its pocket and tells it how to vote?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most serious problem we face: that we will become so desensitized to the fact of grim and violent death that we will no longer care. It will be something for someone else to worry about. Instead, we worry about more important things, such as how the local sports team is doing and whether it will make the playoffs this year.

Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.

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.