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.


Remembering Churchill

Not many years after the Second World War the world had only a hazy memory of the man who may have saved Western Civilization, namely, Winston Churchill. Historians have wondered over the years why the man was not more honored toward the end of his life as he sat, for the most part quiet, in Parliament and awaited his inevitable death. To be sure, his nation remembered him on the day of his burial while millions paid a last tribute to the man whose voice they heard countless times during that awful war telling them to remain calm and carry on. But perhaps they, like the rest of the world, wanted to forget as soon as possible the horrors of that war and thus Churchill was not given the tribute that many, if not all, of his biographers think he deserved. One of those biographers, Geoffrey Best, asks a profound question as he pondered this rather confusing determination to forget:

“One might not lament the end of ‘glory,’ but what about ‘chivalry’ and ‘honour’? There must be improvement of some kind in the fact that the concept of ‘dying for your country’ no longer provides a model of an ideal death; but there may not be much of an improvement in not knowing whether there is anything in your country worth dying for, whether you belong to this country or that, or even whether you belong to any distinctive country at all.”

Since the time of Winston Churchill’s death this question has become more and more pressing as we begin to see that the wars that cost so many lives are often, if not always, fought for the wealthy to become even wealthier and the poor who survive the wars even poorer. The scales have been removed from our eyes as we see more clearly now what it is that makes men and women do what they do — especially in this country in the past few months as a man who is riddled with shortcomings, prejudices, ignorance, and blurred vision, who has no concept whatever of what true patriotism and self-sacrifice involve, has become one of the most powerful men on earth. One asks seriously whether we truly belong to this country.

The terms “great” and “honor” are called into question in a relativistic age as we ponder the pressing questions of how we, too, can become wealthy and where next to find the latest titilation. Chivalry, of course, went out with hooped skirts and the moral high ground has been leveled so no one stands any higher than anyone else. The past is forgotten by people scurrying about like the creatures at Alice’s caucus race, hoping for some sort of tangible reward simply for making the effort: trophies for all participants and find the path of least resistance — but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop and think about what is going on around you!

Men like Winston Churchill were, in fact, great men, because they took advantage to the opportunities offered them and did what they knew had to be done — at great personal risk. Early on he was pilloried by his own countrymen for warning them about the dangers of Naziism, though he was later honored during the war when he rose to great heights; but he is now largely forgotten along with the rest of the men and women who created and sustained Western Civilization.  And there don’t appear to be many around able or willing to take his place.

Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Dollars and Sense

I have been reading the third novel of the four that comprise Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy titled The Temple of Dawn. The four novels in the group focus on the life of Shigekuni Honda before during and after the Second World War. The third volume is written around the years of the war, especially the final years when Japan was being fire-bombed relentlessly by B-29’s and Honda picks his way through the ruins of his beautiful homeland trying to make sense of a world in chaos.

The Japanese signed an agreement known as “Comintern” with Germany and Italy, late in the 1930s in order to unite against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, which was sweeping Europe and the Far East at a time when the world economies were in serious trouble. But the old line Japanese worried as much, if not more, about capitalism than they did Communism, according to Mishima. They saw capitalism as an insidious force that was gradually destroying the ancient values that made Japan a unique culture — and it was undermining the ancient religion as well.

Early in 1932 there had been an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship in Japan by a group of young idealists who were intent on restoring the ancient values. This attempt included the intent to murder of several leading bankers and industrialists. Mishima deals with that revolution in his second volume. But in this third volume his hero, Honda, comes across a poem written by one of the young men who had been involved in the failed attempt to bring down the existing government. “The poet expressed the disillusionment that followed the revolution for which he had been so ready to give up his life.” In that poem, Honda reads the following couplet: “Yesterday’s wisdom is beclouded in luxurious baths of profit.” That thought alone justifies the reading of this fine novel, which is full of insights and profound observations about the world at that time, not only in Japan, but elsewhere as well.

In any event, in reflecting on that particular thought I find it remarkable that Japan was fighting at that time against the very same capitalistic forces the Roman Church was fighting against during the European Middle Ages. Capitalism won out and the battle was over between the love of money — which is condemned in both Christianity and Buddhism — and the love of God and our fellow humans. In both cases, the fight was lost and lofty spiritual ideals were replaced by the most crass, materialistic values humans have ever come to espouse. One really must sympathize with those young Japanese men who were willing to die in order to preserve a culture that was in so many ways superior to the one they knew would inevitably replace it. Just consider Japan today, with its Western dress and ideals — and especially its commitment to capitalist objectives. And consider the insidious influence of great wealth on the government in this country which is virtually crippled because those who govern are determined not to pass any laws that might infringe on the right of a few wealthy men to become even wealthier. In both cultures, Japanese and American, it is now all about money.

Natural Rights

The concept of natural rights goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period. Aquinas recognized “higher laws” than the laws of man, though these laws are superseded by Divine Laws as revealed in the scriptures. The point of this recognition was to make humans aware that the laws men put “on the books” are not the only laws, or even the laws that in a specific case ought to be obeyed. Throughout history, remarkable men have appealed to “natural law” to justify the breaking of civil laws — men like Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The thinker who did the most to popularize the notion of natural law and natural rights — which are derived from natural laws — was John Locke. His remarkable book Two Treatises of Government written in 1689 had a huge impact on the English Civil wars and the eventual ascendency of the Parliament over the King who had traditionally claimed “divine right” to rule with an iron fist. The notion of natural right, as Locke developed it, revolved around a set of moral principles that are available to human reason; these principles transcend the laws of men written in civil codes.

The notion that there is a “higher law” than the law of legislators was attractive to the British citizens living in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They embraced Locke’s Second Treatise even after the British had tossed it aside and moved on. Jefferson in fact relied heavily on Locke’s political philosophy. But even before Jefferson incorporated Locke’s notion of natural rights into the Declaration of Independence, the notion itself was being tossed around rather loosely in the colonies and used as a convenient way to ignore laws that were inconvenient. and claim the “right” to do whatever one wanted. For example, the merchants on Philadelphia in 1773 who were annoyed by English taxes on tea from India felt it perfectly acceptable to bribe custom officials and smuggle tea into their warehouses on the grounds that “every man has a natural right to exchange his property with whom he pleases and where he can take the most advantage of it.”*  I dare say today’s corporate CEOs would heartily agree.

What this means, of course, is that if a person finds a particular law inconvenient or unnecessarily constrictive, he can ignore it on the grounds that it is in conflict with “natural law.” In a word, the notion when used in this loose way simply becomes another way of doing what one wants to do regardless of the consequences. This is not the way Jefferson meant the phrase “natural rights” to be taken when he speaks about man’s “unalienable [natural] rights” in the Declaration. These are God-given rights that no human laws can supersede. They are nearly on a par with Divine Laws as those were conceived by Thomas Aquinas. They were not mere whimsy and they were certainly not arbitrary.

Because of the loose way of speaking about natural rights and natural laws the notions passed out of common usage in the nineteenth century and very little mention of them can be found until the notion was resurrected after World War II by a group of Catholic thinkers because Hitler, among others, was careful to make certain that every step he took was perfectly “legal.” Thus, the notion of natural law and natural rights once again came to the fore: there had to be moral rules and laws that superseded the laws of fallible humans, whether they be Germans under the Third Reich or the Russians under Stalin.

So when Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail in the turbulent 60s of the last century he once again appealed to natural, moral laws. When he says, for example, that  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” he is not speaking about human laws, as his frequent references to the Bible make clear. King was quite certain that there is a moral high ground and that some stand on it and others do not — despite what they might say. There are moral laws that trump human laws, and these laws are written on the heart and speak to human conscience.

* Found in John Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution.