Sunday, December 8, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Twenty years ago tonight, on November 8, 1989, no one knew that the entire world was about to change. No one guessed that, in less than a year, the countries of East Germany and West Germany would cease to exist, that in two more years, the Soviet Union and Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia would all be gone, or that two dozen new countries would be born in their wake, some in a poof of text, others in fire and blood.
Sure, on November 8, 1989, it was clear that something was going to happen, but very few people on the planet earth seem to have guessed that it would be the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful overthrow of one of the most repressive governments in the world, followed with seeming inexorability by the end of Communism in Europe.
And so we receive the first clear lesson of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: No one really knows anything about what happens next.
No matter what anyone says now, no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming, not Helmut Kohl, not Mikhail Gorbachev or Ronald Reagan, not the most experienced journalists in the world. Twenty years ago, I was a clerk in the Washington bureau of The New York Times, and I can remember clearly the procession of seasoned veterans who came forward to look at the television set that hung over the copy desk during those days of mid November.That was a few years before the Internet, and while reporters could check the wire services on their computer screens for the latest news, they couldn’t see images. As they approached the screen, on November 10 or 11 or 12, their lips parted, and their eyes opened wide, wonderment on their faces as if they were about to receive a kiss.
And they were—the kiss of blasphemous and unruly history!
In an age where everything seems predigested, where experts on television mediate every scrap of information, telling us what to think, how to think about it, even when and why to think about it, human history remains as gloriously elusive and unmanageable as Mother Earth. Of course, unexpected surprises can be terrible. People were glued to their sets with a different sort of wonder on September 11, 2001, a horrified awe at the power of disaster, cruelty and fanaticism.
But on November 9, 1989, joy and relief carried the day. Santa Claus had come to town.
The day before was no Christmas Eve. For most people in the world, it dawned and ended like any other. Even in East and West Berlin, plenty of people went to bed on November 8 as if nothing could conceivably alter their work routines or their sense of place or their prospects for the future. Yet within the year, most of the inhabitants of both those cities would lose their countries. Those in the East would lose their passports, their currencies and millions of jobs.
Which brings us to the corollary to Lesson One: The day before the world changes forever is always a day like any other.
TOMORROW: The Awkwardness of Discordant Anniversaries.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a triple homicide in East Texas and used it as a case study to examine the so-called problem of evil that perennially bedevils philosophers and theologians. Here are the details of the case as I depicted them in the original post, which was inspired by a recent Texas Monthly article:
In March 2008, in the woods outside the small Texas town of Alba, Charles James Wilkinson, 19, and Charles Allen Waid, 18, shot and knifed Penny and Terry Caffey and their two sons, 13-year-old Mathew and 8-year-old Tyler in their home. There was another child, a 16-year-old daughter named Erin. Father Terry and daughter Erin survived the attack. The rest of the family did not.
First believed to be a survivor, home-schooled, churchgoing Erin later turned out to be the mastermind behind the triple homicide. She is now in prison.
Wilkinson, Erin’s boyfriend, told police that Erin became upset when her strict Christian parents forebade the two to see each other. Wilkinson maintained that she demanded that he kill them. He tried to dissuade her, but she insisted. Til’ the murders, local people considered the family to be exemplary in the faith, and Erin to be a wonderfully upbeat and moral kid. Obviously, something went wrong.
As recounted in the June 2009 issue of Texas Monthly, it’s a powerful and upsetting story, and not just because the “perfect” Christian daughter murdered her “perfect” Christian family. Its power lies every bit as much in Terry Caffey’s efforts to forgive and understand in the name of his faith. The father of the murdered family has only one family member left: the murderer herself. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult moral, psychological and moral dilemma.
There were several responses to the post, one of which came from a regular Christian reader named Nora, who wrote a long defense of her faith in the context of the murder. Here’s an excerpt from the full post:
I can not even begin to know the depths of sorrow that this man must feel in this tragic situation….or the people who suffer in other parts of the world….such as the genocide that took place (and still does)….nor the painful hollow feeling you felt when you met that man who lost his sons (that you wrote about in your book and spoke of in the movie). I do not know why some people are faced with more pain than others.
It seems to me that your underlying problem and contention with God is… you do not think God is fair because some people go through terrible tragic situations where others seem to live life untouched by that kind of pain. So just because you were born into a privileged family, country and time in history…..and someone on the other side of the world is not……that is the place that makes you stuck….unable to believe in Jesus as Savior? Is that a correct reading of your thoughts?
She closed her comment with these words:
I do believe the Bible is true and I am teaching my children that the Bible is God’s word. But just like I had to take that step of faith and continue that journey of faith, they will experience God in their own unique ways. God made us to enjoy relationships with each other and He made us to enjoy being in a relationship with Him. My daughter is a deep thinker and has expressed her doubts many times about God and the Bible. My advice to you is the same I have given her….ask God to reveal Himself to you. He will if you ask. Her faith has grown because she knows its okay to question God and she does. She journals her doubts and questions and I have seen her faith grow. Her faith is many times stronger than mine. Sorry for the “war and peace” answer….but I realized a short quick answer is never okay for the hard questions of life.
I have a question for you. If you agree that a civilized society must have some order and laws….then what is wrong with God’s plan?
Full disclosure to other readers: Nora and I have known each other since high school. We were friends and Christians together, but after high school we hadn’t been in contact for many years. She reached me through Facebook, and we started to communicate again. I urged her to share her thoughts on the blog, where other people might also have a chance to respond to her in our ongoing conversation about the divine.
In the meantime, Nora sent me a DVD, a long letter and now a book about Christianity. She is defending her faith, in part, but she is also behaving in the tradition of modern Christian evangelism, which places an unceasing emphasis on reaching “the lost”. This is very much the Christianity of my childhood, the sort that I write about in my recent book Reasons To Believe: One Man’s Journey Among The Evangelicals And The Faith He Left Behind. Completely familiar in every way, steeped in the same arguments, which haven’t changed in the least since I walked away, this Christianity would be easy to ignore.
Yet I wanted to respond to Nora’s comments, which were the fruit of a great deal of thought and evidently a fairly large investment of time.
Without further ado, I’ll try to do justice to the questions that she poses.
I’ll start with the last question first, as it’s the easiest. She asks,”If you agree that a civilized society must have some order and laws….then what is wrong with God’s plan?”
To borrow a line from a wise pastor I once met, I’d be a pretty shallow person if I tried to answer that one. Two millennia of Christian thinkers of the highest order have tried to identity the nature of God’s plan for the world and have only succeeded in coming up with different interpretations. I don’t have the time or inclination to take on that Gordian knot, but I will say a couple of things.
As a rule, since I don’t believe god or the gods exist, but I don’t believe there is a plan that results in identifiable divine order and laws. If there was, on the evidence, it didn’t work out. During those centuries when the Christian faith dictated law and order to the western world, law and order generally favored the rich and kept down the poor, persecuted and murdered Jews and homosexuals, endorsed slavery (until it didn’t), launched religious wars against Muslims and identified women as second class citizens. I’m not trying to blame the church for all this, merely pointing out that, as far as I can tell, even when the church of Jesus Christ played counselor to kings, the business of law and order remained in the hands of human beings and still does.
All this to say that our system of law and order is surely influenced by Biblical tenets, but as we’ve inherited it, it’s a mish-mash of a variety of different legal systems and codes and philosophies and will continue to evolove as such, no matter what Christians and non-Christians have to say about it. If I did believe in god, I would probably argue that the Christian god’s justice and human law and order are two very different things, otherwise you would have no bad Christian rulers and no good non-Christian ones.
The key question is the first one. It’s larger and encompasses the first one. It’s really more of a statement than a question. Nora says, “It seems to me that your underlying problem and contention with God is… you do not think God is fair because some people go through terrible tragic situations where others seem to live life untouched by that kind of pain.”
Is Nora right? Is my key problem with god one of fairness? I see why she comes to that conclusion. I write a lot about the extent and nature of human suffering as one argument against the existence of the divine. But, in fact, fairness is not the issue at all. Relevance is.
Let me show you what I mean. In a recent issue of The New York Review Of Books, Timothy Snyder writes about what he calls “the ignored reality” of the Holocaust, the mass murders of the Second World War that to this day have never received enough attention. He’s not just talking about Hitler. He’s talking about Stalin, too. I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs.
An adequate vision of the Holocaust would place Operation Reinhardt, the murder of the Polish Jews in 1942, at the center of its history. Polish Jews were the largest Jewish community in the world, Warsaw the most important Jewish city. This community was exterminated at Treblinka, Be zec, and Sobibor. Some 1.5 million Jews were killed at those three facilities, about 780,863 at Treblinka alone. Only a few dozen people survived these three death facilities. Be zec, though the third most important killing site of the Holocaust, after Auschwitz and Treblinka, is hardly known. Some 434,508 Jews perished at that death factory, and only two or three survived. About a million more Polish Jews were killed in other ways, some at Chelmno, Majdanek, or Auschwitz, many more shot in actions in the eastern half of the country.
All in all, as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, but they were killed by bullets in easterly locations that are blurred in painful remembrance. The second most important part of the Holocaust is the mass murder by bullets in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. It began with SS Einsatzgruppen shootings of Jewish men in June 1941, expanded to the murder of Jewish women and children in July, and extended to the extermination of entire Jewish communities that August and September. By the end of 1941, the Germans (along with local auxiliaries and Romanian troops) had killed a million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics. That is the equivalent of the total number of Jews killed at Auschwitz during the entire war. By the end of 1942, the Germans (again, with a great deal of local assistance) had shot another 700,000 Jews, and the Soviet Jewish populations under their control had ceased to exist.
Snyder is arguing that even in our attempt to vast and ongoing attempt to remember these terrible events, we have still failed to comprehend their magnitude or come close to understanding just who was affected and to what extent. If that is true of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews, it is doubly true of Stalin’s annihilation of millions of his own people. Here’s Snyder again, this time writing about Soviet atrocities:
The largest action of the Great Terror, Operation 00447, was aimed chiefly at “kulaks,” which is to say peasants who had already been oppressed during collectivization. It claimed 386,798 lives. A few national minorities, representing together less than 2 percent of the Soviet population, yielded more than a third of the fatalities of the Great Terror. In an operation aimed at ethnic Poles who were Soviet citizens, for example, 111,091 people were shot. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for alleged political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak operation and the national operations accounted for 633,955, more than 90 percent of the total. These people were shot in secret, buried in pits, and forgotten.
The emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the Western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical center of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today’s Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. More generally, when we contemplate Auschwitz and the Gulag, we tend to think of the states that built them as systems, as modern tyrannies, or totalitarian states. Yet such considerations of thought and politics in Berlin and Moscow tend to overlook the fact that mass killing happened, predominantly, in the parts of Europe between Germany and Russia, not in Germany and Russia themselves.
Why do I offer these paragraphs? Am I trying to bludgeon with sheer numbers? No. Behind every number, however huge, are iindividual tales of unspeakable human disaster and sorrow. Part of our problem in such cases is the weight of a number, the way that numbers distort and erase our sense of the intimate and personal, and yet every single murder here involved intimate and personal detail. The closer you look, trust me, the worse it gets.
But that’s not really the point. By reminding believers like Nora, I’m not raising the matter of divine fairness. I’m raising the matter of divine relevance. To me, when I read such things, it only brings my sense that, whether or not god exists, it’s hardly of interest to me in my attempt to understand and ultimately to do my small part to prevent such things from ever happening again.
In the above paragraphs, whether or not there is a god is a matter of indifference. The murderers survived. The victims died. Nothing unearthly intervened. History swallowed killers and murdered alike, leaving the aftermath for the rest of us to absorb and confront in whatever fashion we deem fit.
For many millions, as for Nora, god is the only way to meet this challenge. How else? For me, and I’m not trying to convince Nora or anyone else that I’m right, just stating my moral response as best I can, god is a distraction and even a dodge. God lifts the responsibility off the shoulders of human history and places it elsewhere. God lets us all off the hook. If we are alone, on the other hand, as a species, if we did this without any reference to a larger cosmic framework, then we alone must address it and fix it. It’s another question entirely whether we can, but for me the question of the existence of god permanently forestalls any serious attempt to begin the effort.
Finally, as concerns my own personal sin and salvation, it feels even less relevant than the existence of god when I read the preceding paragraphs. Would my salvation have helped me to be a better or worse person had I lived under Hitler? History tells us that the vast majority of German Christians supported Hitler, especially when it came to the Jewish question, and why shouldn’t they? Fifteen hundred years of theology had taught them to fear and despise the Jews.
While I welcome Nora’s attempts to convince me of the rightness of her belief, and while I place a high value on respecting that belief, and the beliefs of millions of others who find their central meaning in the existence of god, I would argue that evangelism of all kinds needs to go through a maturation process, whereby a properly deep and scholarly grasp of recent world history informs every single utterance of argument in favor of Jesus. Maybe that means a period of quiet for evangelism. Maybe that means the elders of every church in the country should put a ten-year moratorium on the Great Commission until every member of the flock has come to serious terms with the degree to which the realities of human history have super-saturated the faith.
That would be my challenge to you, Nora. If you’re going to push so hard to convince others of your belief, first try to get a grasp of all the serious arguments against its superiority as a view of the world. Your own witness is not enough. Reading a few books about terrible events is not enough. Christianity can only really make its arguments for itself if it has tested itself–intellectually, spiritually, culturally and emotionally–to the uttermost limits. Anything less, and the last two thousand years becomes a dealbreaker.
The last century would be the key place to start, and even the most eminent scholars in the field, as Snyder informs us, have yet to comprehend the enormity of what occurred.
Filed under: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Berlin, Books, Bruno Schulz, Cold War, Doug Wright, Europe, Fangland, Germany, John Marks, Roberto Bolano, Russia, Samantha Power, Stalin, The Wall, Tony Judt, Valkyrie, Vasily Grossman, Vladimir Putin, War Torn
Posted by: John
by JOHN MARKS
Here’s a question about the future rather than the past. “Are we hours away from yet another bloodbath in Darfur?” asks Eric Reeves, a professor of English language and literature at Smith College in today’s New Republic. “Sudan’s army appears set to launch an attack on Muhajeria, a rebel-held town in South Darfur whose civilian population approaches 50,000. Indeed, as of today, bombing attacks on the outskirts of Muhajeria have already begun. And so the fate of tens of thousands of Darfuri civilians rests with the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation, which presently has about 200 personnel deployed in Muhajeria. Wire reports indicate that some 5,000 civilians have fled to the peacekeepers’ base in search of security. Sudan’s government has forcefully asked the peacekeepers to leave. So far, the U.N. is saying its troops will stay. But will they stand their ground once the fighting starts? And even if they stay, will they prove willing to use force to protect civilians–something U.N. peacekeepers have historically been extremely reluctant to do?”
As I read these words, which are alarming in the extreme, suggesting an imminent catastrophe for thousands of people who may be on the verge of being slaughtered as I sit in my office and contemplate the fact, my first question is not about memory, but about knowledge. When I read something like this, do I know anything? It’s almost like a dream, reading such words on a subject that is happening out in the world and yet comes to me as a kind of ghost of a terrible future. How long before its effects reach me? Do they ever?
At what point, for instance, will the murder of Darfuri civilians in the next few ours become memory, and if and when it does, will that memory have more impact than the foreknowledge did?
Starting in the Twentieth Century, with the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, certain populations in the industrialized world began to have a privileged position as concerned bystanders to mass slaughter. When the Nazis murdered the Jews, when the Khmer Rouge murdered Cambodians, when the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein murdered the Kurds, when the Serbs murdered the Bosnians and the Hutu murdered the Tutsi, there were tens of millions of bystanders who heard secret rumors or saw very clear evidence of an ongoing murder and remained as immobile as the ground upon which the slaughters occurred.
One hundred years or so after the Armenian massacres, which have yet to be acknowledged by the Turkish government as a crime, the situation hasn’t changed substantially. I sit at my computer and read about the imminent massacre of Darfurians by Sudanese militias, and there’s not much that I can do, except write these words. It doesn’t seem likely that the American government, with all its money and military power, will do much either.
In our impotence, then, let’s go back to the questions. What use is the memory of a previous act of genocide in such a moment? Does our memory of an evil act even last the length of a single human life? Is there any difference between the ways that an individual remembers and the way a people or a nation does?
Can peoples or nations actually remember anything? Is there something like a collective mind that automatically preserves an act of atrocity through generations? Does the collective unconscious function as a strange preservative, great malevolence becoming the human equivalent of a primordial geological formation buried in the softer organic matter of life, forgotten, perhaps, but never destroyed? Or do peoples and nations require laws to remember? Do they have to be forced by victors in wars or the efforts of victims who refuse to be silenced? What is the mechanism of memory when it comes to collective acts of evil?
Notice that I’m skipping entirely the question of whether evil exists at all. Once you start to ask that, the questions never end, and the hell of it is that no question of this kind can truly be called an abstraction, not really. There is always a specific act, like the one that may be committed shortly in Sudan, with which to describe the phenomenon. Bizarrely, we never lack for current examples.
With that in mind, I take it as a given that certain events in our world correspond roughly to a notion of what is commonly called evil.
So here’s another question, a foul and frightening one. Is it better not to know, and its horrible corollary, better to forget? Can we, in fact, forget? Does nature allow it?
Is forgetting even possible, in other words, and if it is, is it morally defensible? Is forgetting itself an act of pure evil? Or is it, instead, an act of pure stupidity?
Is it evil to even raise the question of the viability of forgetting? Or is it just stupid?
Here’s where it gets personal. A few days ago, I posted a blog on the subject of conservation at Auschwitz, in which I cited a Dutch historian on the question of forgetting and remembrance. That historian, Robert Jan Van Pelt, made the point that, if the remains of the concentration camp Auschwitz were to eventually disappear, it might not be a moral disaster. He argued simply that allowing the site of the extermination to go back to seed, once the last survivors had died, might have as salutary a moral benefit as preserving the sites in perpetuity.
I seconded this speculation, making the point that the existence of the memorialized death camps had in no way prevented the committing of later acts of genocide, not even on European soil, and that their use as a tool of awareness might be limited, at best. I went on to critique the ongoing use of the Holocaust as an all-purpose metaphor for evil in our culture and suggested that such instrumentalization of the Holocaust ought to end.
One of my readers, a Michael Johnson, reacted strongly to the blog, going so far as to accuse me of thoughts “tinged with evil”. Here’s his comment in its entirety:
You are conflating two distinct issues, and your logic does nothing to connect the two.
Your main concern is, I believe, the use of the Holocaust metaphor to describe all sorts of evils, real and imagined. We can all agree that the such metaphors and descriptions are overused in the extreme.
The other issue here is whether we should allow sites such as Auschwitz to simply deteriorate and be forgotten. The assertion that this would serve any good purpose is preposterous. Ill-conceived metaphors aside, this memorial to the concrete, actual facts of history â€” the monumental crime of the Nazis and the equally monumental suffering of the European Jews â€” deserves to be preserved forever.
The idea that the misuse of metaphors somehow justifies allowing these memorials to decay seems itself to be tinged with evil.
Reread that last line, and you will perhaps understand why I responded like a petulant child to his comment. As I said above, he is imputing to my blog the tinge of “evil”. Needless to say, I reject that charge out of hand, but I could have handled it better. Before I respond at greater length to Johnson’s imputation, you can see my unfortunately rude response below:
This is a fantastic response, in the horror movie sense of the word. I love, in particular, the fact that you are ever so delicately suggesting that I have committed an act of evil by mentioning these two matters in the same essay. Bravo! It’s like being a sophomore in college in 1993.
Just so we understand each other, here’s the moment in the essay when I make clear that the two issues are not one and the same:
“The question of how to remember Auschwitz will be with us for a while. It’s only fitting. Even if we acknowledge that its meaning has changed, the Holocaust remains our most potent symbol for genocide and other acts of mass persecution.”
By ignoring this paragraph and others like it, in which I try to show how the meaning of the event has changed dramatically for our society, as apart from the horror of the actual historical event itself, and by smearing me with the George W. Bush seal of evil, you are not being evil yourself, just a little naughty in the old school manner. That’s okay. I have a nostalgic fondness for the time when someone could try to scare off uncomfortable conversations with such commentary. Still, nostalgia is one thing, and sense another.
The question of how to remember real evil and atrocity is urgent and with us everyday, and here’s the logical connection to the over-use of the metaphor. The latter gets in the way of the proper understanding of and response to the Holocaust by surrounding the actual events with a fog of cheap sentiment and lazy history. Misuse of the metaphor is a desecration of history, in fact.
Dare I ask? Have you been guilty yourself of cheapening the Holocaust by misusing it on some way? It has become such a common act that one never knows.
I was pissed off, to say the least, and it clearly shows, but I’ve also given his comment a lot of thought since, and I’m glad now that he wrote it, and even glad that I responded with such shallow ire. My blog didn’t really conflate the misuse of the Holocaust metaphor with the question of whether to close the camps. Anyone who reads the essay will see that, I think.
Having said that, Johnson did put his finger on a real problem in the text. The blog didn’t do a great job of staying on point. Johnson justifiably thought that my real concern was the metaphor business, when, in fact, my larger interest lay in a much more profound question. What do we do when one of the largest events of our modern era, a disaster so huge that it has partially driven our sense of ethics, civics, culture and society for half a century—the Holocaust—begins to fade from living memory?
When it comes to the Holocaust, we have had the privilege of immediate witness. For fifty years, I mean to say, we have had the opportunity to hear direct accounts by survivors, perpetrators and victims, allowing us to amass a remarkably complete record of this genocide. We know firsthand when it started, how it started, how it progressed, what it felt like, inside and out, how it escalated, and how it concluded. Do we know more about any other episode in world history than we know about the Holocaust?
When I was a child, in Dallas, I met a camp victim. He was a tailor who worked for my mother. When I noticed the numbers stamped on his arm, I asked him what they were, and he told me that some horrible people had forced him to wear that number. I never forgot it, that first quiet encounter with total horror.
There never was and never will be a substitute for such an encounter. By putting so many interviews with victims on tape, the Shoah Foundation has done the next best thing. At the Central Europe Center in Vienna, Ed Serotta is compiling an archive of interviews with Jews who were born in Eastern and Central Europe, who survived the Holocaust and yet stayed in their native countries.
Again, there is no substitute for such testimonies and accounts. There is merely the unavoidable fact that at some point, sooner than later, the record will outlive the living, that we will be left with nothing but the recordings. That transition from living memory to disembodied history ought to matter hugely to anyone who cares about the import of the Holocaust for the future.
For that reason, I cited the misuse of the Holocaust metaphor and the over-use of Nazi imagery as two factors in the dilution of the meaning and import of the event itself to our culture and way of life. If we are careless with our most exhaustively studied and best understood act of genocide, is it any wonder that we do not use that information properly to intervene against subsequent acts of genocide?
In other words, despite all of our efforts, is there something badly broken in the way that we have remembered the Holocaust? If the hope has been that greater knowledge would lead to greater prevention of genocide, the answer can only be yes. On the level of prevention, we have utterly failed.
In this respect, then, the question of the preservation of the death camps shouldn’t be left out of the larger question of the general uses and abuses of the Holocaust. How we preserve the memory of the event is tied directly to how we talk about it, how we depict it, how we remember, and what we do with the memory. I don’t have the answers, but I submit that Johnson’s notion that it is preposterous, and even evil, to raise the question about the future of the camps reflects intellectual and moral complacency and does disservice to those who care most about their preservation.
As long as there are libraries and archives, we will not lose the personal account of what happened. Anyone who cares to know the truth can go quickly to the Internet and find thousands of recources to aid in understanding. This is not going to go away.
What is fading is our relatively easy and straightforward relationship to the terrible events that occurred in Germany between 1939 and 1945. With the passing away of the survivors, we can expect new and heated battles over what really happened. We can also expect a growing indifference among younger generations toward those events, and the diminished value of their power as a symbol and rallying cry against injustice.
That doesn’t mean we no longer have to face the questions raised by the Holocaust. In a sense, they become more urgent, though more abstract, not so different than the questions I raised at the top of this blog.
In case you were wondering, I cannot remotely answer most of them. I won’t even try. What I can do is lay out my own small core of principles when it comes to the acts of remembering and forgetting.
One, I take it as a suicidal act of stupidity for any civilization to intentionally forget or suppress its darkest hours and most barbaric acts, mostly because the memory of those acts, for whatever obscure reason, seems to have a life of its own. The murdered dead and the aggrieved living haunt the world and seek restitution and vengeance.
Two, the proof that a civilization has faced its own dark past can be seen in at least two ways, in its version of its own worst history and in its behavior toward the most problematic elements in its body politic. In other words, it’s not enough to simply know what one did wrong. If the truth is to have any meaning, then restitution must be made and action must be taken. As long as we continue to fight timely wars over oil while procrastinating to fight wars to prevent genocide, as if the one made sense and the other didn’t, we are revealing our own forgetfulness, and therefore our ignorance and stupidity. We are, in essence, digging our own grave.
Three, and this may seem to fly in the face of what I’ve just written, there is an equal and opposite principle at work in nature that favors forgetfulness as much as memory. It’s utterly mysterious, and yet I can’t help feeling it at every turn, as the divisions of the Vietnam War simply fade away in the face of new pressures and challenges. Just as we risk the health of our civilization by forgetting, we also risk it by constantly and completely remembering. A civilization that steeps itself completely in memory is digging anther kind of grave. It is a skeleton, ready to shatter in the next big wind.
The balance is elusive.
In his astounding posthumous novel 2666, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano places the mass murder of hundreds of Mexican girls at the center of a series of stories about people who flutter around the killings like butterflies. Writers, scholars, journalists, detectives: they are all drawn to the city of Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juarez, where, in fact, for the last decade and a half, girls have been dying and disappearing in ghastly large numbers. It is a staggering, unsolved crime, and Bolano’s fiction seems to suggest that it lies like an indispensable mystery at the heart of the current world order.
It doesn’t just lie there, actually. It is a vortex, drawing us all down its throat. We aren’t going to solve it, we are merely going to be swallowed whole by it. The murders of the girls in Santa Teresa isn’t one more crime; it’s the last crime, the final crime, the sign that we’ve had our last shot, and we’re not going to recover.
In other words, the mystery is not Whodunnit? It’s “Will we survive it?”
That’s the question of Auschwitz, too, still unanswered. Will we survive it? And how?
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