The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to acknowledge these mistakes.
—Dan Jianzhong, Beijing sociologist, concerning the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which began 50 years ago, in 1966 (quoted by journalist Chris Buckley in “High-Level Commentary Breaks Silence in China,” The New York Times , 5/17/16)
Mourning involves living in a world totally not of one’s choosing. It’s a world of paradoxes: a world that one doesn’t want to live in, but doesn’t want to die in either.
—Charles W. Brice, poet and retired psychoanalyst (personal communication)
One thing has been made very clear to me. Many people resent being confronted with information about how racism still shapes—and sometimes, ruins—life in this country.
—Jenée Desmond-Harris, “The Upside to Overt Racism” (The New York Times, 5/1/16)
Whoever, so as to simplify problems, denies the existence of certain obligations has, in his heart, made a compact with crime.
—Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (Routledge Classics, 2002; Fr. orig. 1949)
In general, it is no doubt right to say that the difficulty of acknowledging past mistakes increases with time. However, when those mistakes carry traumatic consequences, the more time passes the greater grows the urgency to do just that, to acknowledge them—and, even more, to set them right. Trauma, after all, has its own time, growing ever more insistent the longer it goes unaddressed, repeating its demands more and more loudly until they are finally heard, and elicit a proper response. Sooner or later, trauma’s time will come. Sooner or later, we will be able to mourn. We can only hope that the day for our mourning will come this side of Judgment Day, the eschatological end of days as such. However, there are reasons for pessimism on that matter.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle that stands between us as a nation and the dawning of our day of national mourning is precisely, as I put it in my preceding post, because we really are not “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” except in our national Pledge of Allegiance. What keeps us from uniting in acknowledging and mourning the crimes that some of us have perpetrated on others of us (not to mention other nations or peoples), is that we who are perpetrators or their descendants continue to derive so much benefit from those same crimes. Those of us who have the privilege of thinking ourselves “white,” for example, continue to derive great benefits from that very privilege, including the benefit of being able to drive our cars around our cities without being stopped and harassed by the police for no better reason than our not being among those so privileged.
Some time ago I wrote here, in a two-post series on “The Unforgiveable,” about Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry’s stipulation of the conditions under which he would be willing to let go of what he called his “resentments” against the Germans as a people or nation. In brief, Améry lays out a two-fold condition for such a settlement to occur at the level of what he calls “historical practice.” First, a true settlement would require “permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the victims of the crimes. Second, and simultaneously, “self-distrust” would need to be first enkindled and then kept carefully alive “in the other camp,” the camp of the perpetrators—the very self-distrust engendered by the perpetrators’ awareness and acceptance of their victims’ resentment. Genuine reconciliation could occur only by allowing the wounds of the victims to remain open and acknowledged, while simultaneously opening and keeping open an answering wound of deep self-mistrust in the perpetrators. Only if that were to happen would “the overpowered and those who overpowered them [. . .] be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral.”
In the case of Germany and what it did during World War II, for that nation to awaken such self-distrust would require it to become, as Améry says, “a national community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation [that is, during the Nazi years of 1933-1945], and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns.” Nor was Améry blind to the fact that the entire postwar German “economic miracle” that allowed West Germany to become the economic powerhouse of Europe was itself only possible on the basis of the devastation of Germany at the end of the war, which allowed for the sort of radical retooling that fed the postwar German economic machine. Truly to “reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished” through its own criminal acts of its Nazi period, Germany would have had to reject not only Cold War financial support through the Marshall Plan but also everything else that Germany’s own utter defeat made possible for subsequent German economic development. Of course, “nothing of the sort will ever happen,” as Améry already knew and insisted long ago.
Nor will the United States as a nation every truly mourn its own crimes. For one thing, it will never truly mourn the genocide of American Indians on which America is founded. For various reasons, it is even less likely ever truly to mourn the centuries of enslavement of African Americans on which the United States as a whole—not just the South, but the entire county—built its unparalleled global economic might.
It recently made the news that Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was largely built on funds it acquired from direct engagement in the slave trade. In one sense, at least, there’s really nothing new in such news. As has long been recognized, many foundational United States universities—Brown, Cornell, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and others—were themselves founded, either directly or indirectly, on the bodies of slaves. So were many other institutions, both North and South. Then, too, of course, the institution of slavery was built right into the Constitution of the United States itself.
If the United States were ever really to mourn slavery and its hundreds of millions of victims, then at least at a bare minimum those of us who still continue to benefit from the consequences of slavery would need to let go of our resentment toward African Americans for their own ongoing resentment for those very consequences. We who are privileged to think ourselves “white” would have to grant those not so privileged the right to hold on to their resentment of us, and we would need simultaneously to match their resentment with deep, abiding self-distrust of ourselves, to borrow Améry’s way of putting the point.
Of course, nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know.
* * * * * *
So where do we go from here?
Well, that question really calls for thinking.