Remembering Ourselves

Here is another small part (slightly modified for posting here) of a much longer text I prepared for two talks I was invited to give at a conference in Poland that was later cancelled. 

*     *     *

Just a few days after I received the invitation to participate in the later cancelled conference proposed for the end of October 2016 at the Institute for Archetypal and Religious Studies outside Krakow, Poland, originally cast under the topic of “poetry and the remembrance of the Holocaust,” so that the theme of the conference was already on my mind, my attention was drawn to a column in the opinion section of the Sunday New York Times for July 3 of 2016. The next day, July 4, is of course the annual celebration of “Independence Day” in the United States. The article in question did not concern the remembrance of the Holocaust as such, but it did concern broad issues of trauma and remembrance, issues that are certainly pertinent to considerations of remembering the Holocaust.

The column was entitled “The Fantasy of American Violence,” by Roy Scranton, a military veteran who served in the United States Army during the initial American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, participating in the conquest and occupation of Baghdad. In his column, Scranton describes how, born in the American Bicentennial Year of 1976, he grew up with the ideas implanted in him by Star Wars, George Lucas’s famous film-series with its young hero “Luke Skywalker.” The first film of the series was released in 1977, and Scranton says that it was the first movie he ever saw. Star Wars, he writes in his column,

managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war [in Vietnam], Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for America the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.

In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.

The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence” [. . .]. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.

Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July [in 2003], I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.

Did it really take going to Baghdad to learn this? Hadn’t I read about the campaigns against the Cherokee, Nez Percé, and Sioux, the long [United States’] war against Philippine independence, and the horrors of Vietnam? My grandfather served on a Swift boat in the Mekong Delta at the end of his military service, though he never talked about it; hadn’t trying to fill in his silence taught me about free-fire zones, My Lai and hospitals full of napalmed orphans? The bloody track of American history, from slavery to genocide to empire, is plain for all to see. But reckoning with the violence itself was the appeal: I thought I could confront our dark side, just like Luke Skywalker, and come away enlightened.

As I have already said, I had received the invitation to participate in the conference on poetry and the remembrance of the Holocaust just a few days before I read those words by Scranton. Accordingly, as I’ve also already said, that topic was on my own mind when I did read them, during the 2016 July 4th weekend. When I read Scranton’s column, I could not help but see parallels between the United States as Scranton described it, on the one hand, and Germany, at least Germany up to the end of World War II, on the other. (Whether and, if so, to what extent that still holds true of Germany today remains to my mind an all too open question.)

For one thing, “the myth of regeneration through violence,” the belief in which is all too common among “red-blooded Americans,” to use a common expression in the United States, is a myth the Nazis certainly also believed in, and even actively propagated. They propagated it far more consciously, clearly, and calculatingly, in fact, than George Lucas ever did in Star Wars (but not necessarily more effectively, I might add).

For another thing, it is not that far, at least in my mind, from the common American glorification of all United States military veterans, irrespective of what those veterans may have done in the purported defense of “freedom,” to Himmler’s notorious speech to the SS at Posen (Posnan), Poland, 73 years ago, in October of 1943. In that speech, Himmler speaks directly of “the extermination of the Jewish people”—in those very terms—then goes on to extol as heroes the SS troops who were actively carrying out such a “final solution to the Jewish problem.” Himmler says at one point: “Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person —with exceptions due to human weaknesses—has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.”

The issue raised for me by the coupling in my own mind of Scranton’s recent column about the United State and its war in Iraq at the beginning of this current century, on the one hand, with Himmler’s speech to the SS at Posnan in the middle of the last century, on the other, is not that of trying to weigh American atrocities against German ones. Such comparisons of atrocities dishonor our obligations of remembrance, in my judgment. Indeed, it was precisely the issue of such dishonoring of those obligations, dishonoring them by the failure to remember, that the disturbing parallels I have mentioned raised for me.

If what passes in the United States for “remembrance” of what Scranton calls “the bloody track of American history” just keeps everything chugging on and on along that very same “bloody track,” then it is in fact just such a failure. It is a deep distortion of remembrance, a distortion in which the United States actually just forgets itself—only this time in a shameful sense, rather then the positive sense of forgetting oneself I have considered above [in accordance with which to “forget ourselves” is to be relieved of our own obsessive self-concern by being overtaken by concern for another].

If that is so, then clearly a very different sort of remembrance would have to be found if the very obligation of Americans to remember “the bloody track of American history” were to be honored. It would have to be a way of calling the country back to itself, from self-forgetfulness. It would need to remind Americans of just who they really are, given their own bloody history—who they for far too long have been, and are called upon to stop being and, in fact, to atone for having been.

What is more, the same thing, it struck me as I read Scranton’s piece, would apply no less to remembrance of the Holocaust. We would need to be careful to separate the same two sorts of remembrance that are possible there as well—an irresponsible, shamefully self-forgetful sort of pretense at remembering, and a responsible, painfully self-revealing, actual remembrance.

A Brief Reflection on Remembrance for Veterans Day

What follows is a short snippet from a much longer essay I wrote this summer–the text for two talks I had been invited to give at a conference that was to take place outside Krakow, Poland, on the topic of poetry or art and remembrance of the Holocaust. (The conference was eventually cancelled, so those talks were never given).

*   *   * 

Just this last summer, I read an opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American raised in California and the author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer.

In the title given Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column, the expression “American tragedy” is set off by quotation marks, to call attention to how highly questionable it is for “Americans” (that is, U. S. citizens) to speak of the United States involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s as though it were a tragedy especially for that nation, the United States, in disregard of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed by American arms in that war. Those Vietnamese dead are no more counted in that way of speaking of the Vietnam war as an “American tragedy” than are the Iraqi dead in the Chilcot report on British participation in the 2003 Iraq war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s piece itself was written in response to the recent appointment of Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam war veteran, to become the chairman of the board of Fulbright University, the first “American-style” university in Vietnam. Kerrey himself had been severely wounded in the war in Vietnam, and went on after it to establish himself in politics, including becoming Governor of the state of Nebraska. However, he was also, by his own admission—one he did not spontaneously offer, but was eventually forced to make when confronted with the evidence of his guilt—the officer in charge and on hand during an episode in which troops under his command murdered a number of innocent Vietnamese women and children.

“I lived among many Vietnamese refugees,” Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in his piece occasioned by Kerrey’s recent appointment, “for which this war was a Vietnamese tragedy [my emphasis]. President Obama’s speech on the war’s 50th anniversary in 2012 focused on the deaths of over 58,000 American soldiers; I wondered why more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and more than one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters were not mentioned, nor the countless thousands of civilians who perished.” A little later, he continues this way:

Some in the United States have said that Mr. Kerrey is also a victim—of an unjust war and disastrous leadership—but such a claim seems ironic, if not outright ludicrous, when one compares Mr. Kerrey’s prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he lead and the relatives of those killed now live. His life and career have barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets. Indeed, as Mr. Kerrey was once in Vietnam as an expression of United States power, he now arrives in a different guise but still as a symbol of Western influence, this time as a leader of a university.

Many Vietnamese hope the university will deliver free-market values to a nominally Communist country eager to continue its capitalist development. But such hope must be tempered with the understanding that Western-style universities are ambivalent places when it comes to encouraging greater equality. At their best, they cultivate humane thinking. At their worst, they both practice and promote an economic inequality that supports the interests of the 1 percent: exploitation of underpaid adjunct teachers; tremendous increases in student debt; emphasizing the production of workers rather than learners.

 

Those closing remarks are sobering words especially for someone who has spent his whole adult life professing one thing or another in Western-style universities, but I will not dwell on that.

Published in: on November 11, 2016 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the sixth and last in a series of posts.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Part Two: Pissing on Language (4)

Being “politically correct” ceases to mean what it originally meant. It ceases to mean: catering to what is already politically accepted by those with whom one is speaking, rather than being open and honest with them, helping to form wise and honest political decisions through ongoing discourse with one another. Instead, the phrase is taken out of circulation in common, politically constructive conversation, and appropriated by the proponents of one position, to be used as a weapon to cut off conversation and silence others. The first party thereby stops conversing with the second, instead excluding that second party from the conversation altogether.

“Discrimination” ceases to mean the systemic subordination of the social, economic, and political interests of an oppressed population by an oppressing one. Instead, it comes to mean no more than individualized inclinations of anyone in general against anyone else of a different religion, county of origin, sex, sexual orientation, ethnic group, economic status, or whatever.

A paradigm of such deflation or flattening of the term “discrimination” and its cognates is the common currency given to the oxymoronic term and idea of “reverse discrimination.”

That term was first granted currency when the United States Supreme Court issued its judgment in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case back in 1978. In accordance with that decision and the usage it made of that expression, the animus of the oppressed against their oppressors was put on a par with the very systemic practices whereby the oppressed were, and remain, oppressed. In that process, “discrimination” was turned from a community political matter into one of individual morality. , The oppressed themselves were thereby further repressed by being robbed of an important element of the very vocabulary they needed to protest against their oppression.

Similarly, with the emergence and spread of the officially sanctioned euphemism “affirmative action” during the year of the Johnson Administration, discussion of racism in the United States and its redress was blunted, blurred, and derailed. As Jeff Chang writes in “Is Diversity for White People? On Fearmongering, Picture Taking and Avoidance,” a chapter of We Gon’ Be alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation: “For a long time [thereafter], the debate over affirmative action was a proxy for discussing race and inequality. It was a way to talk about debt and reparations, guilt and transformation, without ever using those words.”

As Chang points out, however, the compromise majority Supreme Court decision written by Justice Lewis Powell, Jr., in the California v. Bakke case helped even further flatten the linguistic terrain. It did so by equating “affirmative action” itself with action that ran contrary to the supposed “colorblindness” which that same decision suddenly discovered to be an official national ideal.

That same flattening process has, in fact, gone so far that for quite a while already now, many treat the phrase “affirmative action” as though it were a euphemism, not for acts of national acknowledgement, repentance, and atonement for a long history of systemic racism and discrimination, but for the oxymoronic notion of “reverse discrimination,” itself held out as a failure to adhere to the policy of supposed “colorblindness.” That latter term itself thus loses all remaining legitimate usage and comes to be no more than a cover-word for the institutionalized refusal to repent for racism, let alone actively to try to atone for it.

By Powell’s decision for the majority in the Bakke case, it was illegal for institutions of higher education in the United States to take actions designed to redress the results of centuries of racist oppression in this country. However, it was still permissible for them to seek “diversity,” which Powell held up as of positive benefit for general educational purposes.

No quotas were permitted, that is, no efforts to amend for the centuries of quotas imposed everywhere against minorities, from African Americans to Asian Americans to Hispanic Americans to Jewish Americans and so on, on and on. But Powell did still permit consideration of ethnic differences in higher education student-admission decisions, but only so long as that was just one factor among others considered for the sake a fostering such cherished “diversity” among student populations in institutions of higher learning.

After all, such “diversity” enriched the educational experience of all the fine young white folks, offspring of those who really owned the place, be that place the University of California, or the United States of America.

Chang is very good on all that. His analyses show how the United States “remembers” the Third Reich by repeatedly doing the same sorts of things the Third Reich did, precisely in order to remain the Reich, the Kingdom, the Realm—that is, the sole claimant to coercive power over the whole domain. Such repetitive remembering includes, especially, pissing on language, by flattening it of all its own real power, its definitive potentialities as language.

Pissing on language by flattening it in that way is pissing, as well, on all those who might use an un-flattened, un-pissed-on language to protest against their oppression. Most especially it is pissing on the memory of those who have long suffered the most from such oppression. It pisses on their memory just as the cop’s dog pissed on the memorials that spontaneously sprang in Ferguson, Missouri, for Michael Brown, after another cop shot him dead.

That’s how to remember the Third Reich, American Style.

Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (4)

This is the fourth and last of a series of posts under the same title.

 

*     *   *

For many years now—many years before ever reading Jane E. Brody’s article, and encountering there the use of the term “moral injury” at issue in what she reports—I have found myself on various occasions wondering about the very issues that arise in her article: issues pertaining to how those who committed wartime atrocities might best be helped to confront themselves and their own crimes, and how they might still be embraced in community. However, the context in terms of which I have always thought about those issues before I read Brody’s article was not the one that concerns her, which is that of U.S. military veterans who fought in our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Instead, the context in terms of which I thought of those issues before reading her article was always that of the Holocaust itself. What I would find myself thinking about was not those U.S. perpetrators of atrocities, but rather those who helped perpetrate the murder of millions during the Holocaust, in death camps or killing fields or any of the other places where such murders were carried out. I would find myself wondering what one could and should say concerning them, and the suffering that, surely, many of them must have experienced by the memories of what they had done—suffering they must have continued to undergo even decades after they had committed the crimes they did commit. What would one say to the former SS camp-guard at Auschwitz, for example, who had bashed babies heads in, and led countless men, women, and children into the gas chambers, and who suffered from the overwhelming guilt the recollection of such deeds should haunt anyone who did them, and must have haunted at least some of the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust itself?

The anger I felt when I read Jane E. Brody’s article about contemporary clinical approaches to the counseling of U.S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who suffer from the same sort of “moral injury” had its roots deep in the soil of all those earlier thoughts of my own pertaining to German veterans and the veterans of other nations that assisted Germany in perpetrating the Holocaust. My anger rose especially when I read the remarks attributed to Dr. Brett Litz, about the need to assure U.S. vets who suffered from such “moral injury” that “that they will not be judged and are deserving of forgiveness,” the need to tell them that “disclosing, sharing, [and] confessing” their crimes “is fundamental to repair” of their own injuries, and the need to encourage them “ to ‘engage in the world in a way that is repairing—for example, by helping children or writing letters’,” so that they can “find forgiveness within themselves or from others.” I could not help but wonder how receptive readers of those remarks in the Times article would be to them if they were addressed, not to U.S. veterans who perpetrated atrocities in Vietnam and after, but to German and other European nations’ veterans who perpetrated the Holocaust.

I wondered, and I found my anger rising.

As I have said before here, the issue is not to engage in some comparison of atrocities, trying to decide which atrocity was worse, which nation guilty of the most or worst crimes. We should have no patience for the disgusting business of drawing such comparisons, trying to establish the victor in the race of nations into moral depravity. That is not in the least the issue.

The issue is, rather, to abandon all such self-serving attempts to justify “our” own “exceptionalism,” whether that be the exceptionalism of Germany, home of the “master race,” or of the United States of America, “home of the brave and land of the free.” The issue is to forget ourselves and our own obsessive self-concern, that we might at last remember who we really are, and act accordingly.

Published in: on November 9, 2016 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

 

This is the fifth in a series of posts.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Part Two: Pissing on Language (3)

It is revealing to read John Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, published in the United States just this year, 2016, alongside Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, which was originally published in Germany sixty-two years ago, in 1954. Both detail the distortion and flattening of language that paves the way for the degeneration of populism into demagogy and, concomitant with that, of democracy into authoritarianism.

In one passage of his book (pages 52-53 of the English translation), Klemperer does a good job of articulating the difference at issue. After reminding the reader that “politics is after all the art of leading a polis, a city,” he goes on to note that with the emergence of modern democracy the “city” that is to be lead is no longer something of the size of ancient Athens, the birthplace of the idea of “democracy”— which is to say rule by “the people” themselves, consisting of “everyone” equally, and not just by some privileged segment of society for their own benefit. The polis today, Klemperer acknowledges, is vastly greater both in physical extent and in population than the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. Yet, he writes, even when the massive modern polis eventually emerged, political leaders were still challenged, as they were in Athens centuries ago, to “turn to ‘everyone’ in person,” if they were truly to lead.

That remains so for modern political leaders, with a polis as large as a nation-state and with populations in the millions or even billions. It remains true, as Klemperer goes on to say, “even if ‘everyone’ amounts to millions, and even if thousands of kilometers separate their individual groups.” Though “the people” can no longer be gathered together and addressed at a single place of assembly, as they were in ancient Athens, they must still be gathered together and addressed, even if only “virtually,” through digital means.

Thus, as Klemperer writes: “In this way the speech, as one of the tools and duties of the statesman, was reinvested [with the emergence of modern mass democracies] with the status that it had enjoyed in Athens, indeed an even greater status given that instead of Athens the orator now addressed an entire country, and indeed more than just one country.” Furthermore,

[. . .] a speech was not only more important than it had been previously [that is, during the long period separating original Athenian democracy from the emergence of modern democracy], it was also, of necessity, different in nature. In addressing itself to everyone rather than just select representatives of the people it had to make itself comprehensible to everyone and thus become more populist. Populist means more concrete; the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be. And it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it.

I have added the emphasis to the concluding sentence of that passage, in order to highlight the crucial distinction Klemperer is drawing between populism on the one hand and demagogy on the other.

In saying that populism addresses its audience by working with everyone’s emotions rather than intellect, Klemperer does not mean to belittle populism, or to deny it a crucial positive role in helping to build democracy. Quite the contrary is the case. Our emotions—as Heidegger for one knew and consistently taught—are the primary access we have to how we experience ourselves and our place in the world moment by moment. What is needed is not learning how to disregard our emotions in favor of some disembodied pure intellect. What is needed, rather, is to learn to listen to our emotions properly, to let them give us the disclosure about our world, and our insertion in it, that only they can give.

We need to learn how to listen to our emotions—and also how to address them, if we are to move ourselves together to act wisely and well. Unless we do, populism degenerates into demagogy, and democracy is lost.

Language itself is always fundamentally at work in our emotional natures, forming them and us through them. In listening to our emotions, we are also listening inevitably to our language—our “native tongue,” the language of the community into which we are born. As Klemperer writes earlier in his book (page 15), “language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.” We can certainly add that insofar as I am born, rather than somehow bootstrapping myself into my own existence, I always have already “unquestioningly and unconsciously abandon[ed] myself” to the language of my birth, the language that others have already cultivated for me from long before I was born.

But “what happens,” Klemperer pointedly goes on to ask, “if the cultivated language [at issue] is made up on poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons?” After all, he goes on to observe (pages 15-16): “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”

The same thing applies to the conflation of words as well, the erasure of significant differences of meaning between them. A prime example, one no less relevant today in the United States than it was in Germany in the 1930s, is the blurring of the very distinction Klemperer points to in the first lines I cited above, the distinction between populism and demagogy.

Coupled with the washing out of the difference between populism and demagogy also goes the process of equating appeals to the emotions with rejection of thought, as though thought were the same thing as sheer intellection, mere calculative rationality. Blurring the boundary between thinking and calculating— between free and open reflection, on the one hand, and the purpose- and profit-driven computation of possible outcomes, on the other—joins readily with blurring the boundary between populism and demagogy, and the one reinforces the other.

Thus, that joint process of erasure of apparently “merely verbal” boundaries has far from “merely verbal” consequences. Rather, as Klemperer knew and witnessed to his horror in Nazi Germany, it completely undercuts both genuine thought and genuine democracy.

Neither democracy nor thought can thrive without one another, and the flattening of language flattens them both.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the fourth in a series of posts.

*     *     *   *     *     *

Part Two: Pissing on Language (2)

Before the 1980s, it was mostly Marxists who used the term “politically correct” to mock other Marxists. Since then, charging someone else with political correctness has become the first line of defense for racists, one of the best ways to shut down any discussion about inequality.

— Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation

 

It is by just such semantic means that we are all robbed even of any voice and vocabulary to report—even, and most especially, to ourselves—the robbery of our very freedom, let alone to protest against it.

I have not researched the matter myself to confirm what Chang says about Marxists’ abuse of the term “politically correct” prior to the 1980s, but it sounds right to me, and I certainly have no reason to contest it. However, throughout my own childhood and youth, which had already passed by before the 1980s ever got underway, the sense that same term always had anytime I encountered or used it was free either of left-wing, Marxist or of right-wing, racist appropriation and distortion. Instead, in my experience back then it had a neutral, descriptive, situation-specific usage. To say that some statement or idea or action was the “politically correct” thing to say or do meant that it was what the given politics of the time and place at issue required be done or said. That is, to be “politically correct” meant not to go beyond the confines of what was regarded as acceptable given the concrete political atmosphere of that time. Thus, one and the same remark or behavior that was “politically correct” in one historically concrete situation might very well be anything but that in a different situation.

For example, in the United States during the 1950s, when I was a child—the era of Joe McCarthy, “loyalty oaths,” and the House Un-American Affairs Committee witch-hunts—it was not “politically correct” to express, or even to be discovered to hold, left-leaning views. Doing so could and often did subject those who expressed or could be found out to hold such views to censure and worse (e.g., the Hollywood “black-listing” of writers such as Dalton Trumbo). Yet during the same period, not holding or expressing those very same views, the very one that could get one censured and banished in the United States, was not “politically correct” in various other places in the “Cold-War” world of that day.

In the United States today, sixty years later, things are as Chang characterizes them in the lines I cited above. In this country now, it is no longer possible to use the term “politically correct” in its original, neutral, descriptive, and situation-specific meaning. Instead, the term has been taken over by right-wingers and perverted into being used solely as a label for certain egalitarian or anti-racist positions and views. Today, here, the phrase is no longer used as a label applied with any interest for clarifying the shared political situation or furthering serious political discussion. Rather, it is applied in order to obscure the underlying reality, and to preclude genuine discussion of issues.

To sum up: Today in the Unites States, after years of misappropriation and distortion of the phrase by right-wing ideologues, it is no longer politically correct to use the expression “political correctness” correctly.

By such theft of language, we are all robbed of some of the rich potential of our linguistic heritage. In the process, our communal linguistic topography is leveled down to a single monotonous surface.

Nor is what has happened to such phrases as “political correctness” the only example of such impoverishing of our common language, such flattening of our shared linguistic terrain.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the third in a series of posts.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Part Two: Pissing on Language (1)

His kind of bourgeois knows only how to talk about business. I’m not saying he’d lost his soul; he no longer had the language to express it.

—Léon Werth, 33 Days (p. 62)

 

But from the point of view of the philologist I also believe that Hitler’s shamelessly blatant rhetoric was able to make such an enormous impact because it penetrated a language which had hitherto been protected from it with the virulence which accompanies the outbreak of a new epidemic, because this rhetoric was in essence as un-German as the salute and uniform copied from the [Italian] Fascists—replacing a black-shirt with a brown-shirt is not a particularly original idea—and as un-German as the whole decorative embellishments of the public occasions.

But regardless of how much National Socialism learned from the preceding ten years of Fascism, and how much of the infection was caused by foreign bodies, it was, or rather became, in the end, a specifically German disease, a rampant degeneration of German flesh which, through a process of reinfection from Germany, destroyed not only Nazism, but also Italian Fascism, which was undoubtedly criminal, but not quite so bestial.

—Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 57)

 

The path of poetic faith in our century suggests that repressive regimes do not tolerate, are in fact afraid of, the subversive powers of language, most especially poetry in the hand of those whom the political order aims to keep powerless.

—Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century (Penguin, 1988, p. 203)

 

One major gift the poet can give to what Des Pres calls the poet’s “tribe”—by which he means the “audience” for the poet’s poetry, that audience which, as Heidegger taught, the poetic work itself calls forth, to hear and heed it—is that of a genuine memorial, a place in the communally shared language where real remembrance can occur. Once so marked out, that place is one to which everyone can readily return, to remember—and a place that regularly and recurrently calls one back to itself, to do just that. Striking lines of poetry that, once heard, stick in the mind work that way. They become a storehouse memory, memory that rises back up into awareness spontaneously whenever it is reactivated, we know not (and need not know) how, by some chance encounter or event, like the taste of marmalade for Proust. When they do, they call us back to ourselves, and to the memories that define us, both as individuals all as members of our community, our “tribe.”

In sharp contrast, the role of the pure slogan, insofar as it remains no more than that—the paradigm being the sheer advertising slogan, like this one from my childhood: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!”—is not to call us back to ourselves. It is, rather, to divert us from ourselves, and most especially from openly sharing our life together in community. Its role is to isolate us from one another, rather than to bring us together in shared recall of who we really are, and to drive us into compulsive action. Instead of fostering community, remembrance, and thought, the sheer slogan divides us from one another and blocks memory, hindering thought, and any genuine thoughtfulness for one another. The pure slogan is trying to sell us something, in one fashion or another, for someone’s profit, not tell us something about ourselves, for our own good.

To use a current example, “Make America great again!” is not a call to each of us to come together with all other “Americans” in remembering the gaps and failures in our community and in our relationships one to another. It is not a call to us to atone for those failures, and address them honestly and humbly. It is, rather, a slogan designed to get us to “buy” a certain Presidential candidate, and vote for him. Or, to use a much older example, but one still from Presidential politics, the slogan “He kept us out of war!” was used to sell the nation on reelecting the man who would then lead us into it—“to keep the world safe for democracy,” of course.

Slogans, like striking lines of poetry, stick in the mind. However, whereas genuinely poetic lines keep the channels of thought’s and recollection’s flow open and clear, the lines of slogans block that flow and close those channels, diverting thinking and memory into fixation on whatever the slogan is selling, whether that be toothpaste, Presidential candidates, or nationalistic fervor (“Remember the Maine!”, “Support our troops!”, “Never forget!”, and the like). Poetry cultivates the field of language, opening new possibilities for rich yields of diverse flowers and grains. Slogans fence language in and flatten out the field of linguistic possibilities, turning it into a smooth, monotonous, dead surface where nothing but the most noxious weeds can grow.

At least that is so unless something manages to breathe life and soul (to be redundant, since those two words really say the same thing) back into the slogan, opening it up into poetry.

That happened to me with regard to the old Pepsodent slogan I mentioned above. That was way back in my childhood, when that insipid, mindless, mind-numbing jingle was still in circulation, not yet having worn itself down completely smooth, so that it needed to be replaced by some new coin of the same (dis)value, destined to the same ultimate flattening into worthlessness. That’s because the version of that slogan that stuck itself into my mind was first, last, and recurrently the version of it that my father used to delight in singing whenever the mood struck him. His version was this: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you wash your drawers in Pepsodent.” By heightening the definitive vulgarity of the original slogan, he thereby brought to the fore—without even trying, and certainly with no special intention on his part, given the simple, though intelligent, working man he always remained—the tastelessness and vulgarity of the original, and gave to me, his youngest son, a lasting memory of just what such slogans are ultimately all about, and worth. All of that—and, above all, the memory of my father himself saying his even more vulgarized version of the already vulgar toothpaste slogan—often comes back to me without effort on my own part, recalling me to myself, when some new advertising vulgarity worms its way into my mind and sticks itself fast there, like some foul, contagion-carrying tick.

Thanks, Dad!

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the second in a series of posts.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Part One: The American Way of Remembering (2)

[. . .] we whites seem curiously unwilling to shoulder any responsibility for our own part in racial inequity. If we’re so concerned about “personal responsibility,” shouldn’t we show more?

—Nicholas Kristof, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 7” (NY Times 10/2/16)

 

We both detested the war [. . . but] both knew that if Hitler was responsible, he wasn’t as important as he was made out to be and he hadn’t invented himself without help.

—Léon Werth, 33 Days, translated by Austin Denis Johnston (Brooklyn & London: Melville House Publishing, 2015, p. 13)

 

Léon Werth, a French Jew who fled from Paris with his wife and daughter when the conquering Germans approached the city early in World War II, wrote what became the book 33 Days during that time of flight, when he and his family were refugees in their own country. In the line above Werth is speaking for himself and a friend he made along the way—a farmer who earned Werth’s gratitude by granting him and his family genuine hospitality along their way, and whose open, discerning, and honest thoughtfulness also earned Werth’s respect.

Werth and his new friend saw that it was no more than a subterfuge to blame all the destruction of that war on the single figure of Hitler, who “hadn’t invented himself without help,” and was therefore not the only one responsible. They understood that at least a good part of the reason Hitler was being “made out to be” so important was so that those who helped make Hitler possible were could thereby hide—even, and perhaps most of all, from themselves—their own responsibility.

The same basic thing is also at issue in the citation above from Nicholas Kristof, about racism in the United States: The avoidance of responsibility. Such avoidance can take the form of shirking one’s own responsibility by hiding behind some figure who has been “made out to be” much more important. But it can also take the form of projecting one’s own failure to assume one’s own responsibility onto those less fortunate than oneself. Either way, the effect is the same. Both are handy devices for denying one’s own responsibility—for refusing to remember what one has done, and hold oneself accountable for it.

In addition, all too often such slogans as “Always remember!” or “Never forget!” are employed in the same way: to create a sheer pretence of remembering that actually does dis-service to all genuine remembrance. Similarly, all too often, “official” memorials supposedly erected to honor memory actually dishonor it in just such a way. All too often, they just piss on all genuine, spontaneous memorialization, the same way that, as Jeff Chan recounts in the citation with which I began this series of posts, one cop let his dog piss on the memorials that sprang up spontaneously on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, where another cop had killed unarmed Michael Green. To borrow Chan’s way of putting it, they practice that same “American way of remembering.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

I will continue this series on “Rembering the Third Reich American Style” in my next post.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style—Part One: The American Way of Remembering (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

*     *     *     *     *

One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that [Lesley] McSpadden had made for her son [Michael Brown, killed by another cop who’d pulled the teen-ager over for walking improperly on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014] and let it pee on the flowers and candles. After the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, car by car they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, as if to say, This is the American way of remembering.

—Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016)

 

Continuing compulsively to repeat something over and over again is one way never to forget it. If by “always remembering” we mean nothing more or less than just “never forgetting,” then such compulsive repetition is a fail-proof way of assuring ourselves that we will always remember.

By steadfastly refusing ever to become aware of what we are doing in the first place, we guarantee that we will never forget it. We can only forget what we have once allowed to come into our awareness. So if we simply refuse ever to get clear about just what it is we are really doing, we never have to worry about forgetting it either. Such memory manifests as compulsive repetition.

All that’s needed for the practice of that form of remembering is the cultivation of stupidity. By the definition that has long been my favorite, “stupidity” is “willful ignorance.” So defined, stupidity is not just not knowing something, which is the literal, etymological meaning of the term ignorance—from Latin ignorantem, “not knowing,” the present participle of ignorare, “not to know, not to be acquainted with, to take no notice of, pay no attention to,” itself deriving from in-, in the sense of “not,” plus Old Latin gnarus, “aware, acquainted with.”

There are various possible reasons for ignorance, for not knowing, as such. That includes something being “hidden in plain sight,” so that we need someone or something else to call our attention to it before we notice it, like the glasses on our face we keep searching for until someone finally points out to us that we’re wearing them.

Many years ago, when I was only 15, I went with my parents to Germany one summer, to visit my older brother, who at that time stationed in Frankfurt as a volunteer in the U.S. Army. Because I had taught myself some German in preparation for the trip, I became the designated family translator. On one occasion, my father needed something from the drug store, and I went with him to do any translation that might prove necessary. Standing right in front of the pharmacy counter, my father asked me to ask the pharmacist for whatever it was my father wanted. I did so, in my limited German. But then the pharmacist answered in fluent English. My father looked at me inquiringly, waiting for my translation. As my exasperation began to mount, I repeated exactly what the pharmacist had just said, using the same English words. My father then gave me some more to say to the waiting pharmacist. My exasperation burst out as I responded, “You tell him! He’s speaking English!” My father just smiled at his own ignorance, and took things from there.

That remains for me to this day a fond memory of my father, and of the gracefulness with which one can respond when one finds that one has gotten bent down just a bit, even despite all one’s own perfectly innocent intentions.

Such innocent ignorance is not the only kind, however.

There is also the sort of ignorance that is rooted in the desire not to know, because what is all too clearly there to be known does not happen to accord with what one would like to be true. It is the sort of cherished ignorance that insists, against all opposition and despite all evidence to the contrary, that what actually is the case is precisely what one wants to be the case, because that would serve one’s own selfish wants, desires, or needs (including especially the need always to think highly of oneself, despite all one’s misdeeds, failures, or vices). There is no innocence to ignorance of such a sort, as there was innocence in my father’s sort of ignorance. It is willful ignorance, the product of wanting not to know.

That is what I mean by “stupidity”: just such willful ignorance.

Precisely because it is so willful, such stupidity also has nothing to do with lacking intelligence. In fact, my own experience throughout my life is that intelligence actually makes such stupidity easier. That’s because intelligence is useful for discovering more and more ways to avoid coming to know what one does not want to know. In general, the more intelligent one is, the craftier one can become, including crafty in the ways of hiding oneself from oneself.

Stupidity, willful ignorance, is back of the American way of remembering, as Chan describes it in the passage with which I began.

*     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Can We Mourn Yet?

5.

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.

Published in: on May 23, 2016 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,