Embracing Ourselves (3)

This is the third and last in a series of posts under the same general title.

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In general, the question I want to ask is: How do we embrace ourselves in our entirety? Specifically, I want to ask this question: How can we embrace not just those parts of ourselves we are proud of, and would like to be known by, but also—and especially—those parts of ourselves we are not proud of, and would not like to be known by?

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How the Question Specifies Us

What projections are to us all individually, scapegoats are to us all collectively: the parts of ourselves we are continuing to disown. In that regard, the challenge to embrace ourselves entirely is the same for us all, both individually and collectively. It is the challenge of re-claiming or re-owning, which is to say, re-owning-up-to, those parts of ourselves we strive so consistently to disown. Only through such “reclamation” can we even genuinely lay claim to all of ourselves, and thereby become at last whole.

Only so, for instance (to use one of my own communities as an example again), can the United States of America become in reality, for the very first time ever, what it has for so long laid claim to being in its “Pledge of Allegiance”: one nation, indivisible. Indeed, for the United States or any other community, it is only insofar as we allow ourselves fully to be called into question by and in our own genuinely asking how we can embrace ourselves in our entirety, that there is any hope for someday actually doing just that: embracing ourselves in our entirety.

My specific focus in this series of posts, to repeat again, is on how we can cease disowning those among us who, although acting in our name and under our authority, commit deeds that bring dishonor upon us, shaming us. It is the question of how we can at last stop making scapegoats out of just such members of our community. How we can finally stop loading all of our collective sins on them as individuals, and then driving them out of our midst and into the wilderness, carrying all our sins with them—or so, at least, would we like to believe?

We can do so only by really asking that question of ourselves, and thereby experiencing ourselves as called into question. That happens when we experience ourselves called to confess contrition for the sins of those who, in our name and under our authority, commit shameful deeds. Only thus do we own up to our sins as truly ours, owning up to them as our own sins and, accordingly, accepting responsibility for repenting of what we have done through those we have called into our service, then sent out in our name and under our authority, and who have then committed crimes and atrocities. Only by such acceptance of our own responsibility, which most especially entails accepting the need to atone for what we have done through such instruments pressed into our service, can we ever reclaim the disowned parts of ourselves collectively—and become, at last, who we really are.

Such communal acts of confession, repentance, and atonement can and should include, to mention only one crucial thing, a dimension of ritual communal observance. In the United States, for instance, just as we have officially set aside such days of remembrance as Veterans Day or Memorial Day for honoring the memory of those who have served and even died “under arms” for this country, so might we set aside other days of remembrance for expressing contrition for the atrocities that have far too often been committed by those we have so placed “under arms.”

We could set aside December 29 for such a purpose, for example, to mark the day in 1890 that United States troops massacred American Indian men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Or we might set aside March 16, the date on which the My Lai massacre in Vietnam took place in 1968. Or we could choose any of the regrettably large number of other dates that mark atrocities committed by United States troops enacting national policies. We could set aside at least one day, if not a number of days, as days of national confession, contrition, and atonement.

On such a day we could practice embracing ourselves in our entirety, disowning none of us.

Published in: on December 12, 2016 at 10:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (3)


This is the third of a series of posts under the same title.

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The anger I felt when I first read Jane E. Brody’s article “War Wounds That Time Can’t Heal” was actually not directed toward those U. S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who were the subjects of the article. My anger was not at all at those U.S. veterans themselves who suffer from having to live with their knowledge of having once perpetrated atrocities. I was not—and am not—angry at them.

What I feel for such vets themselves is not anger at all. It is actually compassion. From my own experience, I can identify with them and their suffering.

I have never killed any children, either intentionally—whether under orders or not—or by accident. Nor have I ever stood by and watched while others did such killing. But I certainly have done things of which I am far from proud, and I have suffered at the knowledge of my deeds. What is more, I will even disclose, share, and confess that I can understand how it is possible to do even such things as such vets themselves once did.

Perhaps there are some who cannot understand that, but I must say that I can. I realize the capacity for doing such things lies within me, and could be triggered under certain conditions that I hope and pray will never materialize around me. It certainly gives me no pride to acknowledge such capacities in myself, but I am under no illusion that I am free from all possibility of committing such crimes.

I will even go so far as to confess that I would truly like to see those who do suffer from the fact that they actually did commit such crimes come to be healed of their suffering.

Yet I must also confess that, were those who had committed such offenses, and who did so suffer from the knowledge of it, to come to me for some reason to seek counsel and advice, one thing I would not do is tell them what Brody reports Dr. Brett Litz as saying. That is, I would not tell such vets that they are “not to be judged and are deserving of forgiveness.”

I would share with them what I have already shared above, which is that I understand how one could commit such deeds as they committed, which I can even imagine I might also have committed myself under similar circumstances, and that I have compassion for them in their suffering. I’d even tell them that I hoped they would be able to find healing for that suffering.

But then I would go on and tell them that they would not find forgiveness and healing just, “for example, by helping children or writing letters,” as Dr. Litz recommends, by Brody’s account. I’d tell them that, to be sure, helping children today, and also writing letters to the very long-dead children they had killed, expressing their own horror at what they had done to those children, were certainly to be recommended. I would add, however, that in my judgment no amount of such behavior would ever of itself make the perpetrators of such deeds “deserving of forgiveness,” most especially deserving of it from those from whom they most needed to receive it, which is precisely from those now dead, the very one’s they once killed, who are, of course, for that very reason no longer able to offer it.

Above all, I would encourage them to explore ways of accepting that what they did was beyond all possibility of forgiveness, that it was literally unforgiveable. I would counsel them that precisely for that reason, all endeavors to find ways to expiate their guilt were really no more than avoidance strategies on their part. They are such avoidance strategies at best, I would tell them.

I would probably avoid telling them what they are at worst, since that probably wouldn’t help anybody at all, perpetrators or victims or anybody else. That’s because, in my view, what such endeavors at self-expiation are at worst is no more than self-glorifying, grandstanding ways of calling attention to oneself, and thereby compounding one’s already inexpiable guilt.

In either case, best or worst, such behaviors do not succeed in expiating such guilt. They do not atone for it. What I would counsel sufferers of such inexpiable “moral guilt,” in the highly unlikely chance that any were to come to me, is precisely that they abandon any illusion they may have that good deeds they do now will earn them forgiveness. They should certainly do such good deeds, since they are indeed good; but doing them now does not compensate for what they did then, nor will it ever so compensate.

To use an image that gave me the title for my own book The Open Wound, on what my subtitle calls “trauma, identity, and community,” I would counsel them to learn to live with their guilt as with an always still open wound, instead of compulsively repeating futile attempts to close it—attempts that actually always make things worse, not better. I would assure them that I would not reject them, turn my back on them, cast them out of community with me, because of what they did, since I knew I had the capacity to do the same things myself. However, I would persist in telling them that that did not mean that I “forgave” them for what they had done, since it simply was not in my power to grant them such forgiveness. I would tell them that, in my own judgment, my ongoing willingness to accept them into full communion with me, as it were, would in no way bring it about that they were somehow thereby washed clean of their guilt. I would urge them to accept that such forgiveness was something altogether beyond anyone’s power, since what they did was unforgiveable.

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To be continued.

Published in: on November 15, 2016 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (2)


This is the second of a series of four posts under the same title.

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A news-piece appeared in the “Science News” section of The New York Times for July 7, 2016, under the byline of Jane E. Brody, and was entitled “War Wounds That Time Can’t Heal.” Beneath that title came this one-sentence blurb: “Moral injury resembles post-traumatic stress disorder, with an added burden of guilt.”

In the article Brody writes that it “is the fate of an untold number of servicemen and servicewomen who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and other wars” to suffer under just such a burden, the burden of “war wounds that time can’t heal.” But the wounds in question arise from the what Brody, following the contemporary clinicians she discusses, calls “moral injury”—that is the injury, the wound, that come from the memory of acts of atrocity that the servicemen and servicewomen (though I suspect there are far fewer of the latter than of the former) at issue themselves committed during their time of service. It is from just such wounds of “moral injury,” writes Brody, that many United States military veterans suffer—the wounds that came from the fact that they “participated in, witnessed or were unable to help in the face of atrocities, from failing to aid an injured person to killing a child”. However, Brody then goes on in effect to wash out, knowingly or not, some of the very moral weight of the categories of atrocity she mentions, by immediately adding, after “killing a child”: “in accident or in self-defense.”

Well, as I wrote in a note to myself about that sentence, what that leaves altogether unmentioned are all those cases such as that of the murders of women and children that were authorized by such United States military veterans as Bob Kerrey. It leaves out all the murders, that is, that were fully intentional, not any “accident” at all, and that were hardly done in “self-defense” (at least unless the killers themselves were suffering from paranoid delusions of the most virulent sort).

A bit later, Brody writes that “the therapeutic community is only now becoming aware of the dimensions of [such] moral injury [such injury as she has been so describing—or perhaps mis-describing] and how it can be treated.” One of the “challenges” to such treatment, the author writes, is the need to “reassure” the onetime atrocity perpetrators who suffer from such a condition “that they will not be judged and are deserving of forgiveness.” Later yet, she quotes Dr. Brett Litz, whom she identifies as “a mental health specialist with the V. A. Boston Healthcare System and a leading expert on moral injury”:

“Disclosing, sharing, confessing is fundamental to repair,” Dr. Litz said. “In doing so, the vets learn that what happened to them can be tolerated, and they’re not rejected.” They are also encouraged to “engage in the world in a way that is repairing—for example, by helping children or writing letters.” The goal is to find forgiveness within themselves or from others.

When I first read those remarks, what I personally felt—as I myself now feel bound to disclose, share, and confess—did not happen to be forgiveness, which I do not think I have any right or standing to offer those who suffer from such “moral injury” anyway. Rather, what I felt was anger.

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To be continued.

Published in: on November 14, 2016 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (1)

This is the first of a series of what will be four posts under the same title. All four derive from the manuscript I wrote this summer for an eventually cancelled conference.

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Having already by then been invited to a conference, originally set to take place in Poland at the end of October this year, on the topic of poetry (literature) and the remembrance of the Holocaust, ideas for my talks on that topic were already germinating in my mind when I read Roy Scranton’s New York Times column on the 2003 war in Iraq (see my preceding post) over the 2016 July 4th weekend. Reading that piece helped begin bringing my thoughts on the topic of the conference to fruition.

Then, just a few more days after that weekend, I read another column by a different author, but with the same historical focus as the one by Scranton: the United States invasion of Iraq early in this century. This second column was called “A Misguided War, The Untold Dead” (New York Times, July 7, 2016), and was occasioned by the release just the day before of the so-called “Chilcot report,” the long-delayed official report from the British government on Britain’s involvement in the war the Bush administration unleashed against Iraq in 2003. The author of the column was Carne Ross, a British diplomat who was the Iraq expert in Britain’s delegation to the United Nations from 1997-2002. Here are the closing lines of his column:

[. . .] I’ve come to believe that government’s failed attempts to impose order by force are themselves the source of disorder. Many Iraqis would doubtless agree

The Chilcot report reveals much about government and its failure but largely ignores the greatest issue. The enormous suffering and losses of the Iraqi people are scarcely mentioned; there is no attempt to count the dead.

There is also no recommendation of making reparation to the Iraqi people, let alone an apology. For me, this should be the ultimate significance of a report like this: that it speaks for those whose lives were needlessly wasted. It is their fate, not those of us and our politicians, that should preoccupy us. Only then can we begin to grasp the magnitude of what was done in our name.

It was actually Ross’s article that finally suggested to me the title for the presentation I was preparing for presentation at the eventually cancelled conference in Poland to which I had been invited. As I wrote in an email to my contact at the Institute sponsoring the conference a few days after reading Ross’s column:

Since I received your initial invitation, the basic concept of the conference has been on my mind. One idea that I find germinating in my own thoughts is that I might do something under some title such as ” ‘Forgetting Ourselves’: Poetry and the Obligation of Remembrance.” In that context, one thing I would want to do is to play upon the ambiguity of the American expression, “forgetting oneself,” which can have both a negative and a positive connotation. In the former sense, saying something, for example, in which old prejudices one has tried to keep buried resurface would be “forgetting oneself”–that is, lapsing back into old, undesirable behaviors. But in the positive sense, we say that we “forget ourselves” when we rush to help someone in need, even if that may prove dangerous to our own physical safety. There, to “forget oneself” means to let go of self-centered attachment and concern, in order to help others.

Here’s what I had already written in my own notes after reading Ross’s column on the Chilcot report:

It occurred to me that I might call my upcoming talks in Poland “Forgetting Ourselves,” which I’d use in the double sense of (1) dropping self-concern to let the suffering of others be “remembered” (and there, not only Ross in this piece but also Viet Thanh Nguyen on Bob Kerry and the concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators are highly relevant [see below]) and (2) lapsing forgetfully into old behavior patterns we’d like to claim we’ve outgrown (“forgetting ourselves” when, for instance, we lapse back into racist or sexist language or response when stressed or “provoked” [as we self-servingly like to put it].

To explain the two references I make in the first parenthetical remark in that passage: Those references pertain to two other, earlier newspaper articles I’d recently read, both addressing, not the United States’ war in Iraq begun in 2003, but the United States’ war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The first of the two articles at issue was the opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I discuss in my post before last. The second article pertains to my parenthetical remark in my journal passage above about “concern with PTSD among Vietnam war-crimes perpetrators.” I’d read it a few weeks before Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column appeared. It was a news-article in the same earlier issue of The New York Times, in fact, that contained the column about the Chilcot report.

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To be continued.

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. 

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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).

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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  
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Remembering the Third Reich American Style

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

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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.


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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  
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Remembering the Third Reich American Style


This is the fifth in a series of posts.

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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.

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To be continued.

Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the fourth in a series of posts.

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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.

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To be continued.