Can We Mourn Yet?


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.

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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  
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An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz (2)

This is the last of two posts under the same general title.

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Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the African-American father of a teen-aged son, as well as a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The lines above come from his recent book Between the World and Me (Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2015, page 7), which is cast as a letter to his son. They address what Coates presents as the second “ideal” that has defined the United States of America in its historical reality. That “ideal,” Coates writes a few lines earlier (pages 6-7) is “one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” As his next lines make clear, what is at issue in that second “ideal” is American racism. He writes:

Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism, the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

As I have already said, this rarely acknowledged ideal of race and racism is actually the second definitive American ideal Coates discusses at the very opening of his book, his long letter to his son. The first is the ideal of democracy itself, as paradigmatically articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, concerning which Coates writes (page 6):

Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared in, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.


“This,” he writes in his very next line, “leads us to another equally important ideal,” the second one—the racist one that, as I’ve already quoted, “Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” It is in pursuing that second ideal, however unacknowledged the pursuit, that so many people in America have been historically excluded from “the people” of, by, and for whom the United States was founded and preserved, according to the first, most deeply foundational ideal of America. In what I’ve also already quoted, Coates suggests that the presumed “reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” is itself used by the powers that be in America who take themselves to be to be white—precisely to justify racism as “the innocent daughter of Mother Nature.”

Against any such racist self-justification, however, Coates reminds his readers that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” and points out that “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” He then adds the lines I quoted to begin this post, in which he speaks of needs to happen among the “new people” of America, if that same America is ever to fulfill its “national hopes.”

Exactly one hundred pages later, Coates writes to his son concerning these “new people” of America: “And I would not have you like them.” He writes that (on page 107) to his son, despite everything that would seem to speak against any such wish for someone he loves—that is, despite all the death, destruction, and misery inflicted on the black American community by the racism, rarely even acknowledged, of “those Americans who believe that they are white,” as Coates first puts it back at the very beginning of his book. “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heel,” he continues in his letter to his son. “And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Coates’s son’s own true privilege, the one that gives Coates reason not to wish his son could have been born white, does not lie in the ignorance that grounds white privilege. Rather, Coates’s son’s genuine privilege lies in knowledge. That is a knowledge taught only by centuries of cruelty, but which nevertheless brings with it a genuine potential of liberation, as does all true knowledge, however painful to acquire.

The knowledge to Coates’s son is heir by right of being born black is precisely the knowledge we all need, in fact, if we Americans are ever to attain genuine peace among us all, and fulfill the true potential of America’s first ideal by creating a real democracy as the rule of, by, and for all the people of America.

The peace we really need in America today to fulfill that first ideal is not the peace of mutual respect between “blacks” and “whites.” What we really need is mutual respect between all the various peoples who make up the one American people, once we finally succeed in defining “the American people” in a way that excludes no one who lives here. For any such anxious peace to break out, however, “white” unity must first be destroyed. For America’s national hopes ever to find true fulfillment, the “white” community must first be fragmented into pieces. Or, rather, since “the ‘white’ community” does not actually succeed in naming any unified community at all in the first place, the illusion that there is any such thing must first be shattered.

There will never be any final peace between “whites” and “blacks.” There can only be an anxious peace between peoples, and for that, there must first be some peoples—more than just one—“divorced from the machinery of criminal power.”

That is itself one worthy ideal we can glean from reading Coates’s book, in fact. In turn, it leads us to another equally important ideal: of an America freed from the belief in magic.



Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and case out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers.’

—Matthew 7: 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)


We live in a “goal oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. The rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live in this black body? It is a profound question because American understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. [. . .] The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (page 12)


The magic from belief in which his grandparents’ gift freed Coates is magic in the sense of the endeavor to control events through the manipulation of supernatural or occult forces by way of charms, spells, incantations, rituals, or the like. To believe in magic in the sense at issue is to believe, for example, that one can assure oneself victory in contests such as are involved in war, love, or football by more properly invoking the name of God before the contest than do one’s opponents.

Such belief is a form of superstition, and as such is based in ignorance and fear—just such fear as love drives out, at least according to Christian scriptural tradition. According to 1 John 4:18 (NRSV): “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

A few centuries later, John Cassian relayed, from the early Christian desert solitaries, the teaching that there are three kinds of “obedience.” First, there is the obedience of the slave, who obeys out of fear of punishment for disobedience. Second, there is the obedience of the servant, who obeys in hopes of reward—of getting paid for obeying. Third, there is the obedience of the child, who obeys out of love.

It is only in that third and final form, where obedience and love become indistinguishable, that each at last comes into its own. Either to love or to obey—and most especially to obey the command to love, that most, if not only, divine command—either out of fear of punishment if one doesn’t, or out of hope for reward if one does, is neither to love nor to obey at all, really. It is to confuse love and obedience with acts of magic, or at least magic-acts: attempts to manipulate forces beyond one’s own, or at least to engender the illusion that one can do so. Both acts of magic and magic-acts engage superstition, not faith. They are among the childish things that St. Paul (to remain within the Christian tradition) advises us to leave behind with our childhoods when we grow up.

In the Jewish tradition from which the Christian one grows—that tradition to which Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, for example, belong—belief in magic is just a form of idolatry. It confuses God with what is not God, but just the work of human hands (Psalm 135:15).

By their gift, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s grandparents helped him grow up, and leave idolatry behind.



What confuses the most is that everyone everywhere more and more agrees on one way of thinking, which counts as giving the only standard.

—Martin Heidegger, “Confusion” (“Die Wirrnis”), in Gesamtausgabe 76 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2009, page 269)


Contradiction tends to be negatively viewed in an intellectual milieu dominated by positivistic empiricism. Thus the demonstration that there are contradictions in a body of theory is likely to be understood as a refutation of the validity of the theory. The reader should not conclude that this is the author’s view.

—A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, Inc., 1988, page 250)


Become who you are!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Only if we grow up can America ever become what The Pledge of Allegiance—which was not formally adopted by Congress until1942 and not formally given that name until three years later, in 1945—says that we are (or at least has so said since the last formal change was made to The Pledge in 1954, adding the invocation of God’s name). That is, only by finally growing up can America truly be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Until then, America will remain many nations and no nation, superstitious, conflicted, with privilege for some and justice for none. Properly understood, truly to pledge allegiance to what The Pledge says we are, is really to pledge to work to change who we really still all too much are. Truly pledged, The Pledge has to be taken as a promise still demanding to be kept, and not as a boast of past achievements that establish how exceptional we already are.

I don’t know if it is still fashionable in some right-wing circles, as it was a few years ago, to insist that America is a “republic,” and not a “democracy.” At any rate, at least the last part of that does hold: America is indeed not a democracy, if by “being” one means current actuality, stripped of any not yet actual but still definitive potential. American is not a democracy in the same sense that an acorn is not an oak. That means that America still is a democracy, in terms of the promise that in effect defines that name, and challenges what bears that name to become worthy of it, just as an acorn is, so to speak, an oak, only an oak to be.

The manipulative proliferation of ever more cheeply maintained and ever less deeply grounded “opinions” and “views” on everything under (and over) the sun, a proliferation so characteristic of our current American system of governing the diverse peoples of America, has made what America is as a pure actuality void of all promise into what might best be called, not demo-cracy, Lincoln’s “rule of, by, and for the people” (from Greek demos, people), but doxo-cracy, that is, rule of, by, and for opinion (from Greek doxa, opinion). And if America remains satisfied to be no more than such a doxocracy, it will only betray itself and what it most truly has always been—been as that “last, best hope” for humankind that Lincoln also famously said it was.

What is needed if America is to evade such self-betrayal is no politics of consensus. The solution does not lie in the promotion of dialogue in search of areas of agreement between the proponents of fundamentally different positions on divisive issues—for example, the search for some supposed “common ground” between so called “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates. The ever-growing confusion of “opinions” and “views” among the diverse population in the United States (and increasingly globe-wide) cannot be dispelled through any push to “come to an agreement” about the matters about which those opinions and view are maintained with ever-growing rancor and contentiousness. That just makes the confusion by which the doxocracy governs grow worse, and the governing all the easier.

The politics of consensus is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to borrow a useful popular way of putting the point. As opposed to the politics of consensus, what is really required is something such as the politics of dis-sensus for which contemporary French political philosopher Jacques Rancière, for one, has called. The politics of consensus has always ended up, regardless of the intentions of those who pursue it, keeping everything going along smoothly on an even keel. Politically considered, that means it always works to serve the already powerful, and to protect their special privileges, rather than to serve and protect everyone, equally and justly. In contrast, a politics of dissensus would strive to rock the boat. It would seek to disrupt “business as usual.” To use a different metaphor, it would seek to point out that the king has no clothes, and thereby to make of the king a laughingstock.

What is sorely needed for America to fulfill its own defining promise as America is not the formation of any consensus of opinion out of the swirling proliferation of them. What is needed is to replace the proliferation and protection of opinions with the proliferation and protection of all the peoples of America, whether they be Sioux or Navaho, Aleut or Afghan or African, Coptic, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, or Zen, and including even all us uprooted, thoroughly assimilated, people-less folks who have been taught to think that we are nothing but white, and may not have one single clue among us all about how to find our way home again.

What we need in America, as all around the planet, is no peace in the sense of “the repose of a self within itself,” as Levinas puts it in In the Time of the Nations, that pseudo peace that lets us feel secure and safe in our supposed “autonomous self-sufficiency.” We need no such easy, self-satisfied simulation of real peace. We need, instead, “an anxious peace,” the sort of true peace that Levinas characterizes purely and simply as the peace of “love for one’s fellow man.” We need the peace of a love anxious for the wellbeing of others—and anxious not to betray itself.

If America is what The Plede of Allegiance says it is, then America can only be the place of such peace. If America is what The Pledge says it is, then America is not yet. It remains an open question whether America ever will be.

An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz

This is the first of a series of posts under the same general title.

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“On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.”

—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Faith, Part One: 4 (trans. Robert Chandler, Great Britain: The Harvill Press, 1985)


Sometimes what happened at Auschwitz seems to mean to me that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part. Thought can stretch that far. The meaning of Auschwitz would be a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.

—Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism and Christianity,” from In the Time of the Nations (Continuum, 2007), p. 150


God has been very good to us. That we won the Revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.

—Supreme Court Justin Antonin Scalia, speaking at a Catholic high school in Metairie, Louisiana, on January 2, 2016 (AP report)




Everything is wrong with that.

To borrow a way of speaking from Kierkegaard, if the word ‘God’ is to name anything at all truly worthy of any belief today, a day that comes well after Auschwitz, then ‘God’ must simply mean a love that entails no promises. And today, this day well after Auschwitz, any believing in God—God as God, and not as some bloody idol—any believing in God that does not deserve scorn must consist of just this: loving, without any promises.

Today, after Auschwitz, the only command that can even be imagined to command universally—the only command that might truly command all human beings without exception, regardless of whether they were Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Germans, Muslims, Hindus, Americans, Confucians, Zimbabweans, Buddhists, Slovaks, Wiccans, Aleuts, pagans, African-Americans, people who think themselves “white,” or whatever—would be the command to love. Just to love. To love neither in answer to any promises kept or even any promise just given, nor in expectation of any promises to be made in answer to love, and without love itself promising anything in turn, beyond just loving.

Against the idea of any other sort of God than one whose love entailed no promises, every moral person (to use one of Jean Améry’s ways of speaking) after Auschwitz is duty bound to rebel. After Auschwitz, anyone who should not be ashamed to call herself or himself “moral” must rebel against any theodicy that would try to justify any other sort of God. One must rebel against any such theodicy, just as Levinas says that he does, right after uttering the lines above in a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Bishop Hans Hermann Hemmerle of Aachen at a conference in 1986 addressing the significance of the work of Franz Rosenzweig.

Levinas proclaims his own continuing rebellion against any idea that God could have intervened in order not to let such horror as Auschwitz happen, yet chose not to do so. Every moral being is duty-bound to join Levinas in rebelling against any such idea of God, “thinking it too costly—not just to God, but to humanity,” as Levinas says—a divine “kenosis of powerlessness,” which is to say a self-humbling, self-emptying renunciation of the exercise of coercive power, that “costs man [sic!] too much.”

Any God in whom any moral being has any right to believe any longer after Auschwitz must be a God who was no less powerless to stop what happened there than were the millions who died in Auschwitz and all the other Nazi camps. Any God who could have intervened at Auschwitz should have intervened—and would have done so, had any such God ever existed. The right to believe in any God who could have stopped it all, but chose not to, surely died in Auschwitz, along with all those murdered there. After Auschwitz, to believe in any such God is actually blasphemous.

Today, more than seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, nothing has changed any of that.



Though theodicy died at Auschwitz, along with the God who needed it, love itself did not. Nor did the command to love—surely a divine command, if any command is divine. What is more, if ‘God’ today, after Auschwitz, just means an ongoing love void of all promises, then to have faith in God today just means to love in turn the same way, with no promises. Faith is just loving as God loves, without any eye to the merits of those who are loved or any expectations of a return from them, but also without making any promises to those who are loved, promises that go beyond love itself, the promise simply to love, to cherish.

To promise to cherish is not to promise to protect from all harm. Nor is it to expect such protection from those one cherishes. It is just to promise to cherish: Therein lies all its promise.



In the “Author’s Foreword” to In the Time of the Nations, the same book that contains his dialogue with Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas writes of those who, like himself, are animated by “the desire for a peace that is no longer the repose of a self within itself, no longer autonomous self-sufficiency,” but is, instead, “an anxious peace, or love for one’s fellow man.” It is just such a peace that is at issue in Levinas’s dialogue with Hemmerle toward the end of the same book, under the title “Judaism and Christianity.” In that dialogue, Levinas speaks first, ending his opening remarks by saying that he had “a very positive reaction to Nostra Aetate, the decree of the Second Vatican Council,” which Council took place from 1962 to 1965. In Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church officially rescinded the old and common Christian doctrine that held Jews as such and as a whole responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, a doctrine used to justify all the centuries of violent Christian anti-Semitism that laid fertile soil for the eventual growth of Nazism and the Holocaust.

With regard to just that all too Christian heritage, Levinas says that for him Nostra Aetate “is a logical consequence and proof of the fact that an attempt has been made to overcome certain things from the past”—in effect, an act of Christian repentance for its own long and bloody anti-Semitic past. “I am pleased,” he adds, “to accept the parallelism [with his own Judaic heritage and thought] in the [Christian] theory of kenosis, and in the idea of an omni-human universality and a ‘for all men’,” that is, the Christian commitment “‘to live and die for all men.’” He then goes on to address how “Christians attach great importance to what they call faith, mystery, sacrament,” and offers the following “anecdote on that subject,” one which greatly illuminates the nature of any faith worthy of the name—especially after Auschwitz.

“Hannah Arendt,” says Levinas, “not long before she died, told the following story on French radio. When she was a child in her native Königsberg, one day she said to the rabbi who was teaching her religion: ‘You know I have lost my faith.’ And the rabbi responded: ‘Who’s asking you for it?’”

Auschwitz had not yet happened when Hannah Arendt was still a child, and had that exchange with her rabbi. But if even before Auschwitz God did not ask for any such “faith” as Arendt had already lost as a child, then certainly no God who remained after Auschwitz would ask for it. Indeed, such a request would itself be blasphemous—after Auschwitz! If any legitimate request for faith in God is possible at all after Auschwitz, it would have to be a request for that sort of faith that Levinas himself goes on to suggest in his own gloss on the anecdote from Arendt.

“The response [of the rabbi] was typical,” says Levinas—typical of the kind of response worth making to any profession of the loss of faith. “What matters,” he says, “is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’” What matters, most especially after Auschwitz, is not “faith,” if by that word all one means is no more than some sort of verbal or notional assent to some formula, the sort of thing one might check off in some opinion poll. What counts is no such merely propositional affirmation, but rather “doing.” What counts is action, not mere words.*

“Moreover,” as Levinas himself then asks, “are believing and doing different things?” After all: “What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions?” Is belief or faith just a matter of what we “think,” of our personal “opinion,” what we give assent to merely “mentally”? As Levinas asks pertinently: “What do we believe with?” Is it just with our “minds” that we believe? Rather, says Levinas in answer to his own question: “With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)!” He then concludes: What the rabbi meant was ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion.”

The faith for which God asks—most especially any God who retains any right to ask for faith at all today, this day more than seventy years after Auschwitz—just is loving: loving everyone in their “omni-human universality” with no promises. Today, only such love is love “in God’s name.”

Whoever does not love in God’s name can go to hell—and will, no matter how often he invokes God’s name “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.”

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To be continued.

* Such action can and should also include ritual action, as Levinas clearly notes by going on to say: “Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of ritual.” That aspect of the matter is itself deserving of the most serious attention, as I want to note here, although I will address it no further in today’s post.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Unforgiveable (2)

This post is the second of two on the same topic.

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He [the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 C.E.] had defeated the Bar Kochba rebellion; the Jewish state was destroyed once more. Now he meant to destroy also the inspiration, the Jewish religion: he passed an edict that made the practice of Judaism punishable by death.                                                                         Akiba defied Hadrian and went on living and teaching his Judaism, undeterred by Hardian’s edict. He was discovered, arrested, and tortured through a long night until, eventually, he died; but he kept on ignoring the torture and the torturer, singing the praise of his God, eventually to die with the divine Name on his lips.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, “Auschwitz as Challenge to Philosophy and Theology,” in To Mend the World (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. xli)


There are worse things than torture and murder. Torture and murder are not beyond guilt and atonement. They can be forgiven. Only what places itself beyond all guilt and atonement is unforgiveable. The unforgiveable is immeasurably worse than torture or murder—or, rather, it is literally incommensurable with them: there is no common standard in terms of which the offenses of torture and murder on one hand, horrible as they undeniably are, and a truly unforgiveable offense on the other can be measured.

That does not at all mean that torture and murder are permissible under some circumstances. They are not ever permissible, under any circumstances, for anyone, regardless of what the world may say. Those who commit them are obligated to confess their crimes, demonstrate their contrition, and ask for forgiveness, especially and first of all from their victims, living or dead—with no expectation, and certainly no right to expect, that such forgiveness will ever be offered. Nevertheless, precisely because they demand such confession, contrition, and request, murder and torture are not beyond all assumption of guilt and possibility of atonement, not beyond all request and hope for forgiveness. By whatever degree they may exceed other possible offenses for which forgiveness should be asked and might be given, they are still not beyond all reach of possible pardon.

In contrast, what is truly unforgiveable is not just worse in degree from what can be forgiven. It is worse in kind. We might say that the kind of evil that can be forgiven is only relatively evil, whereas the kind of evil that truly can never be forgiven is absolutely so. It is absolute evil, evil set loose (Latin solvere, “to loosen, detach”) from (Latin ab-) all limits whereby it might be delimited. Evil that can be resisted is not absolute evil. Absolute evil is evil that precludes the possibility of any resistance, just as it also precludes all possibility of being forgiven or atoned for. No pardon can reach it.

Accordingly, what is truly, fully unforgiveable—what places itself beyond all possibility of being forgiven by anyone or atoned for by anything—can only be that which deprives those it wrongs of any place to stand to affirm themselves in resisting what overpowers them, refusing to acquiesce to being overpowered. In the face of such truly and fully unforgiveable wrong, all one can do is stand firm in one’s resentment, and in one’s refusal to forgive, stand firm against all enticements to pretend to “forgive and forget” what is unforgiveable and therefore never to be forgotten.

To make such a stand, however, is no easy matter.


Strictly speaking, I do not and cannot know what I would be today if I had not been in the Camp. [. . .] I can, however, formulate a certain assertion and it is this: if I had not lived the Auschwitz experience, I probably would never have written anything. I would not have had the motivation, the incentive, to write. [. . .] It was the experience of the Camp and the long journey home that forced me to write.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce (p. 397)


In this cell, meditative hours spent in solitary writing and reading broke old molds, leaving me distraught and empty and forcing me further out on the edge for answers to my questions and pain. Psychic wounds don’t come in the form of knives, blades, guns, clubs; they arrive in the form of boxes—boxes in trucks, under beds, in my apartment when I could no longer pay the rent and had to move. Still, I was comforted by the thought that I was bigger than my box. I was what mattered, not the box. I lived out of a box, not in one. I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the “it” of their lives, to celebrate those who don’t have a place in this world to stand and call home. For those people, my journals, poems, and writings are home. My pen and heart chronicle their hopes, doubts, regrets, loves, despairs, and dreams. I do this partly out of selfishness, because it helps to heal my own impermanence, my own despair. My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (p. 244)


Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca both found their own freedom from the coercive power that overpowered them. They found it in the very depths of their imprisonment by that same power. One reclaimed his own dignity, and the power inseparable from it, as an inmate in a Nazi death-camp. The other did so as an inmate under solitary confinement in an American prison. Both reclaimed their own power from the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by overpowering that power turn, but by freely and fully abandoning all effort to overpower it—effort that is doomed always and only to give more power to that already overpowering power. They both triumphed over the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by coercion of their own, but by refusing any longer to be coerced. In that refusal, each bore witness not only to his having been abused but also to his own final victory over his abuser. They bore witness that coercive power could not defeat them, even though it might kill them, as, of course, it continued to have the power to do. They bore witness to the illusory nature of coercive power, even when that power proves fatal—as illusions, after all, can often prove to be.

The victory of their resistance over the power that overpowered them had nothing to do with that resistance being “successful” in ordinary terms. That is, to repeat something I have already said, Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca did not triumph over the power that had overpowered them by overpowering that power in turn. In that sense of victory, it was the Allied Powers who gained victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers in World War II, and not Primo Levi, who had no armies to send against Hitler’s. Nor did Jimmy Santiago Baca manage somehow to storm the Bastille of the American prison system and close it down; indeed, it is still very much in full, unfortunate operation.

Rather, the resistance that Levi and Baca put up to coercive power triumphed solely by the mere fact of it, the sheer fact of such resistance itself. It triumphed as the affirmation of the underlying dignity that expressed itself in and as such resistance. It triumphed in the same way that Jean Améry triumphed when he hit back against a fellow Auschwitz inmate, a Kapo, who hit him first. Améry triumphed even though he suffered a severe beating as a result of his resistance—a beating he survived, although in Auschwitz such a beating might well have cost Améry his very life, as it did so many others.

Interested readers may find Améry’s account of that incident in the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series, “Making Room for Community.” There they will also find further discussion of both Primo Levi’s and Jimmy Santiago Baca’s acts of resistance, which hit back against coercive power no less triumphantly than did Améry’s act of resistance, though neither Levi nor Baca answered one blow with another, as Améry did. What matters, however, as I discuss in that post, is not whether blows were exchanged, but whether resistance occurred as the sheer affirmation of human dignity, as it did occur in all three cases.

What I say in that previous post is far from all that needs to be said about the nature of resistance, and the universal obligation to nurture it. I will try to say a tiny bit more of what needs saying below, and I will probably devote a later post to saying yet more of it (a post I am currently thinking of calling “Sanctifying Life”). To prepare the way for that, however, I fist need to say a bit more about just what it is to which Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Jimmy Santiago Baca all three bear witness in their own diverse acts of resistance.


The world has forgotten. The world always forgets.

— Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World (p. 167)


Above everything else, in their three different acts of resistance, Améry, Levi, and Baca bore witness to, and for, those who had been stripped of all capacity to bear witness for themselves any longer. This observation is not new, but needs always to be made anew: It is for the sake of those unable to resist, that resistance is given to the rest of us; it is for the sake of those denied all further capacity to refuse, that we who retain that capacity are required to use it; and it is for the sake of those who have been deprived of every place of their own to stand that we who can still find such places are morally obligated to lay claim to them, and take our own stand.

Only in that way—in standing by our own resistance and refusal—do we heed the injunction never to forget. If the world always forgets, as Fackenheim says, then in order to remember we must place ourselves outside the world, in order to remind that world of what it has forgotten. Since the world always forgets, we can never let up on reminding it, which means that with Levi we must maintain our refusal to “forgive and forget,” with Améry we must keep faith with our resentment, and with Baca we must stay in our cells—which, as the desert anchorites of the early centuries of Christianity said, will teach us everything.

Each of us must find his or her own place to stand. No single place will hold us all.


Today, December 7, the day I am posting this, is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. My uncle was a pilot stationed in Pearl Harbor at Hickam Field Air Force Base on December 7, 1941. He actually piloted the first American fighter plane to rise in the air to answer the Japanese attack that day. I still have an old copy of the front page of the local Denver paper carrying his picture the next morning. He was not physically harmed that day, and did not die till many years later, but he carried the memory-scars of that day with him for the rest of his life.

In putting up this post today I would like it to serve as a remembrance of my uncle and of all those scarred by that day, December 7, 1941—“a day that will live in infamy,” as Franklin Roosevelt soon proclaimed. My hope is that my post may serve as a reminder, at least to myself, than genuine remembrance is much more than, because completely different in kind from, merely visiting graves or hanging out flags or the like. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. In doing such things, however, we should always remember that remembering itself is no easy thing. Visiting graves is a worthy remembrance only when it insists on leaving those graves open.

The Unforgivable


Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil [. . .].

—Primo Levi, The Truce (pages 188-189 of 1987 Abacus dual edition with If This Is a Man)


Neither Primo Levi nor Jean Améry, both of whom survived Auschwitz, ever forgave those responsible for Auschwitz, and all that that name has come to represent. Améry clung to his “resentments,” as he called them himself. He repeatedly insisted upon them publicly, including in an essay in At the Mind’s Limits bearing that title. Being of a different temperament and having a different writing style, Levi did not speak of “resenting” what had been done to him. Nevertheless, he was no more willing to forgive than was Améry.

Yet both Levi and Améry expressed a conditional willingness to come to a sort of peace with those responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, the very crime to the finally unforgiveable nature of which both always insisted on bearing witness. Améry and Levi each stipulated conditions under which he would be able to offer such peace to those responsible for that unforgiveable crime.

Levi even spoke of “forgiving” the perpetrators if the conditions he articulated were ever met, but only then. In the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series on “Making Room for Community,” I already cited a passage from Levi’s “Afterword” to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce—his chronicles of his days in the Nazi death camps and his odyssey of eventual return to Italy after being liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops—in which he lays all that out. The passage is worth citing again here (from page 382 of that Abacus dual edition):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

As for Améry, early in his essay “Resentments” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 70):

Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

SS man Wajs from Antwerp, a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer, paid with his life. What more can my foul thirst for revenge demand? But if I have searched my mind [or “spirit”: in German, Geist] properly, it is not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement. The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness [the collapse of all trust, all sense of security, a collapse that comes with “the first blow” of the fist of coercive power against which one can offer no effective defense, as Améry discusses in “Torture,” an earlier essay in the same volume]. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today.


What Améry’s resentment demands is not revenge. The resentment to which he insists on clinging is not a desire to strike back at those who struck him, causing them harm in return for the harm they caused him. The justice he seeks is not that of “an eye for an eye.” His resentment is not the harboring of “bad memories,” that is, of the desire to make “bad use” of the memory of what was done to him by doing the same back to his persecutors.* Indeed, if such harboring of bad memories is what one means by “resentments” (as is not uncommon), then Améry is actually free of resentments. To understand what he is saying, in fact, we must put out of play that common way of taking the term. What is at issue for him is something very different from resentment understood as the harboring of such “bad memories.”

“The moral person,” such as Améry himself, does not demand revenge for wrongs he has suffered. Rather, as Améry writes two pages later (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.”

It is important to note the similarity between what Améry says here about how the criminal who has been “nailed to his deed” can then rejoin the human race, and what Levi says above, when he remarks that the enemy who, not just in words but above all in deeds, has become conscious of his crimes thereby ceases to be an enemy. Far from seeking revenge, harboring bad memories, or desiring retribution, it turns out that what both Levi and Améry want is something very different. In truth, they want full reconciliation. Neither will settle for anything less than that the enemy cease to be an enemy and become a neighbor (as Levi puts it), or that the criminal be cleansed of his crime and thereby rejoined to the community (Améry). What both want, lies “beyond guilt and atonement,” to use Améry’s original German title of At the Mind’s Limits. It lies, therefore, beyond all possibility of “forgiving and forgetting,” at least in any usual understanding of those terms. It belongs to what is finally unforgiveable, and can never be forgotten.


The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 75)


Not long after making that remark about the world and its ways, Améry repeats what he has already said about wanting something beyond guilt and atonement. “It can be a matter,” he writes (page 77), “neither of revenge on the one side nor of a problematic atonement, which has only theological meaning and therefore is not relevant for me, on the other.” On the reader’s behalf, he then asks: “What then is it a matter of—since I have spoken expressly of a settlement in the field of historical practice?”

Améry tells us he is not seeking revenge through abusing in turn those who have first abused him. What is more, he tells us that he came out of Auschwitz no more of a “believer” than he was when he went in—which is to say that throughout it all he remained void of any religious faith—and therefore has no concern with such purely religious questions as atonement is typically taken to be, namely, a question of somehow “getting right with God” after one has “sinned.” Yet he still speaks of seeking a “settlement,” as one might speak about a legal issue, a matter in which one seeks “justice”—justice not as meted out by some Father in some Heaven, but as can be sought and found at the level of concrete “historical practice.” Accordingly, the question to be asked is just what would constitute the grounds for such a “settlement” at the level of such “historical practice” itself.

“Well then,” writes Améry in answer, “the problem could be settled” by conjoining two things, one on the side of the plaintiff, as it were, the accusing party, and the other on the side of the defendant, the accused. Settlement at the level of historical practice could be found “by permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the aggrieved, accusing plaintiff, while simultaneously keeping alive the “self-distrust in the other camp,” the camp of the accused—the very self-distrust that is itself “aroused by” awareness and acceptance of the plaintiff’s resentment.

Thus, the settlement of the case of such an unforgiveable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. It would be no such thing. Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur —beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting.


Just what might such a reconciliation actually look like, a reconciliation in which the resentment of one party is honored by the other, in whom the resentment of the first has at last awakened a self-distrust that must equally be honored? A reconciliation effected by allowing the wound of resentment to remain open in those who had been wounded, while opening and keeping open an answering wound of self-mistrust in those who had done the wounding? Granted that honoring the resentment of the wounded—rather than compounding their wounds in the rush to “forgive and forget,” so that everything can “get back to normal” for everybody else—requires opening in turn, and keeping open, a wound of self-distrust in those who wounded them. But just what would it actually be, to do that: to open and keep open such a wound of lack of self-trust in the perpetrators of the initial offense?

With regard to the particular offense at issue for Améry, that of Auschwitz and all that went with it, here is the answer he gives right after raising the question (At the Mind’s Limits, pages 77-79), an answer worth quoting at length:

Goaded solely by the spurs of our [that is, the survivors’] resentment—and not in the least by [any supposed] conciliatoriness [on the part of the perpetrators] that, subjectively, is almost always dubious and, objectively, hostile to history—the German people would remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history [namely, their shameful Nazi past] to be neutralized by time [or by monetary reparations paid to Israel or others, we might add]. If I remember rightly, it was Hans Magnus Enzenberger [an important German author and cultural figure who was born in 1929 and grew up in Nazi Germany] who once wrote that Auschwitz is Germany’s past, present, and future. But unfortunately he is not what counts, for he and his moral peers are not the people. But if, in the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised, then Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations, would retain the knowledge that it was not Germans who did away with the dominion of baseness. It [the German people] would then, as I sometimes hope, learn to comprehend its past acquiescence in the Third Reich as the total negation not only of the world that it plagued with war and death but also of its own better origins; it would no longer repress or hush up the twelve years [of Nazi rule] that for us others really were a thousand [which is how long Hitler promised the Third Reich would last], but claim them as its realized negation of the world and its self, as its own negative possession. On the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.

How this shall come about in actual practice, every German may picture for himself. This writer is not a German and it is not for him to give advice to this people. At best, he is able to imagine vaguely a national [German] community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns. Remaining within his exclusively literary frame of reference, Thomas Mann once expressed this in a letter: “It may be superstition,” he wrote to Walter von Molo, “but in my eyes the books that could be printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless and one ought not to touch them. An odor of blood and disgrace clings to them; they should all be reduced to pulp.” The spiritual reduction to pulp by the German people, not only of the books, but of everything that was carried out in those twelve years, would be the negation of the negation: a highly positive, a redeeming act. Only through it would our resentment be subjectively pacified and have become objectively unnecessary.


In responding to what Améry says in that passage, we want to be cautious. We need always to remember that those are the words of a bitterly resentful man, one who clung to his resentment throughout his entire life after Auschwitz. We would be remiss ever to forget that.


            I travel through the thriving land, and I feel less and less comfortable as I do. I cannot say that I am not received everywhere in a friendly and understanding manner. What more can people like me ask than that German newspapers and radio stations grant us the possibility to address grossly tactless remarks to German men and women, and on top of this be remunerated for it? I know: even the most benevolent will finally have to become as impatient with us as that young correspondent cited earlier who is “sick and tired of it.” There I am with my resentments, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Munich. If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation. Certainly. On the other hand, however, it is also for the good of the German people. But no one wants to relieve me of it, except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it. What dehumanized me has become a commodity, which I offer for sale.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, page 80)


Primo Levi did not speak of “resentments” the way Jean Améry did. Nor did the former tend toward such expressions of bitterness as the latter shows in passages such as the one above. Yet when we put aside differences of temperament and expression, it is often the case that what the two have to say really comes down to the same thing. So it is with what the two of them set out as the conditions that would have to be met, if they were to be reconciled with those who committed, or by failing to act permitted to be committed, what Levi calls “the offense,” and Améry calls “the ignominy”—namely, the unforgiveable crime of “Auschwitz,” in all that that name has come to represent.

As a condition for such reconciliation, Améry proposes that the German people—past, present, and still to come—embrace the equivalent of a self-imposed Morgenthau Plan. That was the plan for postwar Germany named for Henry Morgenthau, the United States Secretary of the Treasury who first proposed it in a memorandum entitled “Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany,” written sometime during 1944, the last full year of World War II. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be reduced to the status of a “pastoral state,” one no longer able to wage any sort of serious modern warfare, by destroying entirely the German armaments industry and the whole industrial might of the nation, most especially the industrial plants and equipment in the Ruhr, the very heart of Germany’s industrial power. Once the Cold War heated up, which happened within a few months after the Allied victory and the end of WW II, political expediency quickly induced the Western Powers—now locked in a new enmity, this time with their recent ally, the Soviet Union—to abandon any such plan as Morgenthau’s. Motivated by the pursuit of their own security in the face of the newly discovered threat of what Ronald Reagan would eventually label “that evil empire,” those to whom fell the victory in the west at the end of World War II were quick to abandon the project of reducing to pastureland the now vanquished German nation, and in the process were just as quick to cease giving any real priority to continuing the “de-Nazification” of Germany.

What Améry proposes, if he is to be reconciled with the Germans, the very people who brutalized him and so many others, is not that a new Morgenthau Plan be developed and imposed upon Germany from the outside. That would not satisfy him. It would not pacify his resentment. Rather, only if the German people imposed such a plan upon themselves, as an act of contrition and penance for their ignominious offense, would the resentment of Améry and the others whom the Germans overpowered be stilled.


That, of course, is not in the least likely to happen. Améry himself was perfectly well aware of that. “Nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know,” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 79), just after articulating his conditions for reconciliation in the passage above.

But what about Levi? What about Levi’s requirements for forgiveness, laid down in his “Afterword” to the dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce, where he says he will not forgive “any of the culprits”—which includes, he argues elsewhere in the same source, the entire Germans people as a whole, who, if they did not know about “the offense,” were accomplices anyway, since their very ignorance was willful, a not wanting to know—until those culprits themselves first show, not only with their words, but above all in their deeds, that they have “become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and [are] determined to condemn them, uproot them, from [their] conscience and from that of others”? Are those conditions really any less stringent than Améry’s? Are they any more likely ever to be met?

Most surely, the answer is no. As Améry says, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” Nothing of the sort happened in the past. Nothing of the sort is happening now. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

Accordingly, whoever aspires to be what Améry calls a “moral person” must honor both Améry’s resentment and Levi’s refusal to forgive. To honor them, on one’s own one must actively resist the whole world’s silence, while simultaneously maintaining suspicion toward one’s self for possible complicity, intentional or not, in keeping that silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* See the discussion of amnesty—especially with regard to Gorgio Agamben’s treatment of it in his recent book Stasis—in my post, “Making Room for Community (2).”

Making Room for Community (5)

This is the final post in a consecutive series under the same general title.

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Choosing Community

I have twenty-seven years of exile behind me, and my spiritual compatriots are Proust, Sartre, Beckett. Only I am still convinced that one must have compatriots in village and city streets if the spiritual ones are to be fully enjoyed, and that a cultural internationalism thrives well only in the soil of national security. [. . .] One must have a home in order not to need it [. . .].

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits: Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 46)


We are all members of communities prior to and apart from any choices of our own. Each of us is native to at least one community—born into it—by no choice on our part. In my own personal case, I did not choose to be a white, straight, American male, but nevertheless am all those things anyway. I was born into membership in all four communities: the communities of whites, straights, Americans, and males. As born into membership in those four communities, I was also born and into yet a fifth one, namely, the community of the privileged.

In turn, born into privilege, I was born as well into prejudice. I have always resented that fact. Many times during the course of my life, I have been startled to realize how prejudiced I really still was, despite all my efforts to ferret out and rid myself of my prejudices. I never signed on to be a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe. I never wanted to be any of those things, and I have even tried consciously to rid myself of such inclinations, as well as act against them when concrete opportunities to do so arose in my own ongoing life. Nevertheless, as I already said, I’ve often been startled to have to realize that—not just without any prior choice on my part, but even in spite of my own choices—I did indeed have racist, sexist, and homophobic tendencies. Above all, I found that to be so, in my own non-voluntary affective reactions to events in my life. What I’m referring to are such things as feeling anxiety, mild as it might have been and contrary to my own ideational and intellectual commitments (my own “ideas” and “opinions”: what I was willing to give what John Henry Newman long ago called “notional” assent, the sort of assent one gives to statements on an opinion poll), when walking through predominantly African American neighborhoods. Or feeling awkward around gays or lesbians. Or more critical of women than men for what and how they thought and, especially, looked.

Thus, being born into the privilege that goes with being born white, male, and straight, I was also born racist, sexist, and homophobic. After all, we who are privileged naturally defend our privileges, don’t we? As Primo Levi said in a passage cited in an earlier post of this current series, that just goes with privilege—unfortunately so, for such as me.

Even more unfortunately, it is not only prejudice that goes with privilege. So does guilt.


I was a person who could no longer say “we” and who therefore said “I” merely out of habit, but not with the feeling of full possession of my self. [. . .] I was no longer an I and did not live within a We.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 44)

It has often been observed that it is easy to love “humanity” in the abstract, while despising the actual instances of humanity I happen to know. I can loudly proclaim my principled commitment to “universal human rights,” while equally vociferously supporting politicians who want to build walls to keep out all the “illegal aliens” who want to enter my country in search of a human life. I can applaud Primo Levi’s insistence, discussed in my preceding post, that all decent people have a duty to go to war against undeserved privilege, but gladly hide behind “make my day” laws to blow away any of the undeservedly de-privileged who happen to tramp on my turf. As a good, upstanding Christian, I may grow teary-eyed at the thought of loving my neighbor, yet feel nothing but contempt for the people who actually live next door. Love for humanity in the abstract thus proves to be no more than an abstraction itself: A love for everyone in general that is fully compatible with love for no one in particular. However, a love for no one in particular is no love at all.

Something similar applies to having a home, in the sense of a homeland, a “native” land or country—that is, belonging to some “nation,” in the original sense of that term. Such a homeland or native land is what is meant by the German term Heimat, the term Jean Améry uses in the original version of the citation at the beginning of this post, from a book originally entitled (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts of this series already) Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which means “beyond guilt and atonement” (or “redemption”). In the passage cited at the beginning of this post, before its first section, Améry suggests—a suggestion that, taken in the full context of his essay, has the force of a strong assertion—that one can take full part in world culture, and find one’s true homeland or native land there, only if one first has a firmly rooted homeland already in the nation of one’s birth. That is what he means when he says that “cultural internationalism” can really only grow well in the solid soil of “national security.”

By that Améry does not mean that we must first protect our own country’s borders (maybe by building walls along them) and secure the country against attack by outsiders (such as today’s “terrorists,” who may even be home-grown: outsiders in our very midst). What he means is that only those already solidly anchored in their own “national” culture, already thoroughly “at home” in it, can then grow “beyond” it in the sense of opening up to, and coming to feel at home in, other cultures. Only an already solidly anchored Roman could really find nothing human foreign to him, as the Roman poet Terrence once famously said. Nor is that because of anything special about Romans and Roman culture. Rather, it is common to all. That is what Améry is pointing to in the lines cited above.


While no one is guaranteed absolute safety, and everyone knows suffering, there are dangers members of certain populations will never know. There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know. White people will never know the dangers of being black in America, systemic, unequal opportunity, racial profiling, the constant threat of police violence. Men will never know the dangers of being a woman in America, harassment, sexual violence, legislated bodies. Heterosexuals will never know what it means to experience homophobia.

—Roxane Gay, “The Seduction of Safety” (NY Times op-ed section 11/15/15)

            But it is time to explain what I actually mean by this home that seems so essential to me. [. . .] Reduced to the positive psychological basic content of the idea, home is security.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 46)

Améry did not just lose his native land, his native culture, and even his native language; he was robbed of them. He was robbed of all three, which were German, and made to be a Jew instead—forced out of his home and into exile by the very Germans with whom he had always culturally identified himself and whose language had been his mothertongue. He was in effect defined into being a Jew despite never having identified himself as one. He was thereby robbed of his very identity, as he always insisted on putting it himself— that very identity he was born with and into.

In that process he was also robbed of his very name. “Hans Mayer,” the name he was given at birth—his native name, as it were—was inseparable from the identity that was taken from him when he was forcibly, “legally” alienated from his native land, culture, and language. Stripped of his original identity, the name that went with that identity no longer fit him either. He no longer knew who he was, but he knew that he was no longer that one who had borne, and been born to, that very German name.

Eventually, he chose to be known as “Jean Améry,” from the French equivalent for the German Hans plus an anagram of the German Mayer (Frenched up a bit over the e). However, that never became a true name for him, in the full and proper sense. Rather, by its very distortion of what used to be his name, the pseudonym—literally the “false name”—“Jean Améry” served to mark the very theft of his name from him, along with the theft of the identity that name suited. The pseudonym effectively marked the very trauma to which he had been subjected, memorializing it.

Robbed of all that he had been born into, all that from which he had later been involuntarily and brutally exiled, the radically destitute man who remained after being thus robbed of everything proper to him was reduced to utter homelessness. That condition was soon brought fully to his own explicit attention when he was struck by what he accurately describes as “the first blow,” a literal, physical blow delivered by the Belgian police officer who arrested him, in service to the Germans who had by then occupied Belgium, where the man who had once been known as Hans Mayer had fled after the Anschluss of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938. With that first blow, all false sense of trust, of security, that he may still have clung to up till then was completely shattered. It collapsed, demonstrating irrefutably to him that he no longer had any home left—since home, after all, is really nothing but security, once we boil the concept down to its basic psychological content.

How much home does a person need? In his essay of that name (in a book the English edition of which robs of its own original name, in what can be seen as an all too compulsive repetition of the original robbery of that book’s author’s very identity), “Jean Améry”—that is, the anonymous, utterly homeless writer who once had been Hans Mayer—replies to that question. His reply is that how much home a person needs varies inversely with how much home the person has in the first place: the more home one has, the less home one needs; and the less home one has, the more home one needs. Thus, it is the most homeless, those most without a home, who need a home the most.

That, once written, should come as no surprise to anyone who reads it: Of course it is the homeless who most need a home. What is more, although the man who used to be known as Hans Mayer never explicitly says so, we can surely extend his insight—that insight that becomes obvious as soon as it is once seen (no easy thing, since once seen it is also obvious that the more obvious something is, the harder it is to see it)—to cover names as well as homes. In answer to the question of who most needs a name we can answer with confidence that it is the most a-nonymous people, those most “without-name,” who have the most need for one.


Kierkegaard says that the very deepest, most despairing form of despair is precisely that despair in which one no longer even knows one is in despair. In fact, those who are lost that utterly in despair may even think themselves happy. Never having tasted any true happiness, they can easily confuse being happy with the dull and deadened lack of affect that goes with despair. In contrast, the knowledge that one is in despair is the indispensible first glimmering of a possibility of journeying out of despair, into hope.

In the same way, the uttermost form of homelessness is that in which the homeless no longer even recognize their homelessness, and even confuse it with being at home. Such absolutely homeless ones may tell themselves as well as others—and tell it in full honesty—that they are equally at home wherever they go. They may say, and even truly believe, that they are equally at home everywhere, when in reality they have no home at all anywhere.

In a strange way, they are telling the truth, since it is indeed true that, having no home anywhere, everywhere they find themselves they will always have the same amount of home—namely, none at all. Zero still equals zero, however many times one multiplies it, or wherever one performs the calculation.

As homeless as he was after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made him a Jew, and thereby robbed him of the German culture, language, name and identity with and into which he had been born, even Jean Améry was never that utterly homeless. His very longing for home, a longing he knew could never be fulfilled, still left him at least some home, in that very recognition of his own homelessness. It still left him enough home to avoid such absolute homelessness as to think one is equally at home everywhere, even though one has no home at all anywhere in particular. It left him secure enough to diagnose the reality of just such utter lack of home, the total lack of home that thinks itself at home everywhere, in the world of his day.

What about us today, however? That is, what about us customers of the global market economy, us consumers of all the education and information and opportunities to learn that our ever more global culture has to offer, including all the holidays in all the exotic places among all the exotic peoples just waiting for us “explore in comfort,” as the slogan for Viking Cruises has it? How much home do we still have, and how much do we therefore need?

“Modern man exchanges his home for the world,” writes Améry (on page 56) in At the Mind’s Limits, the English translation of Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. In the original German, there is no “his” in Améry’s sentence. It just reads: “Modern man [the German is Mensch, which can also be translated by a non-gendering English term such as “people,” or the more cumbrous “human beings”] exchanges home [Heimat, “homeland or native land”] for the world.” What need have we modern people any longer for any special place to be at home, when we are equally at home anywhere we go in the whole wide world?

We have exchanged home for the world, as Améry says. “What a brilliant transaction!” he immediately adds. “Superficial knowledge of the world and languages, gained through tourism and business trips,” he writes a few lines later, “is no compensation for home. The barter proves to be a dubious one.”

Just a few more lines after that (on pages 56-57), he asks just how, “in such a world” as is acquired through such a brilliantly dubious transaction, one will

still be able to form the concept of home at all? The cities, highways, service stations, the furniture, the electric household appliances, the plates, and the spoons will be the same everywhere. It is conceivable that the language of the future world will also be the purely functional means of communication that for the natural scientist it already is today. The physicists communicate in the language of mathematics; for the cocktail party in the evening Basic English suffices. The developing world of tomorrow will certainly expel the homeland and possibly the mother tongue and will let them exist peripherally as a subject of specialized historical research only.

To dispel some of the gloom of such a globally illuminated picture, Améry gives us a glimmer of hope in his next line, where he writes: “However, we have not reached that point yet.” But then that hope dims, when we remember that the book containing that remark was first published way back in 1966.

A lot has changed since then.


In 2012, when the Arab Spring and other uprisings of popular resistance in Spain, Greece, the United States, and elsewhere were still fresh in public memory, seeming to open upon new possibilities for genuinely democratic changes of richly diverse sorts, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri brought out a short book called Declaration (distributed by Argo Novis Author Services). At one point in the book, they write of how, in our contemporary life as consumers in the global market system, we are increasingly subjected to what they call “mediatization,” one major aspect of which is putting all of us “on call” everywhere and an all times—“24/7,” as the expression has it. “With your smart phones and wireless connections, you can go anywhere and still be on the job,” they write (on page 16), “which you realize quickly means that anywhere you go you are still working! Mediatization is a major factor in the increasingly blurred division between work and life.”

Hardt and Negri then add:

            It thus seems more appropriate to think of such workers as not so much alienated [as Marx said of the workers of the world in the old days of heavy industrialization] as mediatized. Whereas the consciousness of the alienated worker is separated or divided, the consciousness of the mediatized is subsumed or absorbed in the web. The consciousness of the mediatized is not really split but fragmented and dispersed. The media, furthermore, don’t really make you passive. In fact, they constantly call on you to participate, to choose what you like, to contribute your opinions, to narrate your life. The media are constantly responsive to your likes and dislikes, and in return you are constantly attentive. The mediatized is thus a subjectivity that is paradoxically neither active nor passive bur rather constantly absorbed in attention.

By that analysis, the whole point of mediatization is to keep our attention fixed on the screens of our ubiquitous, ever more attention-demanding electronic devices— Tweating, Facebooking, streaming TV and movies, playing digital games, catching up on the breaking news, or whatever. The purpose is to keep our attention riveted on such things, and therefore diverted from doing anything that might opt us out of the 24/7 global consumerist work-a-day world. The point or purpose is to secure the global market system against any risk that we, the people, might join any such thing as the Occupy movement. It subverts in advance any chance we might have to join any community that might disrupt the ongoing uprooting from home of us all, an uprooting essential to the continued smooth operation of the global market system. The point is to keep us all literally preoccupied, that is, “seized in advance.” That way, we may never notice just how radically we are in need of a home—so much in need of one, that we don’t even know how utterly homeless we have become.

What hope, if any, remains, can only grow there, precisely where the greatest danger is, as Hölderlin said long ago. Appropriately, for their part Hardt and Negri find just such hope in the very media that so effectively “mediatize” us. They see hope in the potential that Facebook and Twitter and all the other twisted tweaks of contemporary digital technology offer to a populace, a people, who want to reclaim for themselves a place to stand—a place such as Tahrir Square in Cairo in the Arab Spring of 2011 became, to give one instance of where that digital potential for resistance and liberation has already been realized.

May Hardt and Negri be right!

At any rate, if there is any hope to be found at all anywhere any longer, whether in the media that preoccupy us or anywhere else, it can be realized only when we begin at last to feel how utterly in need of a home we have all become. Our only hope lies in becoming aware of our very homelessness—whoever “we” are, all of us anonymous ones, from the millions who are trying to broach Europe’s borders today, to the bloggers sitting comfortably in their overlarge houses, as I am while I type this blog-post. Only in the dawning awareness of our own universally shared homelessness can the hope of every finding our way home begin really to shine for us. The community of the homeless is the only community left for us, all us anonymous ones, to choose today.

“I don’t know my way home!” says David Warner’s mentally challenged character at the end of the bloodbath of Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah’s old movie. “It’s okay,” replies Dustin Hoffman’s character, speaking for us all, “I don’t either.”

Published in: on November 16, 2015 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (4)

This is the fourth in a consecutive series of posts under the same general title.

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


The same anxiety is visible everywhere, the same deep panic, provoking the same upwellings of dignity, and not indignation.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated by Robert Hurley (Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 14)


. . . an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

[I]n spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to If This Is a Man and The Truce, dual edition (London: Abacus, 1987, pages 382, 386)

When one part of a community has harmed another part, reconciliation between the two parts is impossible without forgiveness, taken as the resolution on the part of those harmed not to make “bad use” of their memories of the harm done them—use of those memories for feeding the desire to harm in turn. Such forgiveness, neither forced nor feigned but freely given, is itself only possible for those who have managed to free themselves from the constraints against giving it.

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

In cases such as civil war, such victory belongs first to those who are on the winning side, as Arsinius and his fellow democrats were in the Athenian civil war against “the Thirty” in 403 BCE. The resolution of amnesty then declared by the victors for the vanquished was the “invention of amnesty,” according to Giorgio Agamben in Stasis, as discussed in my second post of this same series. That resolution on the part of those who won the war did not of itself effect full reconciliation between them and those they had just vanquished, but it made such reconciliation possible. Full actualization of that possibility had to wait for a response—perhaps never forthcoming—of genuine contrition on the part of the losing side. Some of the vanquished no doubt experienced such contrition, and were fully reconciled with the community of the city as a whole. However, some no doubt were not, and continued to plot for a return to power. At any rate, as Agamben observes, civil war remained as a permanent possibility within the reestablished peace, a possibility the leaving open of which was foundational for that very peace.

What about very different sorts of cases, however? How does victory come then?

To take one prime example, what about cases such as Primo Levi’s after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II? That liberation from the Nazi death camp system was not by itself sufficient to bring about Primo Levi’s liberation from his own constraints against offering forgiveness to his German tormentors. After the camp was liberated and Levi returned home to Turin, and continuing on until the time of his death (which many think was a suicide) in 1987, Levi remained unwilling and unable to forgive those who had brutalized him and his fellow survivors, and killed millions of others. To the end of his life, he refused—with entire, convincing justice—to forgive those who had brutalized and killed so many in the camps. He refused to forgive not only the individual Germans directly responsible, from Hitler to the lowliest Auschwitz guard subjecting inmates to routine degradation. He refused, as well, to forgive the German people as whole, that people who—as Levi writes in the afterword to the 1987 Abacus reissue of the joint publication of If This Is a Man and The Truce (his chronicles respectively of his internment at Auschwitz and of his eventual return trip home to Turin)—if they did not know what was happening in the camps, did not know because they did not want to know: they were willfully ignorant.

The first line cited above as an epigraph to this first section of today’s post comes at the very end of a paragraph that begins by remarking that, despite the absence throughout his writings of any judgments containing “expressions of hate for the Germans” or of a “desire for revenge” against them, Levi would not want his “abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” The full paragraph then continues (page 382):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive as single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

So what about Primo Levi? That is, what about cases such as the victims of the Holocaust, or those who bear witness for them, as Primo Levi did? Where does forgiveness, and with it the reconciliation for which it opens the way, belong in those cases?

Or what about cases such as that of Jimmy Santiago Baca?


            To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards.

. . . as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It had been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act. Despite the guilt of letting a lot of solid convicts down, not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (Grove Press, 2001, pages 166, 169)

The forgiveness towards the whole world, himself included, that Jimmy Santiago Baca eventually experienced in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, as he describes it in the passage with which I ended my preceding post of this series, could only come to him once he had found a place to stand in order concretely and effectively to resist his oppression, and thereby emerge victorious over it. Forgiveness issues only from dignity, not from abjectness; and before one can forgive offenses against one’s dignity—truly forgive them, and not just be forced to feign forgiveness—one must reclaim that dignity itself, reclaim it from those who have tried to take it away and claim it solely for themselves.

In a system such as that within which Jimmy Santiago Baca had always been forced to live, it took a truly unusual combination of circumstances for him ever to recover his own dignity, and with it the power to forgive. Initially subjected to such deprivation by the facts of his birth, and then abandoned by his parents when he was ten, he lived first with his grandmother, then in an orphanage, before ending living on the streets. When he was only twenty-one he was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to prison, where he spent six and one-half years, three of them in isolation.

It was not until he finally found his way to a place to stand where he could refuse any longer to take part in the system that brutalized him, that he was at last able to reclaim what was always rightfully his to begin with: his own dignity. In turn, it was only then that he was able to begin the journey in freedom that eventually led to his experience of forgiveness—toward his parents, himself, the whole world—in the cathedral in Santa Fe.

To carve out for himself that place to stand, the most crucial lesson he had to learn was how not to keep giving power to his own oppressors, continually enabling them, precisely by lashing out reactively against their blows. He says in the passage cited above that “as a kid” he at first responded to strikes against him as all kids do at first, when they do not yet have any option beyond “taking the hurt that [comes their] way.” But after a time he learned, as all kids given time do, another option, one that appeared better than just “taking” whatever harm comes one’s way. That was the option, as he puts it, “to strike back.”

The next sentence—and, even more, the entire context of the story of his life up to that point, as he has been telling it in A Place to Stand—makes it clear that what he means here by “striking back” is lashing out, as a cornered animal might. However, far from such lashing out allowing him to reclaim his dignity from those who have claimed it all for themselves, it merely gave them what they expected—and needed, to cement their dominance. Prison guards and administrators, most especially including prison wardens, expect exactly that. In fact, whether deliberately or not (since many such things are a matter of just drifting in the direction of the institution within which one works, rather than of deliberate, individual planning and decision), those who exercise authority over the likes of Jimmy Santiago Baca and other actual or potential “criminals” and convicts actually encourage such reactions, since it plays right into their hands. By lashing out, the oppressed do not opt out of the system of oppression, effectively resisting it. Instead, they reinforce it. Just ask all the “repeat offenders” who are kept constantly moving in and out through the swinging doors of our prison system, a system which if not deliberately designed for the very purpose of engendering repeat offenses may as well be.

Jimmy Santiago Baca soon learned just the lesson that the repressive system into which he was born wanted him to learn: He learned, “as [he] grew a little older,” to lash out whenever he was struck by the blows that continued to be delivered against him. After all, that seemed to be “the quickest way to get rid of the pain.” Given his circumstances, that was the only option he was allowed to become aware of, so it was the only one he really had, to avoid his own hurt: by diverting himself from it, to focus instead on hurting back in turn. Intelligent and quick to learn as he was, he learned that lesson well. That is precisely how and why he ended up in prison in the first place, then was kept there for so many years.

“Until now”: until one time when he finally found a place to stand. That one time at last he stopped giving power to those by whom he had so long been overpowered. “This time [he] didn’t lash out,” as everyone—everyone: those being conditioned no less than those doing the conditioning—expected. By not lashing out reactively “this time,” he “short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con in supposed to act.” Instead of lashing out again, “this time” Jimmy Santiago Baca just opted out of the whole system, simply by staying in his cell and refusing to go out and do the work assigned him.

Sometimes, the most powerful act of resistance is the refusal to act. Sometimes, it is precisely by not striking back that we in fact strike back most effectively.


Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense. [. . .] Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight [. . .].

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback by it, for he trembled in every limb. “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” said he. To which, I returned a polite “Yes sir”.

—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, pages 186-187)


I finally relearned what I and my kind often had forgotten and what was more crucial than the moral power to resist: to hit back.

Before me I see the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor. In Auschwitz he once hit me in the face because of a trifle; that is how he was used to dealing with all the Jews under his command. At his moment—I felt it with piercing clarity—it was up to me to go a step further in my prolonged appeals case against society. In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that in the end it was I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. [. . .] I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face. [. . .] I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, translated by Stuart Rosenthal (University of Indiana Press, 1977), pp. 90-91

The “roots” which Frederick Douglass “forgot,” precisely in order to remember something even more fundamental and important—the pledge he’d made himself while ill, not long before the confrontation he describes above, with the doltish and brutal slave overseer Covey—were his Christian roots. Specifically, at issue are the same roots as those to which Primo Levi refers, in the epigraph to the first section of this post, when he writes of a certain “Jewish and Christian precept,” namely that of “forgiving my enemy.” Douglass says that he had to “forget” that precept, which was part of his own rich heritage as a member of the African American slave-community, in order to honor his pledge to himself to resist the next time he was actively abused. He had to “forget,” which here means to suspend, to put out of play, one part of his inheritance, precisely in order to remember another part of that same inheritance—an older, even more deeply rooted part, one that actually made the other, newer part possible in the first place: his own human dignity, that very dignity he had now resolved to defend.

It is that very same dignity that will not permit Primo Levy to forgive the Germans, either as individuals or collectively, for what they did to him and millions of others in the Nazi concentration camp system. The inner logic of that system itself drove inexorably toward the elimination all possibility of resistance, and in the process drove that system and all who were responsible for it “beyond guilt and atonement” (as Jean Améry puts it, to translate the original German title of what appears in English as At the Mind’s Limits), and therefore beyond all possibility of being forgiven—at least by any human judge to borrow a way of speaking from Levi himself.

The point of resistance, in the sense at issue for Douglass, for Levi, and for Améry—and most certainly for Jimmy Santiago Baca as well—is not to succeed in overpowering in turn those who have once overpowered us. The point of resisting oppression is not to get a chance to oppress others in turn, either those who have oppressed us or innocent bystanders. The point is, rather, to reclaim one’s dignity.*


     Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”

Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”

The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground.  “I will not.”

—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribners,2014, p. 264)

Jimmy Santiago Baca had to learn to refrain from “lashing out” against his oppression in order to find a place to stand and truly resist. Frederick Douglass found his own place to stand and resist only in striking back against his immediate oppressor. The fictional Frederick of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel of guilt and redemption in World War II Germany, finds it in refusing an order to strike out against a defenseless prisoner in a German military prep-school run by an good Nazi headmaster, Bastian. The commandant has ordered each boy in turn to throw a bucket of freezing water on an already frozen and dying prisoner who has been chained to a stake on the school’s parade-ground. When his turn comes, Frederick refuses to follow the commandant’s orders. He resists by refusing to be an accomplice to the brutality.

What matters in all these and similar cases is to find the way no longer just to react but rather truly to resist. To resist is what counts, regardless of whether that resistance takes the form of striking or of refusing to strike, as circumstances require. Either way, in resistance oppression itself is struck, and subordination is refused.

Frederick’s fictional resistance took the same form Jimmy Santiago Baca’s real one did: a refusal to follow coercive authority’s orders. Both refusals led to painful consequences, however. Never does that invalidate the resistance, however. To repeat something already said above, the point of resistance is not to overpower what has overpowered one, but to find one’s way to the reclamation of one’s own freedom and dignity. The free can still be made to suffer and die as the price for that reclamation. Indeed, it is always in the interests of coercive power to make them do so. That helps to maintain order.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, is made to suffer isolation and repeated postponements of release from prison even despite his having “rehabilitated” himself completely—not only with no help from the prison system, but with that system actively working against him—teaching himself to read and write and becoming a regionally and nationally recognized poet while still incarcerated. If the warden of the prison where he was entombed had had his way, Jimmy Santiago Baca would still be there. From all the evidence, that warden still resents it that his erstwhile prisoner is no longer imprisoned. It is indeed hard to overestimate the resentment of the privileged toward the unprivileged.

Frederick, the character in Doerr’s novel, suffers even more severe consequences for his refusal. He is subjected to the prep-school equivalent of what the Nazis came to call “special treatment” in the camps. In swift reaction against Frederick for his refusal to obey orders, Bastian, the school commandant, singles him out and makes an example of him by repeatedly unleashing all the other, “good” German students to chase him for invented offenses against school discipline. Finally, at the end of one such chase Frederick is no longer able to outrun them, and they manage to catch him. They then beat him so severely that he becomes permanently cognitively impaired, reduced to little more than a vegetable.

Primo Levi tells yet another story of another resister, another real one to go with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is simply killed for resisting. The story, which occurs at one point in The Drowned and the Saved (Indiana University Press, 1980, pages 41-42), is that of a “newcomer” to Auschwitz, that is, a newly arrived inmate who has not yet learned the lessons that one must learn very quickly at Auschwitz to have any chance for surviving even for a while. The newcomer at issue had arrived at the camp “when he still had his full strength,” and with it the power to assert his own dignity. He soon did just that, in an act of resistance. “He had been beaten when the soup was being distributed,” such beatings being everyday occurrences at Auschwitz. But they were not everyday yet for the newcomer, who “dared to shove the distributor-functionary” in turn. In reaction to such hauteur, “the latter’s colleagues rushed to his aid, and the culprit was made an example of by being drowned, his head held down in the soup tub.”

As Levi himself observes here and in a number of other places in his writings, it is hardly any wonder that, under such circumstances as existed in the Nazi camps, the telos of which was to eliminate the very possibility of resistance, there was so little rebellion in the Nazi camps. The wonder is rather that there was any at all, which there was.

Just before telling the story of the newcomer drowned in the soup tub, Levi observes (page 41) that in the camps it was “an unwritten and iron law” that Zurückschlagen, which literally means “striking back,” will not be tolerated: “answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression, and anyone who commits it must be made an example. Other functionaries rush to the aid of the threatened order, and the culprit is beaten with rage and method until he’s tamed or dead. Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

Picking up the same thread again after telling the story of the soup-drowned newcomer, Levi goes on a bit later to write (page 42): “ It is a duty of righteous men to make war on all underserved privilege.” That duty is owed by all, to all, but most especially to those who have been deprived of the very possibility of participating in such a “war”—deprived of the very possibility of affirming their own dignity by striking back at all. Ernst Bloch said, famously, that it is for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us. So, too, is it for the sake those who have been stripped of their dignity and denied all power to resist oppression that we must affirm our own dignity by striking back against oppression.

Of course, the easier, softer way is just not to let oneself know about the oppression in the first place, remaining willfully ignorant. Then one can avoid all responsibility—at least, as Levi would put it, before any human tribunal.

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This series on “Making Room for Community” will continue with my next post.

* On the other hand, power that goes beyond all possibility of resistance, and thus beyond all possibility of those subjected to it ever reclaiming their own dignity, goes beyond all guilt open to forgiveness and redemption, and becomes truly unforgiveable—a topic to which I plan to return eventually, in a subsequent post.

Making Room for Community (3)

Making Room for Community (3)

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

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Forgiveness: Forced, Feigned, and Free


[E]ven though some of the slain churchgoers’ relatives famously forgave Mr. Roof during his bond hearing two days after the shooting, the sentiment is not universal.

“If I have to forgive him to get to heaven,” said [church member] Willi Glee, 75, “I’m going to end up in hell with him.”

—“Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed” (New York Times 10/19/15, byline Robert Faust)

I ended my preceding post by discussing what the Times article cited above had to say about the doors that still remained open at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, four months after the shootings that took nine lives there—as pertains to the first part of the article’s headline. The quotation above belongs to what the same article goes on eventually to say about the “lingering pain” still felt in the same church—the second part of its headline. In regard to that second topic, the article addressed the diverse ways in which diverse church members responded to the deep pain caused by the recent shootings.

In fact, the two parts of the article—the first about the church doors remaining open after the shootings, and the second about the diversity of church-members’ responses to those same shootings—go seamlessly together: A door that opens up to what is outside also opens upon what is inside, exposing each to the other. At Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the same doors that remain open outward, to admit all who may wish to enter, especially including strangers, also remain open inward, upon a diverse community in which the pain of the shootings is not handled the same by all the community’s member.

As I already noted in my preceding post, it is precisely by not trying to avoid the trauma of the shootings, and all the pain it brought along with it, that Mother Emanuel was able to keep its doors open, and thereby—indeed, above all—to keep true to itself as an eschatologically open community of faith. For Mother Emanuel to remain Mother Emanuel, she had to keep her doors open in both those directions at once, in fact: outward to admit all who came to those doors for admittance, and inward upon all who were already inside, and who had been wounded by the attack. Furthermore, just as she had no pat-downs, metal detectors, or other testing equipment for screening before admittance into the church, so she had no surveillance mechanisms overseeing those who were inside once they had entered.

Nor did she position interrogators at the door to be sure that those who entered were, in effect, “right minded.” That is, there were no credos or other professions of faith that those seeking entry into the space of the community had to make, in order to gain admittance. Once again, the same applied to those already inside—regardless of how long they’d been there. Neither new members nor those who had already been members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church before the shootings, no matter how long they had been members, were required to declare their faith in any particular way in order to retain membership in good standing. At least—and what is most important for my purposes in this post—none of them had been required to profess forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who had shot nine church members to death so recently. Thus, to cite the prime example from the Times article, Willi Glee remains a full member of the Mother Emanuel Church community, even though he would prefer to go to hell before he would forgive Roof.

Given their witness at Roof’s hearing, I believe that those church members who, unlike Willi Glee, did forgive Roof would also be willing to go to hell along with Willi, if his refusal to forgive were to bar him from entering heaven.


In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral.

—Jean Améry, At the Minds Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities*

Any community membership made contingent upon forgiving any or all harms done to one is, by the fact of that membership requirement alone, a proper community in the sense I discussed at the end of my first post in this present series on “Making Room for Community.” In that sense, a “proper” community is one defined by the fact that all its members—all those who belong to that community, which is to say are proper to it—have a certain property or certain properties. As I pointed out in that first post of the series, all such proper communities are necessarily delimited by those very properties that thus define them. They are, therefore, communities with borders, which must be defended against intruders from outside. All such proper, bordered communities build walls around themselves, to protect their own property, at the cost of those who are locked out. All such communities are thus closed communities—in reality, no better than “clubs.”**

In contrast, an open community is one that defines itself by no property or properties that every member of the community must own or possess. In that sense, it is a community that does not bother to “define” itself at all. It has no need to “delimit” its “boundaries,” and therefore no need to defend its limits or lock anyone out. Its doors are always open.

The doors of a truly open community must always remain open in both directions at once, outward and inward. That is, there can be no requirements that those who are already inside must meet in order to remain there, any more than there can be such requirements that must be met before those seeking entry are admitted. Otherwise, the community ceases to be an open one. It closes itself off, becoming a mere club.


It also invites deception.

If membership in the given club, or closed community, is at all generally desirable—for example, because of entitlements to expensive medical procedures, adequate general health care, ample housing, abundant income, freedom from random harassment, or other privileges that come with club membership (or, for that matter, not even for such special entitlements, but just to fulfill the common human need to be accepted by others: the need simply “to belong”)—then those who do not happen to meet the membership standards for that club will have an incentive to pretend that they meet them anyway. They will be tempted to feign having the characteristics or properties required for membership, in hopes of being granted admission to the club, and access to all the entitlements that go with membership. If necessary, they may lie about it. They may even lie about it first and foremost to themselves: Driven by their desire for membership and its entitlements, they may actually come to “believe” that they do possess the property that is required for membership, even when they don’t. Such self-deception goes far deeper than any effort on their part to deceive others. Those who suffer from it may honestly believe that they are being completely honest even when they are running a con.

Pretending or feigning even to the point of such self-deception becomes especially likely when the goods or properties required for membership in the club at issue are emotional, dispositional, or propositional in nature, rather than just material. That is, it becomes more likely that such deep self-deception will occur, the more the requirements for club membership involve such matters as how one “feels,” is “inclined,” or “thinks” (“believes”), as opposed to such matters as how much money one has in the bank, what real estate one owns on the beach, or what genes one has in one’s DNA. Successfully feigning that one owns, say, acres of land or millions of dollars is much harder than successfully feigning that one holds certain beliefs, has certain inclinations, or feels certain ways about certain things. What is more, it is much, much harder to deceive oneself about such matters as one’s real estate or bank holdings than it is about such matters as what one holds for true, feels positively or negatively about, or is inclined or disinclined toward.

The greater the desirability of membership in a club, the greater the temptation for those who do not meet the club’s membership requirements to feign meeting them, and, in turn, the stronger the tendency toward self-deception about the matter. When desirability of membership is combined with what we might call the de-materialization of membership requirements—the shifting of such requirements away from possessing certain material goods toward possessing certain beliefs, feelings, or dispositions—the risks of conning oneself by one’s own con rise sharply. Under such conditions, it therefore becomes increasingly difficult, often to the point of impossibility, to tell whether one really does believe, feel, or like and dislike, what one says and even thinks one does, as either an applicant for club membership or an already admitted club member.

The more subtly our feigning is forced upon us, the more subtly our feigning gains force over us. Eventually, honesty itself becomes impossible. One can no longer tell the truth, because one can no longer tell what the truth is. Lies and truth become indistinguishable.


Information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. In courtrooms in the United States and elsewhere, demonstrably forced confessions are legally inadmissible; only voluntary confessions are to be accepted in court proceedings. Whatever is said under duress is subject to doubt.

Similarly, even sworn court testimony from prosecutorial witnesses who have in one way or another been bribed for their testimony—bribed by offers of immunity from prosecution for their own offenses, or shortening of already imposed sentences, for example—is rightly treated with suspicion. So are expressions of contrition by those convicted of crimes and facing harsh sentences, as are professions of gratitude by those in position to expect further rewards for uttering such professions.

What matters in all such cases is that force of one sort or another is exerted to elicit the confession, testimony, expression of sorrow or gratitude, or the like. The force may take a form such as torture or the threat of a death sentence, or it may take such forms as the promise of immunity for one’s own offenses if one will testifies against one’s neighbors. In any form, it remains coercive.

The coercion may also be overt or covert, open or hidden. And as a general rule the more insidious the coercion, the more effective.


And suddenly I began to forgive them for what they had done or had not done. I forgave myself for all my mistakes and for all I had done to hurt others. I forgave the world for how it had treated us.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet***


Forced forgiveness is as unworthy of trust as is forced confession. It does not bring genuine freedom, either for the forgiving or for the forgiven. For the former, forced forgiveness brings no liberation from the bondage of resentment, rancor, and the desire for revenge—a desire that by its own nature can never be fulfilled. For the latter, forced forgiveness can at most occasion an equally forced expression of contrition—contrition that itself remains no more than feigned. Accordingly, it can never bring the freedom from compulsively repeating one’s crimes or other offenses—the freedom to “go and sin no more” that Jesus grants to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John.

Only a fully free and freely offered forgiveness is to be trusted. It alone can bring freedom, either to the forgiver or the forgiven.

However, the freedom to forgive, freedom to offer the free forgiveness that is freeing in turn, does not simply come for the asking. One cannot just wake up one morning and decide on one’s own that it’s time fully and freely to forgive harms one has suffered. Rather, it takes deliberation, and effort. Above all, it takes time. One may truly want to forgive, but find, when one is honest with oneself, that one cannot, at least not until one goes through a painful process.

One major obstacle to granting the deliberation, effort, and time forgiveness must have in order truly to develop, is simply the fear of pain. The natural reaction to the beginnings of pain is to tense up and draw away from it, endeavoring to escape and avoid it. Often, that is exactly what stands behind the rush to forgive prematurely. The fear of pain drives one to profess forgiveness, before one has done the work necessary to allow the possibility for genuine—which is to say, free—forgiveness to form. If the proffered forgiveness is to be freely and genuinely offered, that can only be after one has opened to the full depth of the pain the very infliction of which is what is being forgiven.

There is what is deserving of being called a temptation to forgive, that is, to profess a false forgiveness, one feigned, forced, or both. That temptation is based on the fear of the pain that one would have to feel if one did not forgive as quickly as possible, the pain of fully feeling how deeply one has really been hurt. If one can con oneself into thinking that one has already forgiven, then one can avoid having to keep the wound open, which one would rather not do.

The forgiveness that Jimmy Santiago Baca experienced after finally being freed from many years confinement in a prison system designed to strip him of all his human dignity, an experience he had in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and describes in the citation given above, was no such cheap grace. It was won at the end of a long and difficult and extremely painful struggle, born of a gift of understanding, of insight, into the behavior of all those, including himself, who had harmed him. With that understanding, that insight, came the possibility of freely forgiving himself and everybody else who had brought him such pain—forgiving “the [whole] world” for all the harm it had brought him.

Free forgiveness never comes cheap.

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Much more remains to be said, including in response to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s book. I will try to say some of it in my next post, which will continue this present series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, 1980), p.72. The main title of the original German publication in 1966 was Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which can be translated as “Beyond Guilt and Atonement.” For some reason (I assume it is the time-honored one of attempting to maximize potential sales and therefore profits, but I may be wrong), as the main title of the whole book the publishers of the English edition have chosen to use a translation—itself not entirely satisfying, since the German word Geist, correctly translated by “mind,” is just as correctly translated by “spirit,” though neither English word as currently used fits perfectly as a translation for Geist—of the title of Améry’s first essay. The subtitle of the original German book is Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten, which is more difficult to capture in English than is the book’s main title, at least without losing something in the process. The subtitle given to the English edition of the work, however, does not even make any effort to translate the original subtitle. It just drops it, and substitutes what is meant as a descriptive subtitle of its own—one that I find misleading, even offensive to Améry’s underlying moral and social purpose in writing and publishing the book in the first place. A paraphrase translation that tries to keep the sense of the original subtitle, though admittedly at the price of its verbal elegance, might be “Attempts To Reclaim Power by One Overpowered.” At any rate, the book is indispensable reading for pondering forgiveness, forgetfulness, atonement, and reconciliation. It ought to be required reading in high schools across the United States.

** Groucho Marx used to like to tell the joke that he never wanted to belong to any club with membership standards so low that it would accept someone like him. At one level, that joke can be taken as an amusing self-put-down. But given who Groucho was, and the nature of his humor, so rich in satire, at a deeper level it makes a comment on the nature of “clubs,” and the exclusions on which all clubs—which is to say all closed communities—are based.

*** New York: Grove Press, 2001, page 264.

Published in: on November 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (2)

This is the second in a series of consecutive posts under the same general title.

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Forgiving, Forgetting, and Amnesty


One way never to forget is always to repeat. What is compulsively repeated again and again, over and over one way or another come what may, is never forgotten. It eternally recurs.

As Jean-Louis Chrétien notes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For (Fordham University Press, 2002), it is only what can never be remembered that is truly unforgettable. What is truly never to be forgotten is never to be remembered either. Whatever can be remembered can also be forgotten. Moreover, sooner or later what can be forgotten will be forgotten. If something can be actively remembered, then it is something the keeping in mind of which requires effort. Any effort eventually must tire and flag, including the effort that is required actively to hold something in memory. When that effort does eventually falter, what one until then had been successfully struggling to remember is, despite all one’s efforts, forgotten.

Given such an understanding of what constitutes the genuinely unforgettable, the call of “never forget” applied to some traumatic event such as the Holocaust is always redundant. Trauma cannot be held in memory, not because it is so easy to forget, but because it can never be put there, in memory, in the first place, such that it ever could be forgotten. It will not let itself be forgotten. Instead, the harder we try to forget it, the more compulsively it just keeps on repeating itself over and over and over again in one form or another, as Freud saw and called to our explicit attention a century ago, and as many (including myself) have repeated over and over again after him since then.


There is another way never to forget, however—a way besides compulsively repeating. As paradoxical as it may sound to say so, that other way never to forget is ever to forgive, which at the political-juridical level means to grant amnesty.

To grant amnesty is to let bygones be bygones, as an old cliché has it. To reply with another cliché: That is easy to say, but not so easy to do. It takes resolution—in more than one sense. First, the granting of amnesty takes “resolution” in the sense that it requires being formally announced and committed to.

The resolution of amnesty in that first sense itself requires formally acknowledging the offense for which amnesty is being granted: an amnesty granted for nothing in particular is no amnesty granted for anything at all. One does not let bygones be bygones by pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, pretending that nothing ever really happened is a formula for nursing resentment, rather than granting forgiveness: I may present a friendly face to your face, but really just be waiting for an opportunity to put the proverbial knife in your back when your face is turned. Truly to let a conflict that occurred yesterday go by today requires not only that the conflict be acknowledged, but also that it be honored. That is, truly to grant amnesty or forgiveness requires that the fact of discord not be denied, but recorded and marked, “memorialized.”


At one point in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, a short book published just this year both in its Italian original and in an English translation by Nicholas Heron (Stanford University Press, 2015), but which contains revised versions of two lectures first given in 2001, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses a definitive historical case of the granting of amnesty. Relying on the work of French scholar Nicole Loraux, Agamben writes of how, in Greece in 403 BCE, “following the civil war in Athens which concluded with the defeat of the oligarchy of the Thirty, the victorious democrats, led by Archinus, solemnly pledged ‘not in any instance to remember the past events’ (Ath. Const. 39.6), that is, not to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war.” This, Agamben goes on to say, is “the invention of amnesty.”

According to Agamben, the relevant portion of the Athenian “amnestic oath is usually translated with ‘do not remember’ or even ‘do not be resentful, do not have bad memories (Loraux translates it as je ne rappellerai pas les malheures, I will not recall the misfortunes).” Agamben says that the Greek adjective at issue “thus means ‘rancorous, resentful’ and refers to someone who harbours bad memories.” However, he immediately adds that “it is doubtful” that the Greek verb from which the adjective at issue comes should be taken simply to mean not to cling to one’s unpleasant or painful memories of being harmed. He suggests instead that it “means less ‘to have bad memories’ than ‘to do harm with memory, to make bad use of memories,” then adds: “The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting of a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory.”

The issue of amnesty, so framed, is not whether those who grant amnesty retain painful memories of past harms, as though by granting amnesty they have somehow wiped such memories, and the pain that goes with them, away. Rather, it is an issue of the use to be made of those memories: Those granting amnesty are vowing not to use their memories of past harms against the amnestied, that is, against those who perpetrated the harm.

What I take Agamben to be saying is that a vow not to use memories of some harm someone has done me against the individual who did that harm is indeed a vow not to “harbor” (to use the American rather than the British spelling) whatever “bad” memories I may have of what that individual did. It is precisely the vow, to put the same point just a bit differently by using another of Agamben’s own terms, not to nurture any resentment toward that offender, but instead truly to “let bygones be bygones.”   The bad memories involved here, however, are not “bad” in the sense of being unpleasant or painful to the one who has those memories, as memories of a toothache might well be said to be “bad memories.” Rather, they are bad in intention: They intend, at least at the level of wishes, harm to the one who did harm to the one who has the memories.

Whereas resentment is the harboring of such wishes or intentions to harm back those who have done harm, the granting of amnesty or forgiveness is the decision, which when resolved has the status of a vow or promise, not to harbor any such harmful wishes or intentions, but instead to let them go. “To let bygones be bygones” is just that “letting go” of the past, not some erasure of painful memories.

Indeed, in order for the vow or promise of amnesty to be honored, so must the pain of that for involvement in which the amnesty is granted. Thus, in the case of the ancient Athenian granting of amnesty in 403 BCE, Agamben first writes that the Greek amnesty entailed neither “simply” forgetting nor repressing the civil war that had just occurred, as which could be taken to mean that it did involve such forgetting or repressing, just not only that, but also more as well. But against such misunderstanding, Agamben as it were explains himself by adding immediately that, in fact, civil war cannot be forgotten or repressed, and is instead unforgettable. He writes that stasis or civil war “is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed,” but is, rather, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments,” that is, through deeds or intentions to use the memories of the harm to punish the perpetrators. The painful memories which are an aftershock of the wound for the inflicting of which amnesty is granted serve, in fact, as reminders of the ever present possibility of further wounding, a possibility which must be acknowledged and to which the city must remain open, if it truly to return to itself as a reunited city.

Such an understanding of civil war as a trauma from which the city can never free itself, but which must always be kept open as a possibility in any genuine community reconciliation, is very different from how civil war—and trauma as such, for that matter—is typically understood today. What civil war was for the ancient Athenians, writes Agamben, continuing the same passage cited above, was “[j]ust the opposite [. . .] of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions” (thereby perpetuating the very divisions and conflicts that broke out in civil war in the fist place: politics as the continued pursuit of civil war by other means—a point to which I will eventually return below).

The politics of resentment never forgets precisely because it keeps on compulsively repeating the very thing it is “seek[ing] to render impossible,” that is, seeking to guarantee will “never happen again,” as it is often put. It seeks to close the wound and keep it closed forever. In contrast, the politics of amnesty never forgets because knowing that the possibility of “it” happening again always remains, and that the wound must always, in that sense, be kept open.


Making a vow is one thing, keeping that vow is another. That is the another way in which the granting of amnesty takes resolution. In the sense already explored, the vow must be “resolved” in the sense that it must actually be announced or proclaimed. That is, in one fashion or another it must be performatively uttered. That can take place publicly, as it does when marriage vows are exchanges in a wedding ceremony, for example. Or it can take the private form in which one makes some vow “to oneself,” as a smoker fed up with his habit might vow to himself never to smoke again, without telling anyone else he has done so, or an aspiring musician might silently vow to herself to practice for six hours daily. As those two examples clearly suggest, however, keeping such a resolution takes far greater resolution than just making it. Common experience with “New Year’s resolutions” abundantly confirms that. In truth, the proof of a decision is in the honoring.

Just so must forgiveness, once decided upon and offered, then be maintained. It takes ongoing effort not to lapse back into resentment. In a well-known passage of the Christian Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-22), Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him, wondering aloud if he should do so “as many as seven times.” Jesus replies that rather he should forgive, at least in one common rendition, “seventy times seven times.”

Surely, the point of that saying is not that one should count the number of times the other person gives offense, and only strike back if that number eventually exceeds 490. Nor does one have to take Jesus’ response to mean solely that one should not put a limit to the number of times one is willing to forgive multiple offenses committed by the same person. That can reasonably be taken to be part of what Jesus means, to be sure. However, there is at least one other possible interpretation, which includes that first one but is more expansive, keeping more open. Jesus’s response can also be taken as pointing to the need to keep one’s forgiveness, once extended, going—to maintain one’s offer once made, keeping it open moment by moment. By either reading, at any rate, forgiveness is not a matter to be counted.

Truly forgiving someone for some offense, even for a single harmful act never repeated, is not just a momentary act. It is a decision that, once made, must then be carried out and kept operative. A vow or promise is not just over and done with once made, requiring nothing further from the one making it after that. Once made, the vow or promise must then be kept. If it is not, the one who once made the vow or promise has committed an offense that itself calls for forgiveness.


At least on the basis of the definitive ancient Athenian amnesty Agamben discusses, the reason for the granting of amnesty was nothing such as trying to be good winners or to look magnanimous in the eyes of the vanquished. Nor was it a matter of trying to follow any such moral precepts as doing to others as you would have them to do unto you. Not that there is anything wrong with such notions of right—or, for that matter, with wanting to appear magnanimous or to be a good winner. It is just that none of that is what is really at stake in the Athenian amnesty. Rather, as Agamben himself emphasizes, it is the very life of the polis itself. At issue was the very establishment—or reestablishment, to be precise, since it had been riven in two by the civil war—of the polis or “city” itself. The issue was to renew and preserve the very “civilization” of the civis, we might say, to use the Latin from which our English word city comes.

Thus, the victorious party to the civil war in Athens in 403 BCE granted amnesty to their defeated opponents in order to preserve Athens itself as a true city, civis, or polis: a true “civic community.” Failure to grant such amnesty would in effect have perpetuated the civil war in another form, as I have already remarked above. Not to grant amnesty would have threatened the very continuation of Athens as such a city. Their overriding motivation was to preserve the city as such.

In the very same way, by their own testimony the victims of the recent shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who extended forgiveness to the shooter without even being asked, did so in order to preserve “Mother Emanuel” as the very church, the very “faith community,” that it was. That was central to their motivation.

Thus, in both cases, that of the ancient city of Athens and that of the contemporary church in Charleston, the motivation of those granting forgiveness was grounded at the level of the community as such. In each case, it was a matter of preserving the community itself, as the very community it was. Forgiveness was not granted just for the sake of those being forgiven. Nor was it granted just for the sake of those extending forgiveness. It was done for everybody’s sake.


By chance, on the very day (October 19, 2015) I put up my immediately preceding post, the first in this series on “Making Room for Community,” a follow-up article about the Charleston shootings, which had occurred four months earlier, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article bore the headline of “Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed,” and appeared under the byline of Robert Fausset. It opened this way:

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred an Emanuel A.M.E. Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. . . .

Indeed it was. It was also a grand statement on how Emanuel A.M.E. Church had managed to remain a true church, despite the shootings. Mother Emanuel Church did not react to those shootings by closing up, battening down, and doing whatever else she could to secure herself against any such a horrible thing ever happening again. She resisted the temptation to try to protect herself by shutting out the strangers who came to her doors, a temptation the yielding to which would have been at the price of ceasing truly to be a church, that is, a community of faith, in the fullest sense. Yielding to that temptation would have turned Mother Emanuel instead into a community of distrust, fear, and suspicion, not faith. By closing her doors, Mother Emanuel Church would have closed her doors not only on strangers, but also on herself.

By keeping them open, she kept the faith.

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This series of posts will be continued.

Making Room for Community (1)

This is the first of a series of consecutive posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness, Contrition, and Reconciliation

One should never underestimate the resentment of the wealthy towards the insolence of the poor.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*           


One morning toward the beginning of the summer just recently ended, I was especially struck by the juxtaposition of three different news articles on the front page of the New York Times. It was the morning of Thursday, June 25, 2015. The first of the three articles, in the order I read them, was about the formal sentencing to death, just the day before, of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. The second article was about the shooting just a week earlier, on June 17, of nine African American church members at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The third article was about the far higher incidence in the United States of such homegrown right-wing terrorist attacks as the Charleston church shootings, on the one hand, compared to such Islamic-extremist ones as the Boston marathon bombings, on the other.

The second article I read that morning, addressing the recent shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was actually about the responses to the nine shooting deaths, as voiced by the family members of the victims. The piece described how, in the arraignment hearing for Dylann Roof, the accused shooter, one after another various members of the families of those killed spontaneously, with no prior consultation among themselves, offered forgiveness to that shooter.

In contrast, in the first story I read, about the sentencing to death of Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon shooter, a very different situation was depicted. In that case, as the article presented it, almost all of the Boston victims and victims’ family members who were cited insisted that they did not and would not forgive the bomber. A small number of them, by that and earlier accounts I had read or seen broadcast, did say they were going to forgive, or at least try to. But even in those rare cases, the nature of the forgiveness they offered was very different in foundation and effect from that offered by those involved in the Charleston case—a point to which I will eventually return below.

The third article that caught my special attention that morning was focused on the contrast between the public perception of the source of the greatest “terrorist” threat to America and Americans, and what law-enforcement agents and statistics confirm really to be the case. By the opinion polls, by far the majority of United States citizens identify “Islamic extremism” or the equivalent—such as animated those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001—as being the potential source of “terrorism” most to be feared. However, as recounted in the article, the statistics on which law-enforcement agencies across the county themselves primarily rely demonstrate that, since September 11, 2001, almost twice as many “terrorist” attacks and deaths have been perpetrated by indigenous right-wing, anti-government extremists—such as were Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrators of the pre-9/11 Oklahoma City bombings that remain the second most deadly “terrorist” strike ever on U S soil—as by those claiming some sort of Islamic inspiration.

The juxtaposition of those three different news articles in that morning’s New York Times engendered the thoughts I will share in this post concerning the interplay of three factors: forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation.


In the article about the testimony of the Boston Marathon victims and their families at the Tsarnaev hearing, more than one person cited made remarks to the effect that any forgiveness for Tsarnaev (or his dead brother, the other bomber) would have to be preceded by some show of genuine contrition on his part. In effect, they said that they would not extend any forgiveness to Tsarnaev until after he had first confessed to what he had done, and shown signs of honest regret and desire to atone for it. For them, forgiveness would be extended only after the way had thus been cleared for it by such contrition. Forgiveness was not to be given before such display of honest regret and desire to make amends, but only after it—forgiveness as a sort of after-given, rather than a fore-given, of contrition, as it were.

In contrast, the responses from the victims of the Charleston shootings and their families at the arraignment of Roof, as depicted in the article devoted to them, was strikingly different on just that score. One after another, those who had been made to suffer by the shooter offered forgiveness before it had ever been requested. They made no mention of needing first to have Roof confess to his transgressions and display genuine contrition, before they would offer him forgiveness. They forgave him without him even asking them to.


Another difference between those two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E. Church shootings, that caught my attention as I read about them in that morning’s Times was a matter of ethnic or “racial” differences. The Charleston victims’ voices all came from African American, or “black,” Christians who were freely offering actual forgiveness to a “white” perpetrator, whereas the voices from Boston, the ones that spoke only of a possible forgiveness under certain conditions, came predominantly from “whites,” and were addressed to a Muslim immigrant from Chechnya.

That contrast brought more than one thought to my mind. The first was that a possible “advantage,” as it were, to being a member of the oppressed part of the population rather than the oppressing part—belonging, in a general sense, among the oppressed, rather than among the oppressors—might be that being one of the oppressed may bring with it a sort of freedom to forgive, whereas being one of the oppressors may tend to enchain one to the defense of one’s entitlements.

The second thought that came to me when I noticed the contrast at issue had to do with the generally overwhelmingly positive reaction of the mass media—and apparently of the public that consumes that media—to what the victims said in both cases, despite the obvious differences between the two sets of victims’ responses. Press and public all but unanimously praised the black victims of the Charleston shootings for spontaneously forgiving the perpetrator of those shootings, without him asking for their forgiveness first, or even admitting he’d done anything for which he might need to be forgiven. Yet the same press and public were equally united in voicing approval of the Boston Marathon bombing victims for refusing to forgive the bomber, at least until he had admitted his guilt and expressed sorrow for what he had done. The thought that came to me from the conjunction of those two equally positive public reactions to those two very different cases was a second possible explanation for that phenomenon, besides the one I just mentioned about the constraints of entitlement and the liberty of the oppressed.

What occurred to me was that the more or less institutionally encouraged view in a society such as ours—namely, one riddled by inequalities and inequities, especially along “racial” lines—is that not only is it a right or even a privilege of the oppressed to forgive their oppressors, but it is also what such a society expects or even demands of the oppressed. On the other hand, in such a society it is never a right of the oppressed to strike back against their oppressors—and it is often taken as nothing but do-gooder “political correctness” to talk about any need to forgive them if they dare to do just that.


It is also worth noting that the very few Boston victims who actually did say they forgave the bomber, made a point of explaining that they were doing so solely for their own sake, not for his. In contrast, none of the Charleston victims was reported as saying something similar (at least in the Times article I read that day, or any other accounts I read later, heard, or saw later, for that matter).

As a matter of fact, none of them said they were offering forgiveness either solely for their own sake, or solely for the shooter’s.   Rather, they emphasized that they felt called to offer forgiveness because of who they were as member of the community to which they belonged. They experienced a call to forgive for the sake of their community as such, in order that it might continue to be fostered.

By how it struck me, at least, they can be taken to have meant not only their own community of the faithful at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, but also—and precisely because of the very nature of their own limited Church community—the broader community beyond. What they said can and most probably should be taken to extend, ultimately, all the way out to that open-ended, all-inclusive, worldwide human community that, inspired by their example, we might call the community of universal reconciliation.

Such radical extension well beyond the limits of their own limited African American faith community is strongly suggested, for one thing, by the fact that the white shooter was himself warmly welcomed into the bible study meeting that was going on at the Church when he entered the building. Once inside, he was embraced by the congregation, until he eventually pulled out his gun and began firing. Such openness to others—to any “neighbor” who happened by, whether already known or a complete stranger—as accorded with their understanding of their own Christian faith, was central to the communal identity of the shooting victims themselves.


What interests me about the difference in victims’ responses in the two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston A.M.E. Church shootings, is not a matter of any differences in moral fiber or strength of character of the victims, either individually or collectively (taken one by one or group by group). No such differences were apparent to me from the reports, nor would they be of any special interest to me even if they were. Rather, what interests me in the contrast between the two cases of victims’ responses is that they suggest two very different understandings and models of how the interplay of forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation operates in relation to the emergence, institution, and maintenance of community. What interests me can be put most succinctly, perhaps, in the form of two different answers to the following question: Which comes first, forgiveness or contrition, with what effect upon reconciliation, to establish or reestablish community?

By one understanding, contrition must come first. Contrition, by that understanding, is the condition for the possibility of forgiveness: the sincere expression of regret and desire to atone make the offer of forgiveness possible—though never mandatory, it is important to add. Finally, it is the conjunction of those two, contrition and forgiveness, that then makes reconciliation possible—though again not mandatory: the extension of forgiveness always being voluntary, it may not be offered, which means that reconciliation will not be effected.   That, it seems to me, is the model suggested by the Boston response.

On the other hand, the Charleston response suggests a significantly different understanding and corresponding model. By that second understanding and model, what begins the whole process is forgiveness, rather than contrition. That forgiveness is what then effects, all on its own, reconciliation. That already effected reconciliation, in turn, is what makes genuine contrition possible.


As Augustine teaches, and using his terms, the very awareness of sin is of itself proof that God has already extended the grace of forgiveness for that same sin. It is only such grace that first allows one to become truly aware of the fact of one’s sin: finding oneself being freely and fully offered forgiveness for something one has done is what first of all lets one genuinely experience one’s guilt. Save for the prevenient grace of forgiveness already extended before it is even requested, the offender cannot plumb the depths of the offense, and hence cannot come fully and genuinely to regret his or her offending deed. Unless such unearned, gratuitously offered forgiveness first opens the way, contrition cannot come into its own.

Without such libratory anticipation allowing one to experience one’s real guilt, any expressions of sorrow one might make for what one has done are at best a routine conformity to social expectations, done to forestall any possible unpleasantness. So, for example, when I accidentally brush against someone on the subway or in the grocery-store aisle, I will typically say I’m sorry, just to maintain sociality.

In my judgment there is nothing at all to apologize for in making such purely conventional apologies. They are perfectly acceptable, and even to be respected. It would be boorish not to make them. Nevertheless, such apologies display no real contrition; and that, in turn, is primarily because no real offense has been committed in the first place.

Nor is there really any contrition in cases where I say I am sorry just to avoid being punished for something I’ve done. A child caught stealing cookies from a cookie jar who verbalizes sorrow only in order not to be disciplined—and maybe to protect the supply of cookies within reach, fully intending to steal some more as soon as the coast is once again clear. Or a murderer might tell a judge he is sorry to for his deed in hopes of escaping the death sentence, as many of the Boston Marathon victims thought was true of Tsarnaev’s eventual expressions of sorrow for what he had done.


Communities that define themselves through some property that all and only members of that community possess necessarily exclude everyone else, everyone who fails the qualifying test of ownership, of possession, of the property at issue. Unless one can prove such possession to the satisfaction of the group, one has not met the eligibility requirement for belonging to it. Such communities are built by entitlement, the right of title to the property that defines the group. Along their borders such groups always build walls to keep out the un-entitled—and they always make the excluded and un-entitled themselves pay for those walls, we might add. They are gated communities. Closed tightly in upon themselves, such communities remain unforgiving toward all breaches of their security. They can last only so long as such breaches are contained, and their walled borders remain secure.

All walls come crumbling down eventually, however. Therefore, no such communities—proper communities of property, as it were—last forever. Every empire ends sooner or later.


On the other hand, a community built by forgiveness—such a community as the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, given the witness of the victims of Roof’s white-supremacist attack—is guaranteed to last. Like love itself, such a community lasts forever, even after all the walls of the building in which it is housed come tumbling down. It is as eschatological–as much a matter of eternity now—as the freely offered, unconditional forgiveness that builds it. That is precisely because it is a community built upon openness and inclusion, and can only be maintained by continually erasing its own borders to admit ever again new members, with no end to that particular endless-ness.

Such an eschatological community, built by unconditional forgiveness, is just the sort of community Étienne Balibar, a contemporary French sociologist and political philosopher, describes at one point in Equaliberty (Duke University Press, 2014), a collection of his essays from over the last twenty years.   Balibar at that point (page 93) envisions “a community that itself has no ‘property,’ and thus no common good (no res publica or common-wealth) to preserve, appropriate, or identify with,” a community that “can only be approached in terms of an injunction to make a place for alterity,” and thus “a community without community that has nothing in common but non-property, the resistance of its own members to identifying with some ‘proper.’”

Communities built and maintained by the sort of forgiveness offered to the Charleston shooter by the members of Emanuel African American Church are just such altogether improper communities.

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The next post will continue this series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Robert Hurley, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e) 2015, page 133.