Category Archives: Social Issues
My latest at Eclectica.org.
Terrorism is a reality, if by “terrorism” we mean an act of violence directed at civilians for a political, social or religious purpose to free one’s land of an oppressive or occupying power, to intimidate or drive away an unwelcome minority, to expel an objectionable religious group.
But terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, and certainly not something that exists on its own. It’s the means by which people with a grievance who don’t have the wherewithal to wage outright war can engage its enemy in a violent way. It’s also the choice of governments when they want to intimidate and demoralize a weak adversary. An F-15 is as much an instrument of terror as is a suicide bomber’s belt of explosives.
Terrorism or “terror,” though, has in the last few decades become more than just a word designating a particular kind of violence. It has taken on a much bigger, substantive meaning, just as “evil” came to mean something that exists on it own like a nation-state or an army. We now take up arms against terrorism in much the same way some people believe they are fighting “evil.” It’s our modern equivalent of the Devil or his agents.
There used to be a phenomenon that was seen and treated in much the same way we deal with terrorism today. It was called witchcraft. From the early fifteen to the mid-seventeenth centuries a large number of women – almost always women – inspired fear in the population of Europe. They were believed to be dealing in matters of the occult, had in fact signed a pact with the Devil and consorted with him regularly, sometimes in mass orgies. Almost anyone could find herself accused of witchcraft for unauthorized healing (such women had preserved a knowledge of beneficial herbs from pre-Christian days), for putting a curse on a neighbor or a neighbor’s child, even for being too ugly…or too pretty.
Kill them all, was the response of the authorities, especially the religious ones, Catholic and Protestant alike, the usual punishment being burning at the stake. A similar response is advocated today for all terrorists by politicians of every stripe and carried out by both liberal and conservative heads of state both here in the US and abroad.
No one knows how many women were killed simply for providing bella donna to ease the pain of someone in pain or for incurring the ire of a jealous neighbor. Such was the fear people had of witchcraft that they allowed the authorities the most extreme measures to deal with it, forgoing what today we would consider any right of due process should they be similarly accused, never mind freedom from religious persecution. Anyone could be denounced as a witch, and no doubt objecting to harsh measures taken against women so designated could make you liable to the same charge. Bishops bragged about how many women they had executed in one day – sometimes hundreds.
This was a fever that went on for two centuries in both northern and southern Europe as well as in the American colonies, Salem, Massachusetts being the most notorious. Ironically, it died out in Spain under the Inquisition before it did in the north, probably because they already had so many heretics and other malefactors to deal with. When it ended, it did so remarkably swiftly in the mid-seventeen hundreds, more or less at the same time the beginnings of modern science was being born. It continues today, though, in many parts of the world – India and Africa, to name two. A woman there can be denounced for having caused the death of someone’s child or other relative through occult means or for just about any other ill fortune that visits someone in her village. And the result is the same: a horrible death, though these days carried out by neighbors rather than by an established religion.
We like to think we have progressed beyond a mentality that believes an ordinary-looking woman can ride a broom at night to have a rendezvous with the Prince of Darkness. But human nature has been remarkably consistent throughout recorded history. Before we cheer on the next drone strike or look the other way when a Muslim neighbor is hauled off to prison without benefit of the law we believe will protect us from such treatment, we should think again. To rephrase words spoken with remorse after the last great witch hunt of our civilization, the Nazi era: If we say nothing when they come for Muslims or undocumented immigrants and torture and imprison them without a public outcry, the witch-hunters may end up coming for us as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. The “I have a dream” speech was played and replayed as if it were on an MP3 player’s endless loop setting. The more adventurous media aired some of his other, more ecumenical orations in opposition to the Vietnam war or the evils of unleashed capitalism. To the best of my knowledge, no miracles were attributed to Dr. King, but his birthday was celebrated in a fashion very much like that of a Christian saint.
I suspect this kind of memorial would displease him greatly. If he was half the man we make him out to be he would be appalled that the result of his life’s work has come to focus so much on him instead of on what he stood and died for. No doubt he had his weaknesses, possibly even one for public adulation, but he cared too much about the goals he had for his nation to want any serious distraction from them in the way of personality cult or hagiography.
But personality, real and imagined, rather than what they said and did, is what we prefer to focus on in our great social and religious figures. How much of Christianity is devoted to worship of the man – or god-man – Jesus rather than to his words? The itinerant rabbi who may or may not have believed he was the Messiah but preached a precious, perennial message of hope and love with deep Jewish roots going back to the prophet Isaiah was turned into a Greek deity through whom and only through whom we must seek to save ourselves from eternal hellfire. Protestants believe they can achieve this by a deep act of faith accepting a still-living Jesus as their personal savior. Roman Catholics believe they can only do so by obeying the precepts and availing themselves of the sacraments of what they consider the one true church.
There seems to be no cognitive dissonance for either Protestants or Catholics to have a deep and abiding faith in this Jesus and then go and behave in ways that would surely have appalled him. Catholic soldiers can receive what they believe to be the flesh of God into their bodies and then slaughter men, women and children not just with impunity but with divine approbation. Protestants, themselves no slouches when it comes to slaughter, can tease out of the gospels assurance that their material prosperity is promised, indeed guaranteed, by those same gospels.
It’s as if we would rather have the vessel than the contents, rather the man or superman constructed out of our own personal desires and imaginations than deal with the truths he espoused and the imperatives that flow from them. Jesus knew enough about human nature to predict we would react this way when he said that few in any generation would hear his message. Dr. King was perhaps more hopeful, or at least he spoke and acted as if he was, insisting we could find justice in this life if we wanted to. But the message was not the man in either King’s or in Jesus’s case. The message is neither enhanced nor diminished by the virtues or foibles of the messenger, though it’s only human nature to see it as being so. And the message is certainly not identical with the man or woman him/herself, especially when a cult of the person results in distraction from the content of the message.
It does not take a divinity or even a saint to speak truth – if Einstein had been a total reprobate, a moral slug, instead of the compassionate man he was, would his Theory of Relativity be less valid? – but it does take an open mind and an open heart to hear that truth and something more as well to act on it.
But language does not simply write and think for me, it also dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. —Victor Klemperer
That language does our thinking for us is an idea that’s at least 300 years old. But it’s no less true today than it ever was. Of course, what it means is that the words we use to think with already contain the conclusions for the concepts we believe we are examining objectively. We are in effect hemmed in by the fence of the vocabulary which is also the range of our possible ideas, unless we are able and choose to “think outside the box.”
Even a casual reading of authors of other eras than our own, especially of those we don’t place among the great contributers to Western thought, reveals how hidebound they were by the received ideas of their time. Sometimes their naivety is amusing. Our typical reaction to them is, Thank God we have gotten beyond such simplistic notions.
Only, we haven’t. Our own thinking is just as constrained as theirs was, perhaps more so thanks to the influence of mass media. In America we believe we have absolute freedom to think about anything we want in any way we like and then to express those thoughts as publicly as we wish. And that’s true, but we rarely do think anything outside the framework our media and our educations invisibly draw for us. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about race or gay rights or any other issue, but we, most of us, accept the concepts of “race” and “gay” unthinkingly. Even those of us who want to go beyond the confines imposed by those words find it next to impossible to do so and still go on referring to “mixed race” or “bi-racial” children, even if we know the word race has no valid meaning and is entirely a creation of social and economic forces….
My latest in Eclectica:
“We have to stop pretending we live in a post-racial society. We have to start talking about race again—not class—as the determining factor in the lives of both white and non-white Americans. Otherwise, we’re just kidding ourselves.”
I got to know Roberta Harris (not her real name) through the man who occupied the house next door to hers, two of a row of half-dozen narrow half-lot fake-clapboard two-storey homes across the street from the apartment building where I and my wife live. Half a lot in this case amounts to no more than 15 or 20 feet, barely enough for a small living room and entrance hallway in the front half of the first floor, with a long dining room and kitchen behind. Upstairs, which I never visited, were two long narrow bedrooms and bath. In this limited space Roberta lived with her second husband and at least two, perhaps three, grown children. She had previously owned a substantial brick building on the same block consisting of two full-size apartments in which she had raised a total of six offspring, two of whom had died before I met her. That was when she was still employed as an administrator at a local high-rise residence for senior citizens. At the point we became friends, she was retired and confined to a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes, but she still enjoyed a good deal of respect from her days as the “mayor of 17th Street.”
Her next-door neighbor, Don Shoon, (not his real name) was a bachelor who had bought his own house back in the early 1970s for $8,000 when a brownstone in nearby Park Slope could still be had for under $50,000 (they sell for as much as $3 million today). He lived in it with his widowed mother until her death in the 1980s. When I met him in the early 1990s, Don was in his mid-50s, a few years younger than Roberta, a short, round, bald, toothless man with a physical appearance totally at odds with his courtly Brooklyn manners (Brooklyn’s the only place I’ve lived where men formally address women as “my dear,” though it sometimes takes “foreigners” a while to realize they are not being familiar) and a supreme confidence in his ability to charm the socks off any female he chose. His formal education had ended 40 years earlier when he was expelled from Brooklyn Automotive for gang activities. He then went to work as a stock boy for a Manhattan publishing house and had recently retired on the promise of a lump-sum pension check. He was “white,” vehemently so, an open admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. Roberta was decidedly not white, an émigrée from the Deep South where she had lived through the last decades of segregation, a woman for whom racism of the kind Don flirted with (partly for dramatic effect, I came to suspect) was more than something to experience via Hollywood or TV.
Two more unlikely friends would be hard to imagine. Yet, there they were, just he and his dog in his little doll house of a home and Roberta, her house literally attached to his, still responsible for two grown sons, one an unemployed man in his mid-20s who had spent time unsuccessfully in the Marines and his younger half-brother, one of two children by her second husband, who was attending a local two-year college…. Read the rest of the article.
“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” -Isaiah, as quoted by Frederick Douglass
The founding myths of nations are created after the fact, after the thing itself is secured. Then the story is put about by that nation’s leading historians that the land rightly belongs to the people of that nation because they have lived there since time immemorial, since the Gauls, the Teutons, since Socrates and Moses. History for these historians is no impediment. It is simply ignored. The bloodlines are verified, the big lie of “the people” is given official endorsement by the intellectual elite which exists largely for this purpose.
Every year at this time we renew our faith in our own founding myth, that of the day we declared our separation from Great Britain, our Independence Day. On that day we became a people too. We did not do so, like the Greeks of the 19th century, who were more Slav than Greek or the Italians of that time who varied from descendants of
Visigoths in the north to the progeny of North Africans in the South, because we had inhabited this continent ever since the beginning of time. We claimed a right to self-governance because we formed a nation of free men, free “white” men at least, who deserved self-rule on their own soil as much as did any Dutchman or Englishman.
It was very much an 18th-century argument, based on reason and “natural law,” derived from the great French thinkers of the Enlightenment and from middle-class rebels of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of the century before. The racial — today we would say “ethnic” — argument for nationhood that arose in the 19th century, a product of Romanticism, was about blood not reason. And if there is a good definition for Roman-ticism it is “storybook thinking.” Walter Scott provided the rationale for a Scottish people, Wagner for a German one.
It is no accident that racism in its modern sense flowers at the same time as the idea of a separate nation-state for every people. The formula Blood = Land is as basic to the Wilsonian principle of Self-determination as it is to the Nazi idea of racial purity. The word anti-Semitism dates to 1882, and as should be obvious denotes not a religious but an ethnic group, a “people” (also a modern concept) with a common language and culture. Africans and other non-white peoples became scientifically distinguishable at that time as a kind of sub-species of the higher, northern-European race. Modern genetics has since demolished that idea, but our presidents no less than our intellectuals and ordinary citizens still speak of “race” as if it were based at least to some degree on biology. Think how readily we use the word “bi-racial.”
On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Rochester Hall, New York. Douglass, of course is himself the preeminent abolitionist, a man who escaped slavery and went on to champion not just the cause of freedom for American slaves but for all people, including the near-slaves of Ireland who received him with great warmth.
The first part of his speech (the full text is available here and is well worth reading to the end) is restrained, even apologetic in tone, though he carefully maintains a wording that places him as an outsider to the festive observances
of the 4th of July. Later in the speech he makes up for his earlier diffidence with a thundering indictment of the American nation, the most famous passage from which is:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
That was then, we might say, this is now. Things have changed.
They have indeed. There was a Civil War in the offing that would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, most of them what we call “white,” who as the war progressed believed they were fighting as much against slavery as against the secession of the Southern states from the Union.
After the North’s victory in that war there was a period of Reconstruction, barely a decade, during which the former slaves enjoyed something like freedom. But then the North withdrew and left the South again to its own devices which promptly included a new system of social and economic repression of the freed slaves that was almost as beneficial to their former masters as was chattel slavery. That was the beginning as well of Jim Crow, the de facto apartheid system under which Southerners of African ancestry lived until the latter part of the 20th century.
What kind of speech would Frederick Douglass make today if he could come back and give one? Early on in the talk he gave in Rochester he speaks of the youthfulness of the American nation, how it is easier for a young nation to make changes than it is for one that has been doing things the same way for many centuries. He lauds the Founding Fathers for the principles they espoused: love of liberty, putting country before self, bravery. He calls upon America to make good use of those virtues and end the abominable practice of slavery, though it’s clear by his words that he sees a nation whose citizens would rather celebrate the greatness of their ancestors once a year than emulate that greatness in the present.
The last time I checked there was still no major museum to the atrocity of American slavery or the genocide of the American Indian. Our righteous emotions are reserved for foreign travesties committed by foreigners, not by God-fearing Americans. Our sins go unacknowledged, our glories loudly celebrated.
But there is a school of thought that would say Douglass was too generous in his depiction of the motives of the revolutionaries of 1776. The scholar Gerald Horne is one such. Professor Horne’s research (The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States) argues the American Revolution was fought in large part to avoid the abolition of slavery toward which Britain was moving. The end of slavery would have meant a major economic adjustment for the colonies. The fact that slavery was in fact expanded after independence, just as it had been expanded earlier after it was deregulated by the British crown, taking it out of the hands of the King and placing it in those of the entrepreneurial class, makes this argument seem all the more plausible.
A similar argument has been made by other historians who maintain that the British when they made treaties with the Indians did so more or less in good faith, while the colonists never intended to honor those treaties and waged a revolutionary war largely to free themselves from the restraints placed upon them by the crown from pushing Indian tribes further and further west, in the process destroying their civilizations, not to mention the slaughters that occurred when they resisted displacement.
Those two motives — removal of restraint by the mother country on further westward expansion and forestalling Britain’s declaring slavery illegal — seem to me sufficient in themselves to explain the Revolution without bringing in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Among the long list of grievances brought against the crown in the Declaration is the following:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It takes a certain cheek to write words like that after the way Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples for the previous two centuries.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out the colonists had fought against the French settlers in America in the so-called French and Indian War, 1754-1763, the American version of the Seven Years War in Europe. During this war some of the Indians who fought on the French side did indeed torture and massacre British captives, something Mr. Jefferson & Co. chose not to forget. But the outcome of the war was that France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, and French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (including New Orleans) was ceded to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain. This opened up vast new territories which the colonists saw as their manifest destiny to populate with their kind, the indigenous people on that land being mere obstructions to that God-given purpose.
There is no mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and only a political one in the later Constitution which allowed the South to count 3/5’s of its slave population as citizens for the purpose of gaining more representation in Congress than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The very silence of the Founders on
the subject of slavery in their official documents, though, speaks loudly. A nation economically dependent on a system of chattel slavery was an embarrassment to everything those high-minded men claimed to stand for in their fine words about all men being created equal. And, as Douglass points out, then and in his own day there was no question but that the master class knew the humans they owned and worked like animals were human beings. In the early days of settlement as well they recognized the native people’s humanity, depended on their knowledge and know-how for their own very existence. Later, when the settlers had the upper hand and had demoralized the Indians they regarded those peoples with contempt.
There’s nothing uniquely American about our refusal to face up to our national disgraces, the results of which continue to plague tens of millions of our fellow citizens as well as the descendants of those indigenous peoples we exiled and slaughtered. Turkey has yet to acknowledge its genocide of the million Armenians slaughtered in 1919. Japan refuses to take responsibility for their own massacres in China and elsewhere. The Allied Powers of the second world war prefer not to talk about the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, which caused more civilian deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If hypocrisy is an indication of a bad conscience, we have a bad conscience of epic proportions. There’s no reason why we could not celebrate the independence of this nation without leaving out the moral and practical work which, more than two centuries later, still needs to be attended to. A true celebration of the Fourth would include a bill of grievances that is still outstanding, starting with a factual account of how our nation was cobbled together out of the land of other peoples, and not just Indians. One third of the United States was taken by force from Mexico, though to what extent Mexico itself had a legitimate right to “own” that land I’ll leave to a Mexican to determine. The consequences of several long centuries of slavery and then the slightly more subtle forms of repression and abuse that followed must also be dealt with if we are ever to be morally whole as Frederick Douglass hoped we would be.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate the 4th as we always do, with fireworks and hot dogs, no more thinking of the nation’s unfinished business than a child does. We have in effect decided we have done enough. We have other fish to fry — “terrorists” to kill or torture, foreign “enemies” to contain or punish.
The American empire, like all others, will fall eventually, and not all it stood for will be seen as hypocrisy and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if before that day of judgment arrives we could add to the list of things we did well the setting right of the outstanding moral obligations bequeathed to us by those same sons of the revolution we make so much of on this July 4th? We are only a century and a half older than we were when Douglass held out the hope that a nation as young as the United States could still mend its ways.
Or are we like the drunk who would rather have another drink to forget what he hasn’t the will to face and overcome? Perhaps we are not young after all, not high-minded, and perhaps never were. Someone said a hypocrite is salvageable because he at least acknowledges virtue even though he chooses vice. Beneath our self-inflicted national amnesia there is a broad reservoir of decency in our people not shared by most of its elected officials and other elite. If that decency were to be mobilized and expressed, not even the powers-that-be could resist it and we could claim in good faith and with a clear conscience to be the nation we like to believe ourselves to be.
Easily the most accessed post on this blog over the past year has been “BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!” Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough so that the link there to this blog posting shows up on the first or second search page, depending on what wording you use. I suspect these searches are students trolling for material to use in term papers. Even so, if they actually read the posting they may be exposed to a different take on the novel, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Finn should be banned not because it’s use of an offensive word but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? They might actually start thinking for themselves.
I wrote this piece before the new edition of the novel came out in which the word “nigger” has been changed to “slave.” The N-word, as it is now known, is problematic and certainly controversial. But one thing it is not is out of use. I hear it spoken all the time, and not just spoken by African Americans. White kids refer to each other as “nigger,” with no offense or even racial reference intended. African Americans refer to each other using the word in a benign, even affectionate way. I’ve even heard one person use it to refer to his automobile: “The nigger wouldn’t start!” And, of course, and all too frequently, people use it as an insult or as a slur.
The difference between those who take offense at its use and those who use the word freely and without any offense intended seems largely to be one of generation. Two African American friends of mine of a certain age both bristle at the reference to the word, while their children’s generation use it blithely as if it meant nothing more objectionable than “guy” or “dude.”
But the point of my article is that getting into a wax about the N-word misses the real social and political bombs in Huckleberry Finn: Huck’s deliberate and well-thought-out choice to violate his conscience and help the slave Jim escape, thus willingly damning himself to hell by doing what he clearly recognizes is the wrong decision; and an episode in the novel that denigrates the character of the army, any army. Unless I am the first person to notice these two flagrant assaults on traditional morality, the fuss about the N-word can almost seem like an attempt to divert attention away from more serious issues within the book.
But I am neither original nor are the folk upset with the use of the N-word in the book that thoughtful. Objecting to the N-word is an easy way to look and feel morally upright without having to spend precious time or calories (the brain uses 30% of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else’s thoughts. Never mind what I said above about the contradictory ways the word is expressed and received by people in the same family. What about the way it was used in the South during the antebellum period in which the novel is set? What did it mean to the people who spoke it then in that place? Could Twain have used some other word without sacrificing verisimilitude? Was he too dense or too uncaring to do so?
There are lots of things wrong with this novel plot-wise and in other ways. Great novels of the past are rife with faults, largely caused by authors’ laziness, bad taste and carelessness, as V.S. Pritchett points out in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Those books are nevertheless great works of art. More recent novels by comparison, well-crafted and meticulously edited, are flawless as literary artifacts but rarely rise above the mediocre as literature. I suspect Twain gave serious thought to what he was doing when he let Huck Finn and the other characters speak the words real people used. About that he was not careless or lazy. Nor was he tasteless. And banning words, like banning books, is not a good idea. Nor is it effective except to make readers, especially young readers — those delicate souls the banners are trying to protect — eager to look up the naughty word for themselves.
Meanwhile, I suggest you read or reread the novel (it wasn’t until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim), in the original. And, then, “discuss.”
This year’s is supposed to be an especially good one: the best defensive team against the best offensive one. I have no favorite. I hardly follow professional football. I grew up watching it on TV, and my brother played for our home town high school team (one of my home towns; we moved a lot) whose colors happened to be the same as the professional baseball team the family rooted and sometimes wept for. The town was located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island, but in many ways it might have been in Indiana or some other part of the interior mainland of the country. It was as sports-crazy as any Southern or Midwestern community, politically conservative and, at least in the case of the religion in which I was raised, extremely religious.
My other older brother also played high school football. His best friend died as the result of a ruptured spleen he suffered during a practice scrimmage. That was my first experience of someone being seriously injured in a sports contest, in this case a very up-close experience — I can still remember how deeply shaken my brother was by his friend’s death. Nowadays the media are full of reports and debates about head concussions and their long-term effects, starting with kids in the youngest junior leagues. Back then a fatal injury like was just one of those things, a freak accident.
But it’s not the brutality of football I want to discuss here. All sports are dangerous (the last I heard, baseball players are more frequently injured than any other athletes). Football is just more obviously brutal than other sports, with the obvious exception of professional hockey which looks as barbaric as professional wrestling but unlike professional wrestling is not play-acting. What I have in mind is not the violence of the sport, any sport, but the reasons why we celebrate achievement in sports in the first place.
There’s a direct connection between a nation that places high emphasis on athletic prowess — as well as the qualities that promote it: physical conditioning, team-spirit, victory above everything else — and militarism. They go hand in hand, or maybe the better metaphor would be “in lock-step.” In the early years of the twentieth century college football was in serious decline, so much so that a president of the United States took steps to revive it. He didn’t do so out of a personal love for the sport. He understood that without a rigorous athletic regimen in the schools the quality of the American military force would be diminished. If that president were alive today he would be very happy on that account. Not only does every small town cheer on its local high school teams (sometimes with a prayer before kickoff), but college football, basketball and to some extent baseball are all thriving and have become an industry worth billions of dollars to those schools and to the media networks that air their games.
We like to think militarism is something only bad nations engage in. Our military is for defense. As such, why shouldn’t we want it to be as efficient and strong as possible? That’s a reasonable conclusion to a false premise. Our history is full of military adventures and continues to be so, from the genocidal ones we waged against the original native populations to those we undertook against our neighbors on this continent and in the Caribbean to our most far-flung wars in places like the Philippines and Southeast Asia and now the Middle East. Those were not defensive wars by any stretch of the military imagination. They were imperialist wars — more like slaughters in many cases.
This week our current president gave his annual State of the Union speech. Toward the end — the best time for whipping up patriotic hysteria — he introduced a victim (the preferred word is “hero”) of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, a young man who received serious, enduring and disfiguring injuries as a result of that explosion. The reaction: standing ovation. You might say: standing ovation all across the nation. No one would not show support for a wounded veteran and by inference the cause in which that wound was sustained, would they? On that we should agree, is the implication of this kind of political theater. An enthusiastic applause is pretty much guaranteed from congress members and other government officials very few of whom have enlisted or ever would enlist in the military. Had the president introduced the young soldier as the victim of an unnecessary war and asked his audience to look upon the pitiful result of our militarism in action, congress might have passed a motion for the president’s impeachment the next morning, if not sooner.
Sport, at least the kind of emphasis we place on it, is virtually synonymous with militarism. That’s why the fascists and the Nazis placed so much stress on sports while at the same time downgrading intellectual activity to the point of ridicule. Our received history is otherwise on the following, but I found a passage in Victor Klemperer’s book on the language of the Nazi regime (The Language of the Third Reich) compelling in this regard. He lived through that period in Germany, and he describes the support given by the Hitler regime to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin as absolute to the point of not only praising foreign “Negro” athletes who won medals but for celebrating, even allowing the German people to idolize, their ace German fencer who everyone knew was a Jew under the Nuremberg Laws. Why? Because a fit body in an empty mind was the goal the Nazis, like any totalitarian regime, aimed at. And this occurred at games from which the United States withheld a star runner because that runner was Jewish and our government did not want to offend the Fuehrer!
Sports the way we foster and idealize them in this nation embody and inculcate the qualities we want and need for an elite military. In addition to strengthening bodies and instilling team spirit and unquestioning loyalty, they build character — an amorphous term we prefer to leave that way. At the turn of the twentieth century, George Orwell relates in his essay on his school days, faculty considered the boy in the schoolyard who made others bend to his will, suck up to him, run his errands, as a young man of “character.” Today we would call that boy a bully, not because of the effect he has on other boys but because of the methods he uses: physical force, coercion, etc. His bullying should be channeled into more acceptable activities like politics and corporate management.
The Nazis stressed athletic metaphors throughout their twelve years in power, but never so much as when they were losing the war. Goebbels was frequently on the radio, reminding the German people it didn’t matter who was ahead in the game but who was in the lead at the game’s conclusion, who breasted the tape last, who scored the knockout punch. Happily, we Americans have never had to resort to that kind of self-delusion, have we. Or was our insistence that we lost the war in Vietnam “at home” such an excuse? Have we embargoed and boycotted Cuba because the regime there is communist or out of spite because we “lost” that island in 1959? Did we go to war illegally and immorally in Iraq because we believed Saddam Hussein had nuclear and/or chemical weapons or because we resented his still being in power a decade after we had ignominiously defeated him in the “Mother of All Battles” (isn’t it interesting — it certainly would be to Klemperer — how that expression “mother of” has entered our language almost as just another intensifier?).
So, no, I guess I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year, because when I see those 300-pound linemen butting heads with a ferocity that would kill a bull I can’t help thinking this game is really just a less lethal version of what the gladiators did to each other in the Coliseum as the crowd yelled and cheered exactly the same as they will do on Sunday. And that exercise of athletic prowess, in both cases, is actually a preparation for the real thing, whatever other purposes it may serve as entertainment. May the best Uebermenschen win.
My latest at Eclectica:
(For an ongoing discussion of this topic and other ideas it has spun off, please go to the comments section at the bottom of this page.)
War is a game—a lethal game (or “match,” if you like), but a game nonetheless. In the modern era, for the last couple hundred years, we all participate, if only passively as victims of its atrocities, assuming we don’t do so as combatants. It’s a game that affects everyone, but it still comes down to a winner and a loser, the contest decided by “sides” that perform and are directed in much the same way a more conventional sport like football or basketball is coached and managed.
This is a thought that has been growing on me for some time but only became obvious during my recent reading of Victor Klemperer’s diaries of the Third Reich (I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945). If the Nazis had fielded a soccer team instead of an army, and their opponents had done the same, and the outcome of the conflict including the fates of the populations of all the nations involved depended on who won the match, then the way the war was conducted, I mean the mentality of it, would not have been much different…. Read more.
I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941 & 1942-1945
A Diary of the Nazi Years
By Victor Klemperer
Victor Klemperer was a professor of French literature, specializing in the Enlightenment, employed at the Technical University of Dresden at the time the Nazis came to power in 1933. At that point in his career he already had a few scholarly works in print and was planning another, a project on the 18th century he continued researching and writing until circumstances forced him to postpone that work. But he did continue the personal diary he had begun many years earlier, now with the purpose of documenting not the big picture of Nazism in Germany (he would leave that to historians) but the experience of it by a single individual, along with other ordinary personal matters he had been recording for decades.
The fact that the Nazis considered him a Jew despite his conversion to Protestantism in his youth put him in the bulls-eye of their abuse. But he was married to an “Aryan,” and on that account some of the harshest measures heaped on non-Aryans were sometimes blunted or postponed, including shipment to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where most of Dresden’s Jews were to meet their deaths. He had to wear the yellow star, avoid contact with Aryans, not use public transportation, subsist on starvation rations, and would in fact have been sent off to his death within a few days had not British Lancaster bombers rained fire on the population of Dresden, Aryan and non-Aryan alike, in the spring of 1945, allowing Victor and his wife Eva to escape the city and leave behind his Jewish identity by claiming his identification papers were destroyed in the fire.
There are plenty of books about the Nazi era. What’s so special about the Klemperer diaries? Why would I recommend these two volumes to anyone interested in learning what the Hitler regime was like over any work by a professional historian, however worthy that study may be?
My answer has to do with the special character of the diaries, their combination of documentation of a horror growing worse with each passing day (everyone Klemperer talks to believes such an absurd regime will surely fall within months) and the details of a middle-aged upper-middle-class couple’s life, including the stresses and strains on their marriage, not all of them the result of Nazi oppression. One quickly comes to feel one is living with the Klemperers, if only as a fly on the wall, as they struggle to complete the construction of their “dream house” in a suburb just outside Dresden — Eva’s obsession despite their having to subsist on a modest pension after her husband losses his university post.
The daily visits to the house site as they scrape together the money to lay a foundation, then construct modest living quarters and, of course, a garden, seem like an exercise in futility, given what the reader knows is going to happen a few years later. You want to shout at them, “Get out! Get out!” But Eva is determined to have her house, partly, one suspects, because she had given up her own career as a musicologist and performer in favor of her husband’s career. Besides, Hitler really did seem too extreme, too downright surreal, to last much longer (odd, that in America he was seen as a “moderate” who would keep the Bolshevik menace in check). And, besides, as the author of these diaries keeps asserting, he, Victor Klemperer, is a German, a real German, not like the aberrations who had taken over his country, though his faith in that identity is sorely tried over the next twelve years.
The course of the Klemperer marriage, however inadvertent, is continuous and detailed. In the ’30s, Victor is careful to not complain about Eva’s morning fits or constant dental emergencies or her obsession with the house, but the reader wonders what is going on in the woman’s mind, when (with the hindsight of history) the dreadful future seems so clearly written on the wall. But as the years pass and the noose tightens economically and in every other way around the necks of Jews, Eva meets each new deprivation with remarkable personal resources, not just sharing all of her husband’s social and economic disabilities but assisting neighbors in need in the “Jews houses” where the Klemperers are finally forced to live, right down to scrubbing their floors. She also risks her freedom (as an Aryan she could have secured her own status simply by divorcing him), if not her life, by smuggling the manuscript pages of his diary to an Aryan safe house. Using her Aryan ration card she spends hours each day scrounging for food (mostly potatoes, sometimes rotten). And, yet, the Klemperers maintain a remarkably active social life, mostly with others marked as Jews but also with a handful of Aryans.
In the end, the diaries reveal the slow maturing of two human beings who are already well into middle age at the point the diaries open. Victor evolves from a slightly ivory-towerish academic into a more fully rounded person capable of both empathy and a sense of complexity for the people, all the people, he lives among; Eva, from a house-hungry spouse with possibly a grievance about the loss of her own chance at a career into a courageous and devoted spouse and neighbor. Their marriage and love for one another grows stronger with each new stress placed upon them. What seems in the early pages of the diaries a marriage held together perhaps largely by routine and convenience, by its mid-point has become a thing of unshakable devotion and deep affection.
The diaries provide documentation of many different aspects of German society under the Third Reich, despite the restriction of their being written from one man’s point of view. Among these is the obvious fact that many Germans had no use for Hitler, were sympathetic to those the Nazis designated as Jews or otherwise non-Aryan and, as might be expected in a situation where getting the wherewithal just to survive became more and more difficult, were largely ignorant of the strictures Jews were living under. Why else would they risk their own freedom and lives by befriending and assisting individual Jews? There is a naïveté about some of their expressions of support — a stranger crossing the street to shake the hand of someone wearing a yellow star (much to the chagrin of the person wearing it, knowing how dangerous such an act was, primarily for the star-wearer); a shopkeeper slipping extra food into the bag of someone wearing the star and offering a whispered word of encouragement to hang on, it won’t be long now till the war is over.
There are far too many of these acts, some of them a good deal more substantial than what I’ve indicated, to put them down to anything other than sincerity. And on the question of what ordinary Germans knew about the “Final Solution,” even Jews themselves didn’t realize what shipment to Theresienstadt meant until the last year or two of the war. For a time they even entertained a belief that in Theresienstadt they would at least have a better diet and get decent medical care. It’s hard to believe non-Jews could have known something more, at least not ordinary working stiffs, despite the manic, irrational broadcasts by Goebbels blaming “World Jewry” for all the evils in the world (in one he insists the Jews using their American dupes were bombing Rome in order to destroy Christianity, just a first step in their plan to kill all the gentiles in the world). Even when the truth becomes clear about Auschwitz and the other death camps, some supporters of Hitler insist the Fuehrer could not have known about the camps because he was a “man of peace.”
“…National Socialism was already [in 1923] …powerful and popular. Except that at the time I did not yet see it like that. How comforting and depressing that is! Depressing: Hitler really was in line with the will of the German people. Comforting: One never really knows what is going on. Then the Republic seemed secure, today the Third Reich appears secure.”
But he also writes, later:
“There is no German or West European Jewish question. Whoever recognizes one, only adopts or confirms the false thesis of the NSDAP and serves its cause. Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else…. The anti-Semitism, which was always present, is not at all evidence to the contrary. Because the friction between Jews and Aryans was not half as great as that between Protestants and Catholics, or between employers and employees or between East Prussians for example and southern Bavarians or Rhinelanders and Bavarians. The German Jews were part of the German nation, as the French Jews were a part of the French nation, etc. ”
There seem, in fact, to be two distinct kinds of (Aryan) Germans in these diaries: Nazi thugs who descend on Jews’ apartments, beat up the old women and men and steal the butter off the table before trashing the place; and “ordinary” Germans, even officials like local police who, when they had to visit the Jews Houses, doffed their hats, shook hands, apologized for the intrusion and even offered words of reassurance. One wonders how this could be the same country, never mind the same city. These “good” Germans give Victor hope, though by the end he believes the entire nation will have to be reeducated in the values he believes to have been essential to German culture dating back to the Enlightenment (he blames Romanticism for Nazism). He, happily, lives to see that day and even to reclaim his former professorship at the Technical University of Dresden, which lay then in the Soviet zone and becomes part of East Germany.
One wonders why these diaries are not more widely read as firsthand witness for that horrific period of German history. Is it because life as Klemperer records it is too complex for our sound-bite culture (some of the older men in the Jews House cheer for the Wehrmacht — they had fought against the Brits and French in the first world war and can’t bring themselves to change sides). Is it because he insists early on that Zionism and Nazism are ideologically the same thing: blood = land? I keep expecting him to change his mind about Zionism after the slaughter of Jews goes into high gear in 1942-43, but he sticks to his guns. He fully expects to be one of the slaughtered, watches as his neighbors are taken away in twos and threes. He loses his faith in the Germany he believed in before 1933, but he never loses faith in the principles he believes that culture exemplified at its best.
It’s impossible to summarize a work as varied and rich as these diaries, never mind give a sense for the experience of living through those years vicariously with the Klemperers. The diaries end in 1945 with a return to their suburban home after living for several weeks as refugees in Bavaria. But that return is, of course, just another beginning. The volume of the diary that takes up where these two leave off extends as far as 1959 and was published in Britain, but not in the US. Klemperer died the following year, 1960, of a heart attack.