We might as well try: Can you hear me?

27 11 2012

I almost turned off the radio.

I’m not a big fan of This American Life as it is—I don’t hate it, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it, either—but this story, ohhh, I couldn’t stand it:

The Dakota War of 1862, the lead-up to and aftermath which led to decimation of the Dakota nation and dispossession of their lands.

The entire episode is devoted to the war, how it’s taught in Minnesota today, what it means in Minnesota, and by extension, the United States, today. If you don’t know the history, listen to it; if you do know the history, listen to it.

I half-knew the story, and made myself listen all the way to the end because I thought, Goddammit, you can’t turn away. You can’t stop listening just because it’s hard.

I used to have such a strong stomach for atrocity. It sickened and horrified and angered me, but I was driven by the twin senses that if others could live through it, I could at least read what they lived through, as well as the notion that maybe, somehow, such witness could be turned to good use. If attention were paid to genocide and abuse and injustice, such attention might lead to survival and protection and justice.

There’s something to that, I’d guess: The whole world is watching! is meant both to exhilarate and to warn. Amnesty letter-writing campaigns have apparently altered the conditions or lengths of sentences for many political prisoners. Human rights activism from afar can embolden those near, and efforts to get the State Department or the president to express concerns about this person or that group can make a difference.

At some point, however, I lost my stomach for atrocity, and whether as cause or result of my turning away, lost the belief that witness—or, at any rate, my witness—mattered. I turned away.

I can beat myself over this. After all, there’s a self-absorption in turning-away, a kind of thinking that my despair is the point, but, honestly, there was a self-absorption in the attention as well, a kind of thinking that my involvement could lead to justice. Kantian abstractions might appeal on the page, but as a practical matter, motives for even the most altruistic act are often mixed.

No, the problem with the despair is less selfishness than the closing out of possibility: doing nothing leads to nothing. Writing letters or e-mails or making phone calls or even just paying attention might not accomplish anything, but is anything accomplished without action? To act may be to fail, but the possibility of failure is not its certainty.

If I accept that as a general matter, for others, then why not accept that for myself, as well? I may not be a Kantian, but there are worse standards than act as if your will were universal law. Or, to bring it down to this cracked earth, if others can do it, why shouldn’t I?

Can I do anything about the Dakota War of 1862? Almost nothing. But if I think it mattered, if I think it matters today, for who and how we are as an American people, then I can do the one thing that is available to me: I can pay attention.

I can listen.





No comment

10 04 2010

From Brian Fisher at the American Family Association’s Focal Point blog:

First, the most compassionate thing we can do for Americans is to bring a halt to the immigration of Muslims into the U.S. This will protect our national security and preserve our national identity, culture, ideals and values. Muslims, by custom and religion, are simply unwilling to integrate into cultures with Western values and it is folly to pretend otherwise. In fact, they remain dedicated to subjecting all of America to sharia law and are working ceaselessly until that day of Islamic imposition comes.

The most compassionate thing we can do for Muslims who have already immigrated here is to help repatriate them back to Muslim countries, where they can live in a culture which shares their values, a place where they can once again be at home, surrounded by people who cherish their deeply held ideals. Why force them to chafe against the freedom, liberty and civil rights we cherish in the West?

In other words, simple Judeo-Christian compassion dictates a restriction and repatriation policy with regard to Muslim immigration into the U.S.

I may need something stronger than ‘No comment’. . . .

h/t: ChristianityToday





Here is my blood shed for thee

13 12 2008

Last thing about Ainadamar (for awhile): Did I mention that after the performance I trekked up to Corporate Bookstore and bought two books on the Spanish Civil War?

Wait! There’s a reason for this! The libretto  included broadcasts from Radio Falange, and I wanted to know if these were the product of David Hwang’s imagination or actual transcripts. Here’s a sample (translated)

Our youth must be ready//to shed their blood generously/ for the sacred cause of Spain//Whoever is not with us/is against us//We’ll exterminate the seeds of the Revolution,/even in the wombs of their mothers//Long live death!

And later:

. . . And if we find them dead, we will kill them again. I give you permission to kill them like dogs, and your hands will be clean.

Well. I just started Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain (c. 2006) so I don’t know if these are actual transcripts, but he does note, on p. 56 that the nationalist Foreign Legion, ‘Composed in large part of fugitives and criminals. . . were taught to be useful suicides  with their battle cry ‘Viva la Muerte!’‘ And, skipping ahead to p. 424, Beevor notes that ‘Ideological and religious invocations deliberately tried to make the violence abstract. . . . Carlist [nationalist] requetes were told that they would have a year less in purgatory for every red they killed, as if Christendom were still fighting the Moors.’

So much for the notion that Al Qaeda invented the (anti-)political cult of death.

In any case, I was seized by the notion of the ideological underpinnings of massacre. What makes it killing those who are not trying to kill you okay? It seemed—seems—a tremendously important issue.

But as I thought more about this, I remembered the work I did a lifetime ago in a human rights seminar in grad school. We were trying to theorize about human rights abuses, and, frankly, having a terrible time doing so. There were too many massacres, across all populated areas, from all different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups: how does one find a way through such a fog of data?

One key feature, as discussed by Leo Kuper in his book Genocide, was the dehumanization of the victims. They were a cancer, an infection, rats, insects—anything which not only removed them from their fellow humans, but which also made it a positive good to eradicate.

But the casting out of humanity of the victims is only part of the story; what of the killers? There have certainly been a number of studies of the sociology and psychology of mass killing—cf. Ervin Staub The Roots of Evil; Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors; Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, among others—but what of the specific ideological indoctrination? Robert Proctor gets at both the material and ideological aspects of Nazi scientists and doctors in Racial Hygiene, as does Benno Muller-Hill  in Murderous Science, but even these are more sociological than political-ideological.

What kind of ideology posits mass murder as a good? National Socialism was proudly genocidal, but does all fascism necessarily lead to the valorization of massacre? And Stalinism was clearly genocidal, but that seemed more cultic or psychopathic than ideological. (That said, Bolshevism wasn’t all sunshine and daisies, and Bolshevism clearly shaped Stalin. And no, I’m not one to think Lenin was somehow betrayed by Stalin: ol’ Vladimir may have been more pragmatic than Stalin, but he was a revolutionary, after all, with all the ruthlessness that implies.) The errors and crimes of Leninism and Stalinism are clear to me (if not their precise etiology), but Marxism is an ideology, if not always a practice, of liberation.

Capitalism? Certainly, in practise it has sanctioned the treatment of humans as ends rather than means, and there is plenty of violence woven into long history of the emergence from pre-capitalist economies and societies as well as colonization. And, oh yes, there were more than a few killings commited in the defense thereof during the Cold War. Yet, as with Marxism, as an ideology it pitches liberation.

Furthermore, I think it makes sense to distinguish between massacres, such as My Lai, and concerted extermination. It may make little difference to the victims of such massacres whether their deaths were the result of  a (morally, psychologically) chaotic situation or a fixed program, but as I’m trying to get at the programmatic content of mass murder, the distinction is important. In the former case it is a kind of criminal accident, a breakdown of ordinary operating procedures: Even if the soldiers or killers are not ultimately punished, the massacre itself must be explained [away] as something extrinsic to the (political, national) cause itself. In the latter case, however, massacres are intrinsic to the cause, necessary as both means and end.

Hm. I think that’s a part of it: an ideology in which death is not a mere (unfortunate) means, but a desired end. And this bifurcates: it is necessary and good to kill these others, as it is necessary and good for ourselves to die in battle against the others, and for ourselves.

So back to the ideology of death. Is this its own ideology, or a component of other ideologies? Can it be integrated into other ideologies? Does it require a belief in some kind of life [for the killers] beyond death?  And whatever its status as a freestanding or constituent part of another ideology, does the embrace of death mark the ideology as anti-political?

That last question, at least, I can answer: Yes. Politics is about the world, a particular kind of being-in-the-world which is predicated on human life (yep, Arendt again). To disdain such life is to disdain politics.

I’m not saying anything particularly shocking here: What violent dictator hasn’t asserted his triumph over politics? And while I think there is a political (i.e., worldly) agenda of Al Qaeda, from what I’ve read of bin Laden or Mullah Omar’s speeches, ideologically, they’re all about wiping out politics.

Sigh. Don’t know how much this helps me with the whole exterminationist-ideology thing, tho’.

Anyway, I did at least discover that one line from the opera is authentic. It is the response of the fascist Ramon Ruiz Alonso, to the question of the crimes of Lorca:

He has done more damage with his pen,/than others have with their pistols.