Friday, June 22, 2007

what happened to the sixties version 2007

Two seemingly random items struck me in the past few days about the state of our society and political discourse. The first is what might be called the war of colored ribbons referring either directly or indirectly to the war in Iraq. Many people (myself included) have taken to attaching plastic yellow "Support Our Troops" ribbons on their cars as expressions of solidarity, at least theoretically nonpolitical, with our soldiers overseas. There was an understandable response of antiwar activists attaching different color ribbons with sayings like "Support Peace" or something to that effect. Not my view, perhaps, but clearly protected speech.

Lately a number of people have taken to attaching stickers in various colors with slogans like "Support Pimping," "Support Farting" (I really saw this), and so on. Aside from instantly labeling the driver as something of a moron, the stickers are openly disrespectful to the troops and (if one thinks about it a moment) to the antiwar activists as well. On a legal level I suppose that these stickers, like the "Shit Happens" bumper stickers whose legality was litigated in Georgia I think a few years ago, are constitutionally protected. But it saddens me to think that this is what free expression has come to. That some of these are appearing on elegant cars is a particular sign of decadence that bodes ill for us as a society.

At the opposite extreme, perhaps, was a New York Times article on "freegans," i.e. people (mostly young) who drop out of consumer society and engage in "dumpster diving" (a nice-sounding term for prowling around garbage cans) looking for food, clothing, and so forth. These people, who are motivated by unquestioned idealism, are in no way comparable to the adolescent sticker-toters described above. Yet one has to wonder exactly where this idealism is leading them. Aside from practical questions--should sick people scrounge around dumpsters hoping to luck into the right medicines? should old people, when they die, be buried in their favorite trash bins?--the whole exercise seems a sad perversion of 1960s-era idealism. My memory of the Woodstock generation is one of physical deprivation as a path to joy and wisdom: people would grow their own food and make their own clothing, not because they couldn't afford to do otherwise, but because of the positive value of doing it for themselves. Now instead of creating an alternative to big corporations, they want live off what the big corporations are throwing away. Perhaps they could take the same energy and put it into volunteer work in the Third World. When people go through the garbage there, it's because they don't have a choice.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

friedlaender on the holocaust: volume ii

I have been spending a good part of my evenings lately reading "The Years of Extermination," the second and final volume of Saul Friedlaender's opus, "Nazi Germany and the Jews:," which appears destined to be the definitive work on the Holocaust for the foreseeable future. Friedlaender has, to say the least, an interesting life story. Born in Prague and taken to France by parents who did not survive the war, he was hidden in a Catholic seminary and only some years later learned his parents' fate and began his return to Judaism. The rest--Friedlaender's move to Israel, his teaching at Tel Aviv University (he's now at UCLA), his early work regarding Pius XII and the Jews, his wife's giving piano lessons to at least one of my Israeli colleagues--is, so to speak, history: history, both in the autobiographical sense (dealt with in his book "When Memory Comes") and the broader sense of his professional contribution, which encompasses both the depth of Friedlaender's research and the originality of his interpretations.

One might ask why a new book on the Holocaust was necessary at this point. To this the author provides at least two answers. The first is the sheer comprehensiveness of the work. Either Friedlaender or one of his associates appears to have read not only every official document, but every letter or diary written by Jews, in any language, who survived (or often, did not survive) the war, and made them an integral part of the book. The diary point is especially important. From the seminal work by Raul Hilberg, Holocaust scholarship has been based primarily on German sources, not out of any lack of sympathy for the victims but out of a belief that victim testimonies, taken after the war in changed circumstances, were by and large unreliable. By using contemporaneous diaries, scholars are able to restore some of the balance between perpetrator and victim sources without compromising historical accuracy: Friedlaender is not the first to do so but I know of no one else who has done so this comprehensively. The diaries of orthodox observers, like Chaim Kaplan in Warsaw and Moshe Flinker, a young Belgian Jew who died at Auschwitz, are especially poignant.

A second point relates to Friedlaender's theoretical approach. In his previous volume, which covered the years 1933-39, he advanced the idea of what he called "redemptive antisemitism," a sort of heretical offshoot of Christianity which saw the elimination of the Jews as the necessary precondition to salvation, that is, as a positive goal in its own right independent of the various negative forces (liberalism, communism, etc.) that might be eliminated in the process. From Friedlaender's perspective, only this concept of the Jew as a lethal and active threat (his terms), as indeed the most lethal and active threat to the German volk, can explain the importance attributed to the anti-Jewish program and (by extension) the difference between Hitler's and previous antisemitic movements; those who see the assault on the Jews as merely a byproduct of other concerns miss this crucial point and cannot account for German behavior. The theoretical aspect is a major contribution of Friedlaender's work, and if I have a complaint about the second volume, it is that this theoretical perspective tends to get lost in the sheer volume of horrors that he understandably feels bound to describe. Perhaps a later book will pick up more on this point.

The book is painful to read, adopting an essentially chronological approach and sparing no detail, however unpleasant, of Jewish suffering or German cruelty. The account of the children of Bjelaja Zerkow and the role of German Lt. Col. Helmut Groscurth (pp. 215-219)--part of Friedlaender's larger interest in Christian "resistance" to the extermination program and its highly ambiguous consequences--is particularly poignant. The story, which does not have a happy ending, has been reported elsewhere but perhaps never this systematically. Particularly painful, for contemporary readers, are the accounts of American (including American Jewish) and Israeli (pre-state) indifference: a dance festival was held in Tel Aviv around the same time that the first reports of mass killings came through, while Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote that the reelection of President Roosevelt was more important "than the admission of a few [Jewish] people [to the U. S.], however imminent their peril." Whether today's Americans or Israelis would have done any better is beyond the author's scope to answer.

One of the problems with reading about the Holocaust is that it makes you extremely angry without being exactly sure who the anger should be directed against. My mother once advanced the theory that the Holocaust made everyone believe more strongly in whatever ideology--religion, pacifism, 20th century American liberalism--that they believed in before. For me, the only real answer is to study, and to try to apply one's learning in whatever ways seem appropriate. Certainly one lesson is humility: we should avoid being too sure of ourselves and refrain from asserting the right to play God with respect to other human beings' lives. Beyond that I am not exactly sure. It may be that the most enlightening response parallels that of Chou En-lai, the Chinese leader, when asked to discuss the legacy of the French Revolution. "Too early to tell," he responded.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

immigration, deportation, etc.

As a happy or unhappy coincidence, I happened to be reading "The Years of Extermination," the second volume of Saul Friedlaender's history of the Holocaust, at the same time that the immigration bill collapsed over opposition to "amnesty" for illegal aliens. Obviously the two stories are different in many respects. But allow me a few observations:

1. The drawing of a sharp, unbridgeable line between citizens and aliens or "legal" and "illegal" entrants--that is, the granting of full rights to the former and few if any rights to the latter--has an unhappy history. When the Germans deported Jews during the Holocaust, they invariably began with aliens and only later proceeded to native-born Jews, knowing that the deportation of the former would bring much less protest while setting a precedent that was hard or impossible to reverse later on. In other cases they blurred the distinction by stripping citizenship from some or all Jews who instantly became aliens on the wrong side of the preceding divide.

2. Expelling 10-12 million aliens would amount to probably the largest deportation in history. To do so one would have essentially to wage war against the Hispanic and Asian communities, creating an American-style SS that engaged in massive arrests and dragnets with little regard for procedural rights and, one suspects, not terribly much sensitivity to the distinction between "legal" and "illegal" residents who fell on the wrong side of the ethnic/racial line. The Germans themselves faced all sorts of problems until they empowered the SS essentially to go outside the law and get the job done.

3. Anti-immigrant sentiment is perhaps the clearest loser in American politics. About 2/3 of the country supported the recent bill. When Pete Wilson played the anti-immigrant card in California in the 1990s, he won one election and essentially ruined the Republican Party for the next twenty years. Why anyone would want to antagonize the fastest growing block of voters is just absolutely beyond me.

4. The Bible specifically says to be kind to strangers, because you were once strangers in Egypt. I am not a fundamentalist and don't always accept a literal interpretation. But it it hard to see how this verse could be interpreted differently.

5. Did you ever notice how many anti-immigrant fanatics have obviously foreign names. The NY Times cited someone named Thibodeaux as an anti-immigrant leader in a midwestern state. What part of England did her family come from?

Perhaps, as a low-level Republican politician, I should not put these views into print. But there are some things that are not worth doing even for votes (if they indeed exist as I have expressed doubts above). If saying a few nasty words about Jews or African-Americans would pick up votes, would we do so? Why should immigrants be any different?

I'll have more about Friedlaender's book in a later posting.