Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | News Flashes | Scoop Features | Scoop Video | Strange & Bizarre | Search

 


Sam Smith: How Much Do We Learn From Evil?

How Much Do We Learn From Evil?


By Prorev.com Editor Sam Smith

The 60th anniversary observance of Auschwitz brings back a question that periodically lurks in the corner: how much do we really learn from evil?

It is widely assumed in this country that humanity is significantly improved by such things as Holocaust studies, international war crimes, and showing teens scary films about driving. There is, however, far more faith than evidence about all this.

This is not to say that such matters should not be an part of the human curriculum, only that in American culture they are approached with a zeal that borders on moral pornography and, in the process, overwhelms the far more important matter of learning and practicing alternatives to that which we are meant to avoid. It is almost as though we were constantly being given directions by naming all the streets we shouldn't use without ever being told the ones we should.

I learned about Auschwitz in 1956, on the eleventh anniversary of its liberation. It was at the tail end of Soc Sci 2, taught by intense, red-headed liberal Samuel Beer, who covered six revolutions -- including the French, industrial and Nazi -- with enthusiasm for real people and events. Each revolution required a two thousand word paper. The climax of the course led us from Nietzsche to Hitler to an evening of Nazi propaganda films and footage of concentration camps liberated just a decade earlier. The concentration camps were gruesome, but the movies the Nazis had made to celebrate themselves were in some ways even more horrific, depicting as they did millions of Germans voluntarily surrendering their souls as millions of others were involuntarily losing their lives. In one of the films, the frame was almost entirely filled with an overhead shot of Nazi soldiers. One thin corridor cut through the dark mass and down it walked three tiny figures -- Adolph Hitler and two aides.

What we saw had been placed in history's context; we had been taught not just brutal endings but far more instructive beginnings, and we got to see not just evil's horror but its accompanying banality. What I didn't realize, however, was that college students all over America weren't learning the same thing and that when they did, it would have acquired a name, and a politics, and a semiotics, and it would have become multiple worlds inhabited by victims, philosophers, journalists, politicians, leaches, symbol snatchers, propagandists, self-servers and deniers. And that people like Sharon and Bush would do new evil in the name of exorcising the old. I had learned about the Holocaust before it became whatever anyone wanted it to be.

By the time I graduated, I had read William Shirer's new book, The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, and found myself absorbed not so much in what the Nazis had become but how they had begun - how normal, how ordinary so much of it had been, with that frighteningly familiar mix of opportunism, lust, incompetence, and failure of courage at a time when something still could be done. If they had let me build the Holocaust museum that would have been its prime exhibit: not what had happened, but how.

Years later I read Martin Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free, based on interviews with ordinary Nazis before and after the war. In it, this Chicago Jewish reporter summed up:

"Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany. . . It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I."

Here is the part of the Holocaust that is most frequently denied. Not that millions were slaughtered but that those who did the deed might under certain conditions be either you or I. And we would do it, as Adolph Eichmann had suggested, simply by finding the right words for it, what he called 'office talk.'

It is this unrecognized, undiscussed denial, especially at moments of solemn observance, that most frightens me. And our recovery does not lie in still more talk, ceremonies, and professions of horror. It lies instead in the study, honor, and practice of the good and the decent. If you watch good people closely, their good comes as naturally as evil came to Eichmann. It does not have to be propped up with memories of great wrongs; it is just the everyday unconscious behavior of those graced with honor: the banality of decency.

We need perhaps a museum of the good, curricula in decency studies, and practice in their skills and rhythms. We need peace experts instead of military experts talking about Iraq on Fox TV. We need mediators instead of just lawyers on Court TV. We need movies, and heroes, and moving stories that win Academy Awards and models for our children that lead them to the contentment of cooperation and fairness rather than to brutal examples drawn from the play-by-play of violence and wrong that appears with every other click of the zapper.

Even our memories and mourning of the wrong can be directed toward the better. Do we only regret or do we reconstitute ourselves and our community, creating a soul and a place where we don't even have to imagine something like that happening again? Too often, confronted with past great horror, we not only mourn the victims, we join them in unconscious capitulation to the presumed inevitability of the evil.

The frightening thing about Auschwitz is not that some would deny it but how real it still seems. The frightening thing about Auschwitz is that our leaders go to honor it while still denying Guantanamo and Al Graib and Palestine. We will know that we have finally learned the Holocaust's lessons when we no longer hear new echoes of it.


**************

FROM UNDERNEWS
FROM THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW
EDITED BY SAM SMITH

SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
1312 18th St. NW #502, Washington DC 20036
202-835-0770 Fax: 835-0779

E-MAIL: mailto:news@prorev.com
REVIEW INDEX: http://www.prorev.com/
LATEST HEADLINES: http://prorev.com
UNDERNEWS: http://www.prorev.com/indexa.htm
SUBSCRIBE TO REGULAR EDITION: mailto:prorev-subscribe@topica.com
PROBLEMS SUBSCRIBING? SUBSCRIBE DIRECTLY: mailto:news@prorev.com
SUBSCRIBE TO HEADLINES ONLY: mailto:news@prorev.com with HEADS ONLY in
subject line


© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops Headlines

 

Werewolf: Living With Rio’s Olympic Ruins

Mariana Cavalcanti Critics of the Olympic project can point a discernible pattern in the delivery of Olympics-related urban interventions: the belated but rushed inaugurations of faulty and/or unfinished infrastructures... More>>

Live Blog On Now: Open Source//Open Society Conference

The second annual Open Source Open Society Conference is a 2 day event taking place on 22-23 August 2016 at Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington… Scoop is hosting a live blog summarising the key points of this exciting conference. More>>

ALSO:

Buildup:

Gordon Campbell: On The Politicising Of The War On Drugs In Sport

It hasn’t been much fun at all to see how “war on drugs in sport” has become a proxy version of the Cold War, fixated on Russia. This weekend’s banning of the Russian long jumper Darya Klishina took that fixation to fresh extremes. More>>

ALSO:

Binoy Kampmark: Kevin Rudd’s Failed UN Secretary General Bid

Few sights are sadder in international diplomacy than seeing an aging figure desperate for honours. In a desperate effort to net them, he scurries around, cultivating, prodding, wishing to be noted. Finally, such an honour is netted, in all likelihood just to shut that overly keen individual up. More>>

Open Source / Open Society: The Scoop Foundation - An Open Model For NZ Media

Access to accurate, relevant and timely information is a crucial aspect of an open and transparent society. However, in our digital society information is in a state of flux with every aspect of its creation, delivery and consumption undergoing profound redefinition... More>>

Keeping Out The Vote: Gordon Campbell On The US Elections

I’ll focus here on just two ways that dis-enfranchisement is currently occurring in the US: (a) by the rigging of the boundary lines for voter districts and (b) by demanding elaborate photo IDs before people are allowed to cast their vote. More>>

Ramzy Baroud: Being Black Palestinian - Solidarity As A Welcome Pathology

It should come as no surprise that the loudest international solidarity that accompanied the continued spate of the killing of Black Americans comes from Palestine; that books have already been written and published by Palestinians about the plight of their Black brethren. In fact, that solidarity is mutual. More>>

ALSO:


Get More From Scoop

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Top Scoops
Search Scoop  
 
 
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news