July 05, 2004

The skin I'm in

We traveled to my ancestral homestead over the weekend, and had a wonderful time, drawing the full measure of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I've quoted this several times before, but it always seems to be an apt passage (and not just because I spent a fair amount of time in a heated pool this weekend) on the uniqueness of these United States. It's from a novella called Proofs, now regrettably out of print, by George Steiner -- the British literary critic, novelist, and all around compelling thinker. The year is 1989; the wall has fallen, Communism has been shown not just to be a failure, but to be reviled by those workers whose paradise it was said to be constructing. A committed Italian communist, disoriented by the shattering of what he believed to be certainties, bemoans the dark age descending to a priest now that America has won the Cold War. The priest replies:

About which, I mean American, you and I really know very little. To me it sounds like the society that says to every man and woman: “Be what you want to be. Be yourself. The world was not made only for geniuses and neurotics, for the obsessed and the inspired. It was made for you and you and you. If you choose to try and be an artist or a thinker or a pure scholar, that’s fine. We will neither inhibit you nor put you on a pedestal. If you prefer to be a couch-potato, an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, a mile-runner, a broker, if you prefer to be a truck-driver or even a drifter, that’s fine too. Perhaps even better. Because it so happens that ideological passion and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. They have sown interminable hatred and self-destruction.” And when America says, “Just be yourself,” it is not saying, “Do not better yourself.” It is saying: “Go after that Nobel Prize if that’s what fires your soul. Or that heated swimming pool.” Not because America believes that heated swimming-pools are the Parthenon or even a necessity. But because they do seem to bring pleasure, and not very much harm. “Move up the ladder, if you can,” says America, “because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself, to earn the regard of your neighbors, is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire. Do you know, Professore, America is just about the first nation and society in human history to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.

The whole novella is worth reading -- it captures quite a bit that's ugly in the human intellect (and while I'm at it, let me recommend two other Steiner books I've found myself thinking about quite a bit over the years -- Real Presences and Antigones). The committed communist in Proofs always makes me think of a line from The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Henry advises Dorian that one should never engage in serious intellectual activity -- as soon as one does, he becomes all nose or all forehead. The protagonist of Proofs might be well caricatured as being all nose and forehead.

Add to the caricature of the nose and forehead a pair of boots stomping on a human face, and you have the system over whose collapse the "Professore" was despondent. Robert Conquest, in the excellent Harvest of Sorrow, traces one chapter of this history -- the terror famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s that left 7 million dead. In one passage, Conquest explains how this was accomplished:

The necessary hatreds were inflamed; the activists who helped the GPU in the arrests and deportations

were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied...

They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children 'kulak bastards', screaming 'bloodsuckers!' ... They had sold themselves on the idea that the so-called 'kulaks' were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a 'parasite's' table; the 'kulak' child was loathsome, the young 'kulak' girl was lower than a louse. They looked on the so-called 'kulaks' as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive: they had no souls; they stank; they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the people and exploited the labour of others... And there was no pity for them. They were not human beings; one had a hard time making out what they were -- vermin, evidently.

This last paragraph is from Vasily Grossman. Himself Jewish, and the Soviet Union's leading writer on Hitler's Holocaust, he draws the analogy with the Nazis and the Jews. A woman activist explains, 'What I said to myself at the time was "they are not human beings, they are kulaks" ... Who thought up this word "kulak" anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings'.

An article I read tonight notes,

Researchers trace all genocides back to one common feature which is the hate campaign that preludes the actual killing. This has been true for the Jewish holocaust, Armenian genocide, Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing and southern Sudanese massacres. None of these atrocities were and overnight policy but took a long time for preparation because no human being can kill or maim another without some way of rationalizing that act of violence. That rationalization is achieved through the saturation of the mind with hate towards the targeted community.

The article is from KurdishMedia.com, and notes a series of statements and episodes that sugges that such a climate of hatred is being fostered against the Kurds in the Middle East. One of the statements that caught my eye was this one:

Syrian foreign minister Faruk Alshar’e declared that the American lead Iraq Freedom Operation was beneficial only to American imperialism, Israel and Kurds. It is no secret, Americans and Israelis in the middle east are considered top enemies and therefore equating Kurds with them is a code for justifying the killing of Kurds too.

There is, of course, no shortage of vitriol directed at Israelis and Americans. I belong to the latter category only -- it's sobering to think that there's no shortage of people like the good Professore, like those who plotted September 11, who, nose and forehead predominant, would like nothing more than to stomp their boots on our faces to consummate their hatred.

These thoughts, of course, were far away from me as I enjoyed the heated swimming pool on the Fourth of July, playing with my son and my nephew, or talked baseball and politics and movies and tennis with my siblings and parents...

Posted by Ideofact at July 5, 2004 11:44 PM