Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

Gramsci And Nietzsche As Philosophers Of Culture

In ‘Socialism and Culture’ (reprinted in The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935, David Forgacs ed., New York University Press, 2000) Antonio Gramsci writes:

We need to free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopaedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts, which have to be filed in the brain as in the columns of a dictionary, enabling their owner to respond to the various stimuli from the outside world. This form of culture really is harmful….It serves only to create maladjusted people, people who believe they are superior to the rest of humanity because they have memorized a certain number of facts and dates and who rattle them off at every opportunity….It serves to create the kind of weak and colourless intellectualism…which has given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers….The young student who knows a little Latin and history, the young lawyer who has been successful in wringing a scrap of paper called a degree out of the laziness and lackadaisical attitude of his professors, they end up seeing themselves as different from and superior to even the best skilled workman…But this is not culture, but pedantry, not intelligence, but intellect, and it is absolutely right to react against it.

Gramsci’s critique here resonates with the kind that Nietzsche offered of the ‘educated philistine,’ the superficially educated man who runs about collecting ideas and consuming the cultural products that are considered the ‘trophies’ of his ‘culture,’ but who never learns their value, nor masters their relationships and interconnections so as to raise himself to a higher state of being (where a ‘unity of style’ may be manifest.) This pedant remains hopelessly confined to accepted and dominant modes of thinking and acting, unable to summon up a genuine critical, reflective viewpoint on his place in this world. As such, he is all too susceptible to becoming a reactionary, a defender of the established status quo, a hopeless decadent. These attitudes would be benign if they were not also affected with a fatal arrogance that breeds a dangerous politics.

Gramsci goes on to claim that:

Culture is something quite different. It is organization, discipline of one’s inner self, a coming to terms with one’s own personality; it is the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.

The invocation of ‘organization’ and ‘a coming to terms of one’s own personality’ also strikes a Nietzschean note here. The truly cultured person, one possessing a ‘unity of style,’ has brought together his disparate drives and energies and inclinations into a unified whole, an act requiring a ‘discipline of one’s inner self.’ He has also, as Nietzsche suggested, recognized his own self for what it is, and ‘joyfully’ accepted it.

The concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven at night in their offices were philistines in this view; they were mere consumers of ‘culture’; they lacked ‘discipline’ and remained susceptible to their atavistic urges. Their ‘pedantry,’ their philistinism, and the lack of intelligence it implies were an integral component of their moral failures.

From Austerlitz To Auschwitz

I’ve only recently read Elie Wiesel‘s Night (last week, in fact), and as is my habit, I skipped the preface (by Robert McAfee Brown) and the foreword (by François Mauriac) and went straight to the text. Once I was done, I returned to these preliminary sections. In the foreword, I read Mauriac describe his encounter with a young Wiesel, and how it led him to memories of the Occupation (of France):

I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had seen during those somber years had left so deep a mark upon me as those trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. Yet I did not even see them myself! My wife described them to me, her voice still filled with horror.

I read these lines with some puzzlement. Austerlitz?  I knew of only two Austerlitzes: the first, the scene of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph; the second, W.G. Sebald‘s novel (which I have not read yet.) Didn’t Mauriac mean ‘Auschwitz’ instead? Had his wife–whom I knew nothing about–been to Auschwitz, survived, and brought back these visions of deported Jewish children? If Mauriac did mean ‘Auschwitz’ then surely this was the most bizarre typo I had seen in a very long time. For it would have run together a place which has now passed into our collective memory as a zone of unimaginable atrocity, and a venue of military conflict, whose name has come to represent the zenith of one of the most remarkable lives of all time. Had Mauriac, somehow, unthinkingly, as he sat down at his typewriter, run together the typographic similarity of these two words in his mind, and pressed the wrong keys? But even if that was the case, how had such a howler made it through the editing gauntlet?

As might be expected, I went online to assuage my confusion. There I found that Mauriac had not made a mistake. He was indeed speaking of ‘Austerlitz station.’ To be precise, he was referring to Gare d’Austerlitz “one of the six large terminus railway stations in Paris…situated on the left bank of the Seine in the southeastern part of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.” It was built in 1840, the year Napoleon’s remains were returned from Helena to be buried at Hôtel des Invalides. During the Second World War,  the Vichy Regime set up internment camps to hold Jews being deported to concentration and death camps. Among them was Drancy internment camp, which included five subcamps; three of these were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps. When these Jews were finally sent to their final destinations, they departed from one of Paris’ stations. One of them, of course, was Austerlitz station, where Mauriac’s wife would have seen the sights she reported to her husband. Perhaps some of the children she saw went to Auschwitz too. (This photograph shows deportees at Austerlitz station in 1941.)

So no typo, but even then, what terrible irony. A symbol of French military ingenuity and brilliance and valor, where Napoleon took on the Old Empires and beat them to establish a new European order, sullied by these associations with the greatest European atrocity of all.

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’: The Holocaust Brought To The Present

One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.

Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.

The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.

Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.

Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

Buber, Eichmann, and the Death Penalty

As part of the discussion generated by my posts on the death penalty (prompted by the Anders Behring Breivik case; here and here), my colleague, the brilliant Noson Yanofsky, wrote in to say,

This reminds me of Martin Buber’s fight to keep Israel from executing Eichmann. His reasoning was not practical but moral. He lost the fight but generated a lot of discussion.

I’d like to thank Noson for pointing me to that episode in Buber’s life; its details are worth revisiting.

After his capture and kidnapping by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1961, Adolf Eichmann was brought to Israel and placed on trial.  The resultant high-profile prosecution by an Israeli court, needless to say, generated intense debate in both philosophical and legal registers (Hannah Arendt‘s memorable Eichmann in Jerusalem anyone?). Initially, Buber resisted the idea of trying Eichmann in an Israeli court rather than an international one; for him, the ‘victims’ had  mistakenly cast themselves as judges. While making it clear he was not advocating a pardon he suggested too that the idea that Eichmann had indulged in a unique evil was mistaken. Buber met David Ben-Gurion to ask the death sentence not be carried out, who replied that while he personally didn’t care about the sentence, the then Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi most assuredly did.

Buber’s opposition to the death penalty for Eichmann, unsurprisingly, was grounded in his reading of the Scriptures. In particular, that the Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ applied to the state just as much as it did to the individual. As Buber said, ‘I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man.’ He noted that though observance of the Commandments could often be intractable, ‘as far as it depends on us, we should not kill, neither as individuals nor as a society.’ Later, after Time would quote Buber as quoting Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, “What the Torah teaches us is this: none but God can command us to destroy a man”, Buber wrote in response that the sequel to these words was even more significant: ‘And if the very smallest angel comes after the command has been given and cautions us: Lay not thy hand upon…, we should obey him.’ Buber would also say to Newsweek, ‘The death sentence has not diminished crime–on the contrary, all this exasperates men…Killing awakens killing.’

Notably, Buber believed that executing Eichmann could lead German youth to believe that by this ‘symbolic justice’ they had been relieved of the guilt for the Holocaust. Presumably, this would also relieve them of the need to engage in moral reflection about the larger German role in it, over and above the actions of the National Socialists.

(Source: Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work, Wayne State University Press, 1988, pp 355-359)

Buber’s opposition, then to the death penalty, invokes theological, practical and moral considerations, the same ones that continue to inform all thoughtful opposition to the death penalty today. While this case is an unusually high-profile one, and the magnitude of Eichmann’s crimes throws Buber’s opposition into particularly sharp focus, the same issues recur in every dramatic, supposedly singular instance of human wrongdoing thought to be punishable by the death penalty.

Update: Noson has pointed me to a very interesting paper by Erica Weiss titled ‘Finding Neo-Israelite Justice for Adolph Eichmann‘. (Journal of Hebraic Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 2009), pp 169–188)