Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Remembrance of Horrors Past (18 May 2013)

         I'm going to start sidling toward my topic with bragging about a relative of mine you probably have never heard of. My cousin (of some degree) Joy Erlichman Miller organized the Holocaust memorial in Peoria, Illinois, and tried to make the body-count more understandable by collecting buttons: eleven million of them. The strategy of collecting buttons is brilliant, and, more to the point I'm slowly moving toward, the number is correct. Humans aren't wired to understand deaths in even the thousands, but the sight of millions of buttons can aid our imaginations. More, having kids collect everyday items like buttons is a good way to get them to relate to the extraordinary human costs of slaughters such as the Nazi Holocaust.

         The number, though, may also be unfamiliar to you. The Peoria committee used the figure of approximately eleven million murders, and they were wise to do so: both truthful to the best estimates, and politically prudent. Some five to six millions Jews were murdered in the Nazi extermination programs, plus some five to six million Roma ("Gypsies"), Communists, homosexuals, unionists, and other "inferiors," or real or imagined enemies of the Reich. That adds up to eleven million people, approximately, not the more frequently heard figure of six millions. Some six million Jews died, and even if the actual figure is "only" five million, it is a number to remember in itself and is central to the exterminations: "The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem" was the impetus for large-scale, systematic, routinized massacres. Still, if the Shoah is uniquely Jewish and unique in more than just the technical sense applicable to all historical events — if it's literally and absolutely unique, "sui generis," one of a kind — then the Shoah is of only limited usefulness for historical understanding: There aren't many lessons to be learned from a literally unique event. If it is "The Holocaust," and that is that, there is little to be learned beyond "Sh*t can really happen to the Jews." Using the eleven million figure teaches that once a program of genocide gets started, all sorts of people can be sucked in and destroyed. And that point is crucial; if the Shoah just happened to Jews, there's no reason non-Jews today should do much more than sympathize. Fitting the Hitlerian Holocaust into a larger pattern of massacres, as Hannah Arendt does in detail in Origin of Totalitarianism, makes it historically and politically relevant for many people, and aids building "Never Again" coalitions.

         Outside of the Peoria Holocaust Memorial and the reference to my cousin Joy, I expect most of what I've just said will be familiar and, with most folk who read a column by a Left-leaning Jew, unexceptional. It's also stuff I've said before (I did once teach a course titled "Massacres").

         What's been getting to me lately is watching the last few episodes of the first season of The Borgias, listening a couple times each to Neal Stephenson's BAROQUE CYCLE books and to Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined — even going so far as to buy a Pinker's book in paperback — plus reading and consulting hard-cover hard copy of Matthew White's The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities.

         As The Borgias first season moved toward a final tableaux celebrating traditional family values, Renaissance aristocratic Machiavellian style, we meet Paulo, a definitely non-aristocratic stable hand, who's a nice kid who gets involved with abused-wife Lucrezia Borgia, eventually aiding Lucrezia neutralize for a while her brutish warlord husband, and becoming Lucrezia's lover. Significantly here, even in the more innocent stages of Paolo's involvement with Lucrezia, he worries aloud about getting whipped, and by season's end we see and hear him whipped by his lord and get good indications that he was probably hanged shortly thereafter.

           [CORRECTION (and SPOILER): Paolo was spared as it turned out, to be hanged instructively in the following season.]

Servants ca. 1500 were whipped, and the servants of an ignoble nobleman might indeed find themselves hanged for offenses less serious than conspiracy to cripple and cuckold their masters.

         And not just servants had to fear the whip: soldier and (notoriously) sailors, and to a lesser degree wives and children and, moving toward but not very far into the Enlightenment, lunatics in places like London's Bedlam Hospital. One can argue that it's not entirely progress that we beat children and the insane much less nowadays and drug them more; one can argue that the "smother love" and constant surveillance and supervision of privileged children isn't 100% superior to benign neglect with occasional brutality — but, come on! As Steven Pinker insists, in these areas we've made serious progress.

         What such historical and history-based works as The Borgias and Better Angels make clear is that things have trended toward less violence over human recorded history. Reading them while thinking of what White calls the 20th-c. "hemoclysm" — i.e., blood deluge, the warfare and atrocities 1914-1945 — one might conclude however, and fear, that the trend is indeed toward a decrease of violence but there can be perverse and sudden "regressions to the norm" (sic) — returns of barbarism — that can produce immense suffering.

         Two points from such cogitations and my occasional fearful twitchings.

         First, Stephenson's BAROQUE CYCLE covers, more or less, the period from the execution of Charles I of England in 1649 to the beginning of the Hanover dynasty in 1714. Stephenson is very clear that the worst of the human social pathologies he deals with was slavery, continuing in the East and, during this period, increasing in the Americas — and with increasing British involvement. White estimates the suffering in deaths alone of the slave trade alone at 18.5 million for the Mideast slave trade from the 7th through the 19th centuries, and some sixteen million for the Atlantic slave trade, 1452-1807. (The two slave trades rank at #8 and #10 of White's ranking of our species' "One Hundred Deadliest Multicides," edging out, for instructive examples, the Conquest of the Americas and First World War, both coming in at 15 million deaths.)

         It is clear, however, that state-sanctioned and enforced slavery was the extreme of a continuum of cruelty, or, changing the image, an extreme area on a web of cruelty that permeated everyday life. Even as Jews should put the Shoah into it a larger context of massacres, African-Americans should put American chattel slavery onto that continuum, or at the center of a figurative web of oppression, exploitation, and cruelty.

         People can argue, and I do so, that racism developed in part to allow continued cruelty to Black people (and, later, Jews and Slavs and Roma) after it became increasingly unfashionable — war excepted — for Moderns to be cruel to people seen as people and even bad form to brutalize sympathetic nonhuman animals.

         Pinker talks of "The Humanitarian Revolution" (ch. 4) that slowly came in with the Modern Era and the Enlightenment, increasing humanitarianism that included, eventually, the elimination of slavery. While slavery continued and was profitable, however, it needed justification, and it is no coincidence that racism came along to provide that justification: it was becoming increasingly "unacceptable," as we so weakly say — Not Done — to grossly abuse people (again, war-time enemies excluded); a theory was necessary that made Blacks less than people, and that theory was racism.

         We need to be clear on "racism": that's an "-ism," an ideology, a theory, and one with a history. Bigotry is more or less natural to humans: a subset of the nastier parts of the "amity/enmity complex" to use Robert Ardrey's formulation; or "Let 'em all go to hell, / Except Cave Sev-enty-six!" in the formulation of Mel Brook's 2000-Year-Old Man. For seeing the difference between bigotry and racism, and for dating racism in England, note Thomas Rymer's argument against "Othello: A Bloody Farce" in his Short View of Tragedy (1693, ch. VII; reprinted in Frank Kermode's Four Centuries of Shakespearian Criticism [1974: 461-69]). In Othello, Shakespeare shows ample bigotry against the Moor: that "old black ram," "the thick lips." The bigotry, however, is within the world of the play. Rymer laments that the play remained highly popular with English audiences into his time in the late 17th century — popular in spite what Rymer saw as its gross errors and absurdities. To start, Othello is not a properly Neoclassic play, but along with that error — Rymer was a militant neoclassicist — and relating to it, it's hero just isn't, well, appropriate. In Othello, Othello is a general of the armies of Venice and, apparently, one of the great military leaders of Christian Europe. Rymer allows that the Venetian Republic hired foreign mercenaries for their armies,

But shall a Poet thence fancy that they will set a Negro to be their General; or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk? With us a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespear would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General. With us a Moor might marry some little drab [= a whore], or Small-coal Wench: Shake-spear, would provide him the Daughter and Heir of some great Lord, or Privy-Councellor [Othello' elopes with the daughter of a senator]: And all the Town should reckon it a very suitable match. […] Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lye [=lie]; And, certainly, never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities. (Kermode volume, page 462).

There was bigotry aplenty in Shakespeare's real-world England, from prejudice against to loathing of foreigners and others, but not enough animosity against Blacks to keep English audiences from sympathizing with "black Othello"; by the time we get to Rymer, something has changed.

         That "Humanitarian Revolution" was getting started, and for screamingly obvious commercial reasons Blacks from Africa, for the consciences of many people, had to be excluded for the circle of humanity. There was a great deal of money to be made from the slave trade and from the stolen labor of slaves to produce high-profit commodities like tobacco, sugar, and rum. If we allow sugar as a "food-drug" — and no less an authority than Sidney W. Mintz says we should do so — then the institution of Black chattel slavery in the New World came about in large part because there was a lot of money to be made then, as now, pushing drugs (Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, 1985).

         And, of course, before the more northern European competition got into the tobacco, sugar, and rum rackets, New World enslavement of Indians and, later, Blacks had served a lust for lucre more directly in Spanish America in the mining of gold and silver.

         Most of our European ancestors most of the time dealt with horrors like the slave trade the way we Americans today deal with exploited labor in, say, the manufacturing of our clothing: they ignored it. I don't ask about how I can order on line sweatpants for six bucks a pair; if you had high-flown English ancestors ca. 1692, they didn't ask too many questions about the sugar in their coffee or hot chocolate (or, for that matter, ask inconvenient questions about the coffee or chocolate).

         More important, though — and, finally, my point here — is the one stressed by Steven Pinker: how much cruelty for how long was not actively ignored but seen casually and just accepted as part of the "warp and woof," deeply woven into, the web of everyday life.

         "The wogs begin at Callus," as the stereotypical racist Colonel Blimp's of Great Britain used to say: i.e., the range of the inferior peoples of the Earth began as soon as one crossed the English (by God!) Channel and disembarked at the carefully mispronounced French port of Calais. That attitude, however — hell, racism for some of them! — was progress: for most high-born English for most of their history, inferiors started a whole lot closer to home than France, including in one's home with one's servants or (if male) wife and (for both parents) children. One could feel downright righteous birching one's kids bloody, to beat hell and the devil out of them; and, of course, even the lower orders could watch for entertainment the torture of animals — bear-baiting, bull baiting, ratting — or condemned criminals (if you couldn't afford to pay off the hangman for a longish drop, "hang by the neck until dead" could take a long time).

         So Black African slavery was horrific, but its horrors were tolerated as long as they were not only because of racism but also because of a general casualness about cruelty.

         If we are to be serious and effective about "Never Again," Jews should remind all and sundry that the Hitlerian Holocaust was emphatically not limited to Jews and fits into a larger tradition of massacres: far from unique, the Shoah is an instructive extreme on a continuum of atrocities. American Blacks and Africans should remind people that the Atlantic slave trade was part of a long tradition of murderous exploitation of Africans and others: including at one time the enslavement of just about anyone who could be taken prisoner in war or stolen.

         Americans who hear of atrocities and say, "It can't happen here" forget that chattel slavery, for one very big thing, did happen here, until 1865, as did the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan into my lifetime. And this is not frightening so much because we Americans are particularly evil but because we are well within the normal range of humanity. As Stephenson, Pinker, White, and the makers of The Borgias make clear, routine, banal, horrible cruelty is part of the repertoire of human behavior.
         So is the capacity for good, those "Better Angels of Our Nature." If Pinker is right, those Better Angels, our inclinations to the good, have been trending upward since the Bronze Age; as the reintroduction of slavery in the Early Modern period indicates and the 20th-c. hemoclysm drives home; the tendency is far from inevitable. Indeed, often it's just "Sh*t happens"; but far too often "sh*t" is done to all sorts of people, and emphatically not just Jews and Blacks. So, to repeat a useful cliché, following Pinker: Let us be hopeful, but also ready to aid the exploited, oppressed, and abused not just out of decency, but because, always, any of us can be on the list — and for most of human history, most people were.

No comments:

Post a Comment