Monday, October 24, 2016

Righteous Gentiles, Anti-Semites, and Overrating Attitudes

Where there are no men, be thou a man. — Rabbi Hillel

            Toward the end of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Timothy Snyder notes a small but important and surprising fact: some of the heroic people who saved Jews during the Hitlerian Holocaust, were anti-Semites.

            Snyder notes that the Jews saved by "righteous gentiles" speak very little of the motivation of their saviors, and that the righteous gentiles speak of their motives just as little or less. They usually dismiss what they did as just behaving "normally," just doing what people do, or what any human being should do. These good people, of course, were not behaving normally, not in the statistical sense of "normal"; and in terms of cold-blooded economic theory of rational actors pursuing self-interest; they were not even behaving rationally.

            In the midst of horrors, these righteous few maintained what George Orwell called by the modest term "decency"; they maintained Menschlichkeit (Yiddish, Mentshlekhkeyt): where indecently few people were acting like humane human beings, they remained human.
            But not necessarily because they liked Jews, and in these our sentimental days, when we want people to like us, when attitude really counts — this is important.

            Some of these quiet heroes saved Jews on patriotic grounds: If the Germans wanted the Poles to deliver up their Jews, to give the Germans the Jews in Poland for killing, a loyal Pole resisted, even if he or she would just as soon have Jews out of Poland, and in the 1930s had voted for political parties endorsing doing just that.

            Some thought that murder is murder and that it was their Christian duty to resist murder, even the murder of Jews. For traditional Christian haters of Jews, Jews were people cursed as Christ-killers; but Jews were still people, not subhuman as Nazis saw Slavs (and Blacks), or, most relevantly, nonhumans, as orthodox Nazis saw Jews.

            A fair number took very seriously Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan, and saw it as their Christian duty to help strangers in trouble. And some helped people they knew or a good-looking Jewish girl they had a crush on or adopted babies or children because they had lost their own or could use child labor on the farm.

            And most Jews were not killed by professional murderers at Auschwitz or the other death camps, but were shot by more or less ordinary people, some of them very ordinary police officers, and a fair number more or less indifferent to "the Jewish Question." Anti-Semitism obviously had a role in the destruction of the Jews of Europe — including anti-Semitism in England and the United States — but one could not predict from the virulence of anti-Semitism in any given country just what percentage of its Jews would survive the war, how many would be murdered.

            As hinted at in the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments and other work in social psychology, character and attitudes count, but not always in straightforward ways or for a whole lot: context is important, and "character" can be complex. One "moral" of Snyder's study in Black Earth is that people who are indifferent to people like you, or who even like your kind of folk might turn you in for extermination; people who dislike "your kind" might know and like you personally and might save you. Or people who don't particularly like you or your kind at all might save you for all sorts of reasons, including a cold sense of duty or decency.

            When the world moves into barbarism, your friendly neighbor might betray you for a little extra food and your apartment; Sister Attila the Nun, that cold-hearted horror, might give her life to keep you alive.

            People are strange, and in times and places "Where there are no men" — where normal human behavior is inhuman(e) — it is very difficult "be a man" in the sense of acting humanely. And those who do the right thing will do so for a mixture of reasons and some odd ones.

            Those reasons may not include much of their personal likes and dislikes, and they may even overpower a generic but deep-seated hatred.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Trusting Trump with Secrets

Looking back on World War II as a young adult, I got the impression that parts of US culture put a bit too much emphasis on secrecy and spying and code-breaking for reasons having more to do with the Cold War than with the victory against the Fascists of the Second.

      * I had grown up on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and knew how important fear and suspicion of "spies and saboteurs" are for reinforcing loyalty and group solidarity. As Senator Arthur Vandenberg advised President Truman, the government had to "scare the hell out of the American people" to get support for the Cold War — and the scaring the hell out continued, including stoking fears of spies.
      * Stressing the elegance of code-breaking and triumphs of spying drew attention away from how much the Allies owed for victory to the brute-force barbarism of the Red Army smashing its way west into Hitler's Reich.
      * Stressing the elegance of code-breaking and triumphs of spying drew attention away from how much Allied victory was the result of US Federal government coordination and to some extent cooptation of US industrial production and other aspects of a directed, highly regulated capitalism.
      * Stressing Russian theft of American secrets helped denigrate the ability of the Soviets to use their German scientists almost as well as we used our German scientists for the rocket, missile, and other programs of the Cold War, and helped justify the execution of Ethel Rosenberg.

Well, etc. We did have intelligence and spy-craft triumphs during the Second World War, and "spies and saboteurs" are a threat — and terrorists as well; but my highly unoriginal feeling was and continues that the threat is often overblown and over-emphasized. 

Which brings me to Hillary Clinton's 33,000 deleted e-mails and Donald Trump's attack thereon early in the debate of 9 October 2016. (I don't know if they went back to it, since I returned from the gym where I was watching the ... show to finally write this blog post.)

What got me was Mr. Trump's chiding former-Secretary Clinton for not know that a circled "C" on a document indicated classified/confidential material. Hence, Mr. Trump indicated, Ms. Clinton couldn't be trusted with secrets. And the following went through my mind, coming from the big story of the weekend of Mr. Trump's comments on a bus about imposing kisses and, well, grabbing what once was called "queynte."

    If one is going to confess to a possible crime, much less to brag about committing one, it is well to check if you are in the presence of someone wearing a "wire." Mr. Trump bragged about a couple acts  somewhere between crude and criminal on a bus at a television studio while people around him were clearly wearing microphones and he himself was miked.  
     There was no subtle "C" here; there were obvious microphones, and if he was sufficiently stupid to admit to groping or assault in the presence of visible microphones — while wearing a microphone! — he is in no position to talk about anyone else's handling of confidential material unless they're sending pdf's of it to ISIS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. 

    It's not so much that "Power corrupts," including, apparently "star power." The crucial thing is that Power regularly "makes arrogant," and "arrogant makes stupid"; and Mr. Trump clearly is too arrogantly stupid to be trusted with secrets, even his own. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mr. Trump, Mr. "Lonesome" Rhodes — And, Like "The Gun Is Loaded," the Microphone (You Schmuck) Is *Always* ON

Here's a link to the climax scene/turning point in Elia Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), where a PopCult-star politician reveals what he truely thinks of his audience. It's posted as "A FACE IN THE CROWD: Marcia Destroys 'Lonesome' Rhodes," with Rhodes a kind of combination of Huey Long and Elvis Presley, but with a more recent analogy.

One positive note from a bit earlier in the surprising month of October 2016. Replying to an earlier set of remarks by Donald Trump, an admirably direct and ideologically-committed older woman said she remains committed to Donald Trump because (quoting from memory) she "supports the conservative party; and if that's the jackass leading this mule train," she will follow. Well, good for her, unless her general view becomes even more common: Countries need responsible conservative parties, and the party of Trump is not one.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Most Racist Places in America, According to Google

"Interestingly, on the map above the most concentrated cluster of racist searches 
happened not in the South, but rather along the spine of the 
Appalachians running from Georgia all the way up 
to New York and southern Vermont." 

Two points: (1) James Carville, "Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks." (2) It's not just interesting, it's readily understandable from migration patterns of Appalachians, the folk-ways analyzed in Nancy Isenberg's WHITE TRASH: THE 400-YEAR [...] HISTORY OF CLASS IN AMERICA, and James Webb's more friendly BORN FIGHTING: HOW THE SCOTS-IRISH SHAPED AMERICA, and Colin Woodard's AMERICAN NATIONS [...]. Appalachian Mountain folk were used by their, ahem, "betters" to keep the Indians out and the Blacks down, and "the old schooling sticks." Almost as important to the Powers that Were and more subtly still be, the caste system "kept in their place" poor Whites. 

Bob Dylan summed it up, back in 1963: They remain pawns in the game