Friday, March 26, 2021

Race and the Politics of Suffering

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and
ill together [...]. — All's Well that Ends Well (4.3)

Effective popular politics are coalition politics. — Traditional



I'm going to sidle in on my topic, starting with a hint or two on, as we used to say, Where I'm coming from. 

Sidle 1
    Part of Where I'm coming from is Chicago ca. 1960 ,when at 17 or so I peaked out, not sexually, as the folklore has it, but in terms of achievement and status. At 17, I was elected President of the high-school charity group, the Merton Davis Memorial Foundation for Crippling Diseases of Children, and since we incorporated shortly thereafter, I may've been the youngest legally-established charitable foundation president in the area, or maybe in the USA. or world.

    It was a transition time for the group, since it had been a long time since Mert Davis had died — long in high-school years — and none of us or our constituents had known him, and enthusiasm was running low.

    And so my first speech to the executive board was a kind of pep talk where I said that I was grateful for the altruism and sense of civic duty they brought to their job but hoped that they also wanted to work on the board for status and an entry on their college applications and other baser motives: because we had a long haul ahead of us, and they'd need all the motivation they could get, and ambition and self-interest are strong motives.

    Year's later I would read T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and see the justifying context of the line — martyrdom and Christian sainthood — but I knew from a blurb on a book I'd read the lines, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason"; and I said at the time, "Bullshit." Outright hypocrisy is pretty nauseating, but I felt then and think now that the key thing always is to do the right thing. And I knew that motives will be mixed and that the tackier ones can be useful.

Sidle 2
    A striking point, mentioned I believe by Timothy Snyder's in Bloodlands and by others elsewhere, is that people who sheltered Jews during the Hitlerian Holocaust usually downplayed their efforts when asked about them, and said that they only did what anybody would do: simple decency. That's beautiful and reaffirms the possibility of heroic decency, but it's blatantly incorrect. People doing the decent thing were rare, and a constant and urgent question is how to get more people to act decently, especially when they can do so with far less danger than in defying the Nazis.

    In terms of what can be done with words, among the most powerful motivating statements is that by Martin Niemöller, rendered in English in one version,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This is a fine call for human solidarity; it is also an appeal for behaving decently as a matter of self-interest.

Sidle 3, Getting Repetitious but Closer
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 hundreds or 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, why should non-Jews do more than sympathize? Fitting the Hitlerian Holocaust into a larger pattern of massacres, as Hannah Arendt does in detail in Origins of Totalitarianism, makes it historically and politically relevant for many people, and aids building "Never Again" coalitions.

    It is also useful for "Stop Now" coalitions.

    And here I am going to give some free advice, which can be received with, "And worth every penny we paid for it," or as a free gift, freely given, to accept, modify, or reject.

    When we get serious and start talking reparations, who suffered what at the hands of whom will be contentious. For now, though, and outside of politics, suffering is not a zero-sum horror, and books like Nell Irvin Painter's popular study, The History of White People (2010), can be useful for Black Lives Matter and other parts of the the continuing movement for Black liberation.

 The year 1616 was not the beginning of slavery in the Americas, African slavery was not America's Original Sin (dispossession and extermination of Indians preceded), some Whites as well as many Blacks were kidnapped to the New World and unfree in British America and the early United States — Painter's calls attention to classifications of Whites in the first couple of US censuses: and such points can be useful in expanding support for Black liberation. On the solid grounds that who gets exploited by whom shifts over history and it takes an only mildly enlightened perception to catch on that it is in the self-interest of most people most of the time to disassemble systems of exploitation and oppression. Check out the numbers: the usual rule is a large class of the exploited supporting a small group of the elite. 

    But note that elites over the centuries have evolved ways to make the system more subtle, primarily a hierarchy that — in its most respectable form — became a Great Chain of Being that put human society within Nature and a divine order, and provided a place for everyone and everyone in their places: some high and some low, as a couple famous sermons had it, some rich and some poor, some in authority and some in subjection/subjugation — but most poor, and many (often a majority) unfree. At that best, in theory, it was a truly Great Chain held together by love; at its more usual worst, what nasty-minded guys of my generation recommended we picture as a multistory outhouse, with most people well-trained to kiss up and shit down. 

    Parallel to this, there were tribalisms and nationalisms and most recently hierarchies of races that allow people to feel themselves parts of the Arya, the noble people, the Herrenvolk: one Master Race or another. Except, as usual, of course, most members of the group were not masters at all. Most people, most of the time, would do better with equality, equality under the law, to start with, and then more social equality. 

    And why has equality even just at law been so rare in human history? That old conservative, in most ways, Sir (and Saint) Thomas More could think through to an answer both traditional and revolutionary, as that fictional traveler Raphael Hythloday tells us in the conclusion of Utopia (1516), about a country where there was imperfect but wide-spread equality.

I cannot think but the sense of every man’s interest, added to the authority of Christ’s commands [...] would have drawn all the world over to the laws of the Utopians, if pride, that plague of human nature, that source of so much misery, did not hinder it; for this vice does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult.  Pride thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of [others ...]. 

 Translating out of the Hebrew and Greek, "Raphael Hythloday" means something like "speaker of healing nonsense," and More in Utopia is both ironic and quite serious ... and logical and politically astute, what might be called in the time of More (more or less), "politic."

    My free advice, freely given (and, like most unsolicited advice, arrogantly given) is that Black Lives Matter and others striving for Black liberation, and reparations, should make that appeal to self-interest. That History of White People includes many Whites who were enslaved or "enserfed," indentured or transported for crimes — and remained in servitude for life: given in British America how many people expired — as in died — before the expiration of their indentures.

    "White" in a racial sense has been a flexible term over time, usually taking in more people over time, but subject to change over time. And what gets defined as race, and as human can change radically and quickly, as the Nazis and others have demonstrated quite strongly. 

    In the US and the colonies before that, mostly, "They came for the Blacks"; but some poor Whites early on were kept in subjection, and radical immigrant Whites later on were lynched. This should be understood by First Peoples-Americans (Indians), massacred and removed, and by Chinese, once excluded, and Japanese, once interned. (Jews who don't get it are a special kind of stupid.)

    To recycle and redirect my rhetorical question on Jews, the Holocaust, and non-Jews: If the massacre of Jews was a uniquely Jewish problem, why, beyond decency, should others care a whole lot, and why not take Jewish suffering as a pressing reason to remain silent and safe? If racism in the US is a uniquely Black problem and systemic; if racism is based in privilege that profits all Whites — why, beyond decency, should others care a whole lot? 

     As much of the history of the Hitlerian Holocaust teaches, and the history of race in America teaches for a longer period — don't count heavily on the power of decency and the higher virtues.    

     If there is White privilege and hegemony, and racism is systemic, then the answer to why Whites should help probably lies in some combination of the sacrifice of a lot of young Blacks in attempts to force Whites to concede power — and in less costly ways to get large numbers of Whites to see that greater freedom and equality for all, as a general principle, is in their enlightened self-interest long term, and quite possibly in their self-interest pretty immediately. 

    Crudely put, there's very little room at the top of that multi-story outhouse. More elegantly put, there are the words of Martin Niemöller (or the fine animation, The Hangman). 

    Patriotism to American ideals, however poorly realized; decency, morality, ethics: all these demand support of the principle that Black Lives Matter. So does self-interest. That "web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together [...]," and the combination shouldn't bother us. When something is right to do, and pretty directly in our interest, then we should bloody-well just do it. So while stressing the right, do bring in when you can, self-interest.