Friday, June 16, 2006

When Tragedies Still Matter

Mark Olsen thinks certain groups--namely Jews and Blacks--remember their historical tragedies the wrong way. Specifically, he thinks that they falsely claim uniqueness, and that they take an overly hostile stance rather than using past tragedies for ethnic bonding. For example, for Jews, Olsen thinks that the proper model is Passover and Egyptian slavery, which is used for ethnic bonding and solidarity, rather than the Holocaust, with its confrontational "never again" slogan which denies reconciliation.

It's an interesting post, marred only by the fact that it's wildly wrong on nearly every account. Not only does Mark misstate how both Jews and Blacks view their historical tragedies, he glosses over important differences that make certain types of historical catastrophes different than others in a vain effort to say "every ethnic group has had problems."

I'm not going to do a point-by-point, because that would take to long, but a few quickie corrections:
1) Jews do not ignore the deaths of others in the Holocaust (I always write of the 11-12 million total death toll unless I'm specifically writing a post about anti-semitism)--although I'd sometimes like them to be a bit more forward about it. But at the same time, Jews are somewhat justified in focusing on their own plight, again because of its particularism: Unlike, say, Poles or Catholics, many of whom also died from slave labor, Jews were one of the only groups to be singled out specifically for extermination (as opposed to just being sent to slave labor camps).
2) "Nazis" aren't the guilty party, the German people are. Pope Benedict tried to pull this slight of hand, but the Holocaust could not have happened without the widespread consent and support of the populace. Every major Holocaust theorist supports this view. And I'd add that the vast majority of the world, by turning its back on the atrocities and by refusing to accept Jewish refugees, were in effect collaborators to the extermination.
3) The ratification of the 13th/14th/15th amendment matters much more than the end date of the civil war to Blacks. And it's an understatement to the extreme to call July 4th "not such an unalloyed declaration of Freedom" for Blacks. If I were Black, I'd consider "all men are created equal" to be an outright mockery at the time. And I'd hold off on popping the champagne corks on the reconstruction amendments until they actually start being enforced as they were originally intended, which won't happen until the Slaughterhouse Cases are overruled.

But to the main. I want to offer my own counter-standard about when its appropriate to "hold on" to a tragedy for more than just social solidarity, but to still demand reform on behalf of the aggrieved party.

With regards to slavery, Mark writes:
The first error which seems universal regarding such memories is that they are very selective. In our two examples, the American Black ascribes fault to the American/European whites for their bondage. And yes, the white men at the time where the slave holders, transporters, and local enablers. However, in the current drug trafficking trade, we hold the seller accountable at least if not moreso than they buyer. In the African slave triangle, it was African indigenous Black tribes preying on others that sold the Black man to the white. However, in my casual acquaintance with the American Black memories of their time in slavery, blame is never assigned to the African Blacks remaining in Africa. If this event is to be remembered, why is not that complicity of the African Black remembered? Or the sacrifice of the Union (mostly white) soldiers remembered just as well?

Geez, where to start? First, if Mark really cannot find a qualitative difference in a drug use buyer/seller dynamic, and slavery buyer/seller dynamic, then we might as well stop the conversation now. I'll just throw out a few important distinctions:

1) One does not get physically addicted to slaveholding (and while slavery was important to the Southern economy, anyone who tries to argue that they were "dependent" the same way a junkie is dependent on heroin is going to get smacked. Seriously).

2) There is no common consensus that drug users behaving immorally, given that there is no inherent direct harm to another. We view addicts as being stupid, sure, but not immoral. And the flip side is that we see sellers as predatory and thus immoral. This dynamic is non-sensical applied to the slave trade ("look at the poor plantation owner, being preyed upon by that lowly slave trader")

3) The power dynamic is inverted: dealers have it drugs, slave holders have it in the slave trade. Drugs are a seller-created market, slaves are a buyer-created market In fact, the whole antebellum slave economy was a product of White and European forces--African kingdoms knew the only way they stood a chance of resisting European imperialism was to get guns via the slave trade. That doesn't justify it, but it's simply ridiculous to assert that Black slave trade was something that operated independently of White imperialism and immorality.

Mark wants to universalize experiences so that each instance of oppression can be reduced to another, with the only difference being which ethnic group gets to form solidarity from which event. But history is particular, and each instance of tragedy plays out in different ways--it's wrong to try and group each one into some meta-category and treat them all the same. Each tragedy is unique and should be dealt with contextually, based on the particular contours of the event itself and its post hoc impacts.

What Mark seems upset about is that Blacks and Jews hold on to their tragedy for more than just a Passover style communal bonding experience. Jews have used "never again" as a rallying cry against anti-semitism, at least partially to justify the creation of Israel and to become one of the world's most consistent and vociferous advocates for genocide intervention (Mark is simply wrong to imply that Jews have not used "never again" in this manner--Jewish groups were among the earliest to call for Darfur a intervention and pushed hard for Rwanda too). Blacks want reparations for slavery and have used America's slave-holding past as part of their narrative of American racist history. So if Mark's project was to try and box all forms of tragedy-remembrance into a happy holiday of solidarity by way of reconciliation, my project is to articulate when its justified to break out of said box.

Several factors come into play in justifying this:
1) How recent was the tragedy? The Holocaust ended in 1945, Egyptian slavery ended in 3000 B.C.E.. That matters.

2) How egregious was the tragedy? Being called "paddy" when you move to America sucks. Being brought to America in chains, separated from your family, beaten bloody every day, and having your son sold to a known brute and your daughter raped by your master sucks more.

3) Has the power hierarchy changed? Has the majority group apologized? Does it no longer hold a meaningfully higher proportion of political power? Is it genuinely committed to rectifying the wrong both procedurally and substantively? American Blacks, I suspect, would be far more willing to put the legacy of slavery behind them if a) they got an official apology (which we refuse to do), b) racism stopped being a meaningful social force in American life, and c) there were not still rampant social inequalities that make a mockery of the 14th amendment.

4) Does the tragedy have modern import? Slavery still matters because White supremacists still use slavery as part of an overall narrative of Black inferiority. Jews still look at the Holocaust because you still see folks trying to marginalize us by saying things like "Hitler was right" (if someone said to me "the Egyptians were right!", by contrast, I'd look at him blankly).

Three and Four are particularly important for three reasons. First, they show how people living today, even if not direct descendents of direct oppressors, can still be implicated in past oppression. The syllogism for slavery runs as follows:
A) We still live in a de facto racial caste system. This is supported by the fact that nearly every social indicator--controlled for class--has White people at a tremendous advantage over Blacks in virtually every aspect of life. David Roediger (American Studies/U. Minnesota) has documented "the wages of whiteness" that even post-civil war white people glean from the racial divide.

B) This caste system is supported, in part, by the immense network of images, stereotypes, economic deprivations, and other wrongs that flowed out of the slave system and reinforced the social hierarchy of white over color. This I think is obvious: if there is, in fact, a racial caste system, I don't think it's controversial that slavery has helped build it.

C) All White people today--regardless of ancestry--gain some benefits that flow out from the slave system.

Second, it distinguishes these cases from the many other historical tragedies which have befallen many other ethnic groups. Yes, the Irish faced significant prejudice when they first came to America, but it has virtually no contemporary potency or impact on their life's chances.

Third, they provide better explanatory power for why this sort of radicalization occurs. I call this "broken promise syndrome." To be blunt, America has continually broken its promise to rectify its wrongs when it comes to Black people. 80 years after "all men are created equal," we still had slavery. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, 60 years later Strauder v. West Virginia was probably the only major case where Blacks had their rights vindicated in court. Brown v. Board was sent down in 1954, today we still have a largely segregated school system. Slavery matters because its harms are ongoing--it is part of the narrative of American racism which continued through Jim Crow and continues to exist today. As Richard Delgado notes, a celebratory remembrance which emphasizes reconciliation is not only ridiculous idealistically, its foolish pragmatically, because it lets the White majority tell itself that "the problem has been solved" and give itself self-congratulatory pats on the back instead of dealing with the continued presence and effect of racism in society. Blacks shouldn't "get past" slavery until Whites do--that is, until Whites agree to dismantle the racial hierarchy that slavery helped nourish and support today.

Moreover, I think that this model is closer to how Blacks actually view their case. Take W.E.B. Du Bois. In his first major work, The Souls of Black Folks(1903), Du Bois was in many ways a model for what Mark wants out of Black leaders--he continually emphasized reconciliation with the south, and argued against the type of general attacks Mark dislikes. Du Bois wrote then that "The present generation of Southerners are not responsible for the past, and they should not be blindly hated or blamed for it," and "if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding powers in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled." Seventeen years later, Du Bois wrote Darkwater, and this conciliatory tone was gone from his voice--calling the atrocities committed during African colonization "the real soul of White culture." As Du Bois life progressed, he grew ever more radical until one of the greatest advocates for democratic pluralism the world has ever seen joined the Communist party and exiled himself to Ghana for the last few years of his life. Du Bois had the faith in White people that Mark wishes to see, he was willing to put slavery and southern atrocities behind him, and found that hope dashed by the cruel reality and persistence of white racism. We'd expect the reverse pattern if, as Mark puts it (in different words), this view of the past was a pathology with little relation to current realities: Black leaders would grow more optimistic about the state of America as they see that their lives are not being constrained by these structures of prejudice. But instead, the classic pattern is one of disenchantment: they start off believing the hype that America is willing to get past racism, and they slowly lose faith as they discover that the story does not match the reality. Mark needs to come up with an alternate explanation of this disenchantment phenomena.

Ultimately, the question is is the tragedy still relevant? For Jews, we won't forget the Holocaust until the underlying harm is gone: that people wish to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth (notably, few anti-semites advocate Jewish enslavement, which makes it easier to forget about Egypt). Blacks will not and should not get past slavery until the underlying problem is eliminated--the underlying problem being White racism. Until then, I applaud their advocacy for change, and I stand in solidarity with their call.


jack said...

Slavery in Africa among Africans was wildly different from slavery in the Americas- you couldn't be born into slavery; slaves had a good deal of autonomy and often respect. Slaves were routinely freed after a term of service. Most of all slaves weren't dehumanized which prevented any number of tragedies- unlike the west.

Mark said...

While I'm working on a more lengthy reply, I'd like to point out that what I was trying to say is common for ethnic groups to remember tragedy in the wrong way, and used American Blacks and post Holocaust Jews as my examples.

Unknown said...

Good point to use W.E.B.Dubois life as a reference. As you point out DuBois gradually lost his faith and belief that America would ever grant Black Americans full citizenship and respect. When he died in 1963, the civil rights movement was being met with large doses of criticism from many Americans for "wanting too much too soon" and for the supposed belligerency of it's leaders (I'm talking Martin Luther King here, not Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael).
Now it's 43 years later, the Georgia legislature won't put a picture of Coretta Scott King up in the capitol besides MLK's pic, Republicans fight to let the Voting Rights Act die, the Senate finally apologized for failing to pass a federal lynching law (although a lot of Senators refused to even vote for this), President Bush won't go address the NAACP, and as an ethnic group African Americans still suffer higher poverty, drop out, and crime victim rates than other groups. Granted the picture and NAACP speech are minor when placed in historical context, but at some point it might be nice if the majority group went a tiny bit out of it's way to show some solidarity towards fellow citizen's concerns. If I were Black I doubt that I would have much more faith than DuBois had on his death bed. Yes, things are better, but anyone who dismisses the historic opression that African Americans have suffered is wearing blinders.

Anonymous said...

"...Anyone who tries to argue that [slaveholders] were 'dependent' the same way a junkie is dependent on heroin is going to get smacked."

That may be the best sentence you've ever written.

Anonymous said...

In case your wondering why I'm commenting on an old topic like this, it's because my non-job is boring, and I'm killing time by catching up on all of the wonderful bloggage I've misssed so far. Anyway, I agree with just about all of your arguments here, although I did raise a skeptical brow at this claim: "But at the same time, Jews are somewhat justified in focusing on their own plight, again because of its particularism: Unlike, say, Poles or Catholics, many of whom also died from slave labor, Jews were one of the only groups to be singled out specifically for extermination (as opposed to just being sent to slave labor camps).

This is a troubling assertion because it assumes a distinction betweem "extermination" and "just being sent to slave labor camps", but (and I know you know this) the slave labor camps were often puprosively employed to the end of extermination. Many Holocaust scholars have noted that the work done in these camps served no utilitarian function, but was simply used to break down psychological defenses and eventually cause death by exhaustion.

That being said, I still think your assertion flounders because it simply doesn't match up with the reality of the experience of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, specifically Germany's gay men (lesbians were typically oppressed socially and politically, but not exterminated based on the belief that they could still reproduce and thus be a service to the German population). Quoting from the USHMM page on Nazi persecution of homosexuals (

The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the more than one million German men who, the state asserted, carried a "degeneracy" that threatened the "disciplined masculinity" of Germany. Denounced as "antisocial parasites" and as "enemies of the state," more than 100,000 men were arrested under a broadly interpreted law against homosexuality. Approximately 50,000 men served prison terms as convicted homosexuals, while an unknown number were institutionalized in mental hospitals. Others—perhaps hundreds—were castrated under court order or coercion. Analyses of fragmentary records suggest that between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexual men were imprisoned in concentration camps, where many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings, and murder.

I think this paragraph alone, especially the part on forced castration and institutionalization, proves that the Nazis had a very clear goal in mind of removing gay men from the German population, both in the present and in the futire, by ensuring that they would not reproduce. By locating homosexuality as a behavioral effect of a mental condition, just as one might think of numerous conditions causing mental redaration, the Nazis were able to raise the stakes to the actual genetic removal of the gay population.

The article goes on to say "Nazi Germany did not seek to kill all homosexuals. Nevertheless, the Nazi state, through active persecution, attempted to terrorize German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity, leaving thousands dead and shattering the lives of many more."

This seems to support your claim by arguing that gay men never faced extermination as such, but I think it's a faulty claim on two levels.

1) I don't think there's a material difference between exterminating "homosexuality" and exterminating "homosexuals". If the German goal is to ensure that all gay men convert or die, with the end result that no men with homosexual desires or behavior remain in society, I think the claim of extermination is very appropriate.

2) I think, historically, the claim that Germans sought to destory gay men plays out, as the article itself makes clear.

The rhetoric of reproduction, population purity, and genetics is omnipresent in Germany's anti-gay violence. "It was accused of being a factor in the declining birthrate that threatened to leave the nation unable to sustain itself. It was also feared as an "infection" that could become an "epidemic," particularly among the nation's vulnerable youth." Nazis also capitalized on stereotypes of gay men as less masculine and weaker than straight men, making the project of extermination fall in accord with the general scheme of eugenics: the improvement of the body politic at the level of genetics by removing weakness, and ensuring the continued reproduction of the strongest. The existence of male homosexuality was percieved as a genetic laibility that needed to be expunged to ensure the purity of the master race.

The experience of gay men in the concentration camps made it clear that the stkes were preciesely that: In summer 1940, SS chief Himmler ordered convicted homosexual men "who have seduced more than one partner" sent to concentration camps after completing their prison sentence. Such "preventive detention" could be shortened if the individual underwent castration, either voluntarily or, after 1942, at the order of a camp commandant. One way or another, the risk of reproduction was not tolerated.

And the experience of those within the camps cannot be meaningfully distinguished from extermination:
"Himmler's wartime directives sent thousands of homosexuals to forced labor camps. There, in an explicit campaign of 'extermination through work,' homosexuals and other so–called security suspects were assigned to grueling work in ceaselessly dangerous conditions, often with fatal consequences. And, "Homosexuals in these camps were almost always assigned to the worst and often most dangerous work. Usually attached to "punishment companies," they generally worked longer hours with fewer breaks, and often on reduced rations. The quarries and brickyards claimed many lives, not only from exertion but also at the hands of SS guards who deliberately caused "accidents."

After 1942, the SS, in agreement with the Ministry of Justice, embarked on an explicit program of "extermination through work" to destroy Germany's imprisoned "habitual criminals." Some 15,000 prisoners, including homosexuals, were sent from prisons to camps, where nearly all perished within months."

Extermination was never an unitended consequence of the work camps, it was a calculated eugenic strategy.

Now, all of that together, I still don't think you are wrong to argue for the particularity of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. Obviously extermination was more widespread for Jews. Jews could not cover, pass, or convert as easily as gay men could. Theinverse of that is that the experience of the gay men - the psychological stakes of widescale passing, high instances of sexual abuse in camps, humiliation and symbolic de-masculinization via castration - are also very particular and unique. For any group that has ever faced tragedy, there are always particularities, and I think trying to debate about which tragedies are "worse" as some scholars do is a silly diversion as it prevents us from understanding the suffering in its particularity and historical specicifity. To that extent, I don't think anyone should ever condemn the Jews or anyone else for focusing on their own experience. However, to the extent that tragedy can be used towards unity emphasis on particularity may not be the best strategy, and when it is, the invocation of the extermination factor is certainly not appropriate in this instance.