Friday, April 25, 2008

That Which We Deny

Feddie at Southern Appeal wrote a small post regarding some of the more controversial words said by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright claimed his words were being "twisted". Feddie asks how one can twist claiming that the US government is spreading AIDS (which is, of course, false), or that the "chickens came home to roost" on 9/11?

In the comments, I noted that this last statement was, in fact, being twisted insofar as it was being taken as a claim of American moral responsibility or causality for 9/11. What Wright actually was claiming was that the US, too, had supported state-sponsored terrorism in (inter alia) Latin America, and now we were just experiencing what we had already done to others throughout history.

Several commenters ("Petrigu's Ghost", "BillyHW"), though, denied that the US, had in fact, supported terrorism and death squads in Latin America. Now, American complicity in the creation, training, and activities of the death squads is not really a contested fact. Denying it is just as false as Wright's claim that the government is spreading AIDS. Yet while Wright is considered to be a monster, there are no consequences to those who deny American complicity in terrorist activity (indeed, if anything, the public backlash would probably target the truth-speakers). How is this justifiable?

There are, I suppose, ways one could label Wright's falsehood worse than Petrigu's (though in a way, that's a side issue because Wright isn't just being treated comparatively worse -- Petrigu and his ilk will undoubtedly get off scot-free). While denying America's role in the death squads might anger the victims of the atrocities, the harms in question are largely in the past. By contrast, Wright's fiction does real damage right now in terms of hindering public efforts to combat the AIDS crisis.

But in actuality, I think there are real and serious contemporary dangers that manifest themselves when we allow the denial of historical atrocities to proceed. The denial that Petrigu and others indulge in -- denial of responsibility for mass atrocities -- does not just insult the memories of the victims and survivors. It actively paves the way for more similar atrocities to occur. And it is the very strength of the denial instinct that creates the obligation to overcome it. We cannot stand idly by while our cohorts -- by denying the reality of past atrocities -- lay the groundwork for present ones.

I. The Harms of Denial

When accused of grave moral wrongdoing, the first response of everyone is to deny. We deny knowledge, we deny responsibility, we deny the event occurred, we deny the victims even existed (anyone who's seen the Sudanese government's response to attacks over Darfur has seen this in all its horrifying glory). We deny, deny, deny. Being Jewish means observing this phenomena first-hand: not just in Holocaust deniers, but in those who deny the existence of contemporary anti-Semitism, who deny the relevance of anti-Jewish hatred international treatment of Israel, who deny the way that contemporary Christianity silences Jewish voices under the guise of the "Judeo-Christian" worldview. When one lives with oppression that is so real and tangible, and yet still sees the world deny it, one becomes rapidly attuned to just how much denial the world is capable of.

There is a plethora of literature that explicates how important it is to the victims of mass atrocity that the perpetrators accept their responsibility and that the world recognizes the existence and magnitude of the violation. Victims of mass atrocity feel like the world has abandoned them to the killing fields and the rape rooms. When their story is not heard, their experience not verified, it is as if the horrors were being relived. If that was the only reason to oppose the instinct of denial, it would be enough. But denial extends beyond that, and plays a crucial role in the reiteration of mass atrocity in other contexts around the world.

In my post on the resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, I noted that such resolutions are not just about historical accuracy, or even comforting the victims and their descendants. It is a fact of genocidal activity (and other moral atrocities) that the perpetrators wish to mask their crimes. Even as they fire the bullet they have already begun burying the bodies. As Charles Briggs wrote, "The architects of genocide are often as concerned with suppressing discourse about the event as with the killing itself."

Those with genocidal ambitions carefully observe the way similar atrocities are treated in the world community when determining whether to enact similar policies in their own nation. Samantha Power used the example of Serbia to illustrate the devastating consequences that silence can create:
Slobodan Milosevic saw that he got away with the brutal suppression of independence movements in Slovenia and Croatia and he reasoned he would pay no price for doing the same in Bosnia and Kosovo. Because so many individual perpetrators were killing for the first time and deciding daily how far they would go, the United States and its European allies missed critical opportunities to try to deter them. When they ignored genocide around the world, the Western powers were not intending to 'green light' the perpetrators. But because the killers told themselves they were doing the world a favor by 'cleansing' the 'undesirables,' some surely interpreted silence as consent or even support.

One could also easily use the example of the Holocaust. Hitler famously remarked, "who remembers the Armenians" when deciding to carry out the Final Solution. The lack of any accountability -- even if it is only being remembered as an evil-doer -- is a crucial link in the chain that allows mass atrocity to occur. Consequently, denial about America's role in supporting Central American death squads helps recreate the a pro-murder narrative that encourages other states and organizations who might be tempted to support terror. Albeit indirectly, there is a real and salient link between the denial of America's role in the death squads, and the ongoing killing in Darfur. The latter is nourished and sustained by the former -- specifically, the former's promise that the latter will be tolerated, then ultimately forgotten.

But denial's real harms might occur domestically. In my last post, I noted that people have trouble reasoning generally beyond specific problems and contexts they've experienced. When created rules or normative guidelines, we necessarily can only gear them towards problems we can perceive.

This simple point becomes chilling when linked up with the logic of atrocity-denial. Insofar as Americans deny their nation's complicity in acts of terroristic violence, we remove the activities from the realm of "problems" we have to be wary of. In order to enact barriers (legal, institutional, psychic, what have you) against the perpetuation of mass atrocity, first we have to recognize in ourselves the potential for engaging in these acts. But denial reifies the opposite -- it allows us to maintain the fiction that such activities are not within the realm of possibility for the United States, and hence blocks the creation and propagation of norms that might guard against it. So long as Americans still can tell themselves "we don't engage in torture" (i.e., engage in denial about what happens in Black Sites and what waterboarding is), we have no need to promulgate strong rules against it (or at the very least, continue conceptualizing it -- and thus gear the rules against it towards -- the behavior of individual troublemakers, rather than official choices of top-level decision makers). So long as we deny that we have supported terrorism, we can refrain from doing anything to insure we don't engage in terrorist activity, because it's not "our problem." The cycle of deny-perpetuate-deny continues unabated because both elements feed into each other: denial of our history of wrongdoing makes it easier to perpetuate crimes, the perpetuation of the crime creates an event that need to be denied.

II. Overcoming Denial

In the face of all this denial, how do we even learn about mass atrocities at all? Well, there are a couple of ways. The first is that the injustice is so large that it simply cannot be contained. The rupture is too deep, the wounds too wide-spread. I will concede this may happen some of the time, but I do not think often, and only in the most extreme cases. Jack Balkin has written of the paradox in protecting minorities: the most powerless need the most protection, but by virtue of their powerlessness they are unlikely to have enough political weight to be able to demand accountability from elites.

The second way mass atrocities get exposed is when it is in the interest of a powerful group to expose it. It is difficult for the weak to deny, not because the weak are more likely to be saints, but because they're much easier to catch. The only reason the Holocaust became anything beyond provincial was because Hitler invaded Poland, thus making it everybody's problem, not just the Jews. Exposing Wright's falsehood was in the interest of elite White power-brokers (obviously more powerful than Wright), so it got exposed. But there is no sufficiently powerful group with an interest in exposing America's support of Central American terrorism. So it stays under wraps.

The third way, related to the second, is that the victims managed to muster enough strength to force the world (and their oppressors) to account for their crimes. This was the story of the American Civil Rights movement. For most of America's apartheid regime, Whites did, in fact, deny deny deny that their actions were in any way, shape or form incompatible with liberal norms of liberty and equality. The mass movements of the Civil Rights era gave Blacks enough political and social muscle to force away the veil of deniability and expose the ugly reality within.

All three methodologies, though, offer only a faint hope. The first is by and large a crap-shoot, and only applies to a small percentage of cases. The second likewise only applies to those cases where the interests of a victim class intersect with that of an empowered class -- not necessarily a common occurrence. It also provides no hope to those whose oppression is (or was) being carried out by those very elites. The third unreasonably relies on those being crushed to muster enough power to turn the tables on their oppressors, which puts the cart before the horse -- gaining power can't be a prerequisite to remedying your disempowerment.

What's needed is to break the cycle at the start: The instinct to deny. We must as a people have the individual and collective courage to admit -- selflessly and on our own initiative -- our own wrongs and aggressively root out others. That is the only ultimate guarantee that they will not be replicated. And it means that those who do engage in denying American atrocities -- such as Feddie's commenters -- are far more dangerous, far worse "fanatics", than anything Jeremiah Wright could be.

III. Repositioning the Bayonet

The tag-line of Southern Appeal is "giving the bayonet to the dictatorship of relativism." I hesitate to use this as my metaphor, since I have no idea what Feddie's position is on America's terrorist activity in Central America. Perhaps (hopefully) he finds it appalling -- the sort of unforgivable evil that must never be washed over or forgotten -- and I don't want to impute his commenters failure of morality onto him. But I'll use the metaphor because I think it's very illustrative of the final barrier to overcoming denial.

Now, I suspect my views on "relativism" are different than Feddie's. But taking the anti-relativism position seriously, it has to be applied universally. That is, the bayonet has to point inward as well as outward. Yet, one rarely sees self-inflicted wounds from the relativism-seeking bayonet. It is very good at attacking others -- people we don't care about or wish to condemn. It is far less adept at piercing our own skin -- our own layer of justification and obfuscation we use to legitimize our own evil acts. So it can attack Burma but not America, German bystanders in the Reich but not White bystanders in the South, Hu Jintao for supporting the Janjaweed but not Ronald Reagan for supporting the death squads. This is why it is so often seen as ethnocentric: the relativism-seeking bayonet seems to stab everyone but its wielder.

Of course, nobody likes being stabbed (hence our denial reflex), and so it is difficult for us to turn the bayonet inward. The most fervent proponents of the bayonet are the one's who seem to blanch palest (or sputter reddest) at the prospect of it targeting ourselves. Imagine of Barack Obama gave a speech demanding that the U.S. acknowledge and repent for its role in the death squads? His campaign (to say the least) would be over. Consequently, it is incumbent on the Feddies of the world to be the most aggressive in insuring that America's past and present are not rewritten, because it seems to be his fellow travelers who enable the deny-perpetuate-deny cycle to continue. If this bayonet is to have any claim at universalizability (if it isn't just relativism in shiny garb), giving ourselves a free pass is not a legitimate move. It is a false move, it is a supremely dangerous move, and ultimately it is a killing move.

There must be a commitment. We cannot indulge in the luxury of denial. The risks are too great, the costs are too high. Our own mental comfort is not sufficient to rewrite history. If we are to condemn Rev. Wright (as I do) for misleading his flock about AIDS in America, then we must -- with equal fervor and equal resolve -- expel from our fellows those who would deny America's history of terrorism, of violence, and of barbarism. The bayonet must be allowed to point inward.

1 comment:

Joey said...

..the Durham, NC, citizens (and bloggers) who stood by while the names and addresses of the families of the falsely accused Duke students were handed out to the Durham-invited New Black Panther Party........and now have the gall to be indignant about the multi-million dollar suits against their town...