October 28, 2018

The almost inescapable we

‘To protect ourselves we use the most potent marker of distance we know, the line of demarcation that passes between “we” and “they.” The Nazis have become our great “they.” In their demonic and monstrous evil, “they” exterminated the Jews and set the world aflame. Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler, Mengele, Stangl, and Eichmann. The German people who followed “them” are in our minds also a “they,” a faceless and frenzied mass, almost as monstrous as their leaders. The remoteness of “they” is vast and dashes down these proximate historical events, which took place in the present of our grandparents, into a near-medieval abyss. At the same time we know, every one of us knows, even though we might not acknowledge it, that we ourselves, had we been a part of that time and place and not of this, would in all probability have marched beneath the banners of Nazism. In Germany in 1938 Nazism was the consensus, it was what was right, and who would dare to speak against what is right? The great majority of us believe the same as everyone else, do the same as everyone else, and this is to because the “we” and the “all” are what decide the norms, rules, and morals of a society. Now that Nazism has become “they,” it is easy to distance ourselves from it, but this was not the case when Nazism was “we.” If we are to understand what happened and how it was possible, we must understand this first. And we must understand too that Nazism in its various elements wasn’t monstrous in itself, by which I mean that it did not arise as something obviously monstrous and evil, separate from all else in the current of society, but was on the contrary, part of that current. The gas chambers were not a German invention, but were conceived by Americans who realized that people could be put to death by placing them in a chamber infused with poisonous gas, a procedure they carried out for the first time in 1919. Paranoid anti-Semitism was not a German phenomenon either, the world’s most celebrated and passionate anti-Semite in 1925 being not Adolf Hitler but Henry Ford. And racial biology was not an abject, shameful discipline pursued at the bottom of society or its shabby periphery, it was the scientific state of the art, much as genetics is today, haloed by the light of the future and all its hope. Decent humans distanced themselves from all of this, but they were few, and this fact demands our consideration, for who are we going to be when our decency is put to the test? Will we have the courage to speak against what everyone else believes, our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, to insist that we are decent and they are not? Great is the power of the we, almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as “they,” in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as “we.” It will come as what is right.’

My Struggle (Min Kamp), Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken

October 19, 2018

The teleological error of biography

‘The issue with biography as a genre, and this is as true of autobiography as it is of the memoir, is that the author purports to be omniscient, a sole authority, he or she knows how it all turned out, and as such it is almost impossible not to accord emphasis to any sign, be it character trait or event, that points in that one direction, even if, as in this instance, it is merely one trait, one event among many others that in no way called attention to themselves. Of course, the truth of any past situation is elusive, it belongs to the moment and cannot be separated from it, but we may ensnare that moment, illuminate it from different angles, weigh the plausibility of one interpretation against that of another, and in that experiment endeavor to ignore what later happened, which is to say refrain from considering one character trait, one event, as a sign of something other than what it is in itself.

‘This “in itself” is both riddle and solution at the same time. If we view Hitler as a “bad” person, with categorically negative characteristics even as a child and a young man, all pointing toward a subsequently escalating “evil,” then Hitler is of “the other,” and thereby not of us, and in that case we have a problem, since then we are unburdened of the atrocities he and Germany later committed, these being something “they” did, so no longer a threat to us. But what is this “bad” that we do not embody? What is this “evil” that we do not express? The very formulation is indicative of how we humans think in terms of categories, and of course there is nothing wrong with that as long as we are aware of the dangers. In the night of pathology and the predetermined there is no free will, and without free will there is not guilt.

‘No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.

‘Kershaw and almost two generations with him have condemned Hitler and his entire being as if pointing to his innocence when he was nineteen or twenty-three, or pointing to some of the good qualities he retained throughout his life, were a defense of him and of evil. In actual fact the opposite is true: only his innocence can bring his guilt into relief.’

My Struggle (Min Kamp), Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken

October 7, 2018

Equality in language only

‘After writing this yesterday morning, I took Heidi and John to the nursery, where I was putting in a shift. The staff told me I could get off early to go to Vanja’s last-day-of-school even if I wanted, so I took Heidi and John with me and went to the church a few blocks away where it was taking place. Compared to the last-day assemblies of my own school days, which had taken place in a chapel with hymns and a priest in full garb in an atmosphere that was starched and solemn, the last thing we had to endure before the summer, which seemed to us to be ready and waiting outside, Vanja’s last day was like something from a different world. … It was like an audition for American Idol. The priest spoke about how important it was to be joyful, he told them fame and fortune didn’t matter and that everyone was equal. There was no mention of God, Jesus, or the Bible. After the sermon, which lasted all of five minutes, the pupils who had stood out most during the year were called forward. They received diplomas. Some for their fantastic grades, some for their fantastic personal qualities, which, judging by what was said, consisted of taking responsibility for others and caring. … After we got back to the nursery and I was busy filling the dishwasher and wiping the kitchen counter, the nursery head asked me how the even had gone. I said it was like being in the United States. That I’d never seen anything as Americanized before. The best students singing and performing for the others, diplomas awarded to those who had stood out. And the absurd sermon given by the priest, who said everyone was equal, while everything that was going on around him said the opposite, with some students singled out as being more valuable than others and put on display in all their glory. …

‘Equality was the supreme principle, and one of the consequences was that expressions of the singularly Swedish were seen as exclusive and discriminatory, for which reason they were shunned. … It was this same ideology, hostile to all difference, that could not accept categories of male and female, he and she. Since han and hun are denotative of gender, it was suggested a new pronoun, hen, be used to cover both. The ideal human being was a gender-neutral hen whose foremost task in life was to avoid oppressing any religion or culture by preferring their own. Such total self-obliteration, aggressive in its insistence on leveling out, though in its own view tolerant, was a phenomenon of the cultural middle class, that segment of the population which controlled the media, the schools, and other major institutions of society … . But what did this ideology of equality actually entail? A recent study said that differences between pupils in Swedish schools had never been greater than they are now. The gap between the ablest children, for whom the future is bright, and the least able, whose futures lie outside the zones of influence and wealth, is widening year by year. The trend in the study is clear indeed: the strongest pupils are those from Swedish backgrounds, the weakest are from immigrant backgrounds. While we might be concerned not to offend people from other nations and other cultures, going so far as to eliminate everything Swedish, this happens only in the symbolic world, the world of flags and anthems, whereas in the real world everyone who does not belong to the Swedish middle class, which is hostile to all difference, is kept down and excluded … . … Equality in Sweden is confined to the middle class, they alone are becoming more equal; elsewhere the only equality is in the language, managed by the same middle class. In Sweden something happening in language is much worse than something happening in reality. An instance of one moral code applying in language and another in reality used to be called a double standard. This was what was going on at Vanja’s last-day-of-school event; the ideal of everyone being equal, and fame and wealth being unimportant, applied in the language of the priest, whereas the reality surround that ideology said the opposite: the most important thing is to be rich and famous. Every child there harbored that dream, it was in the air. And the more I see of it, this self-blind and self-satisfied ideology of quality, believing as it does that the conclusion it has reached is universal and true and must therefore govern us all – although in fact it is valid only to a small class of the privileged few, as if they comprised some little island of decency in an ocean of commercialism and social inequality – the more the significance of my life’s struggle diminishes … . … Oh, how then, for crying out loud, can we make the lives we live an expression of life, rather than the expression of ideology?’

My Struggle (Min Kamp), Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken

October 6, 2018

Viewpoints

This week’s The Commons, out of Brattleboro, Vermont, dedicates its “Voices” section to “The Supreme Court Hearings and the Trauma of Sexual Assault”, asking “What do the Kavanaugh hearings say about our politics and how our society treats survivors who have suffered in silence?”

Although there are 5 “Viewpoints”, 1 regular column, and 3 letters, only one viewpoint is presented, however. There is no questioning of the assumptions behind their theme. For example, maybe the Supreme Court hearing had nothing at all to do with the trauma of sexual assault except in the minds of those forcing the issue in to derail it. And maybe that’s what speaks more about our politics and how our society treats survivors, such as cynically using them to achieve a political end – or mere campaign event – that has nothing to do with actually helping victims of sexual assault.

Of course, in this atmosphere, who would dare to raise such views, such a voice, and incur the wrath of the whipped-up mob?

October 2, 2018

Paul Krugman defends his privilege

Gary Taustine comments in reply to Paul Krugman’s opinion piece “The Angry White Male Caucus: Trumpism is all about the fear of losing traditional privilege”:

Dear Paul,

Have you ever considered, even for a moment, that the white folks who voted for Trump are not scared of losing the fictional “privilege” of which you speak, but rather, sick and tired of being told they’re privileged as they struggle to make ends meet?

Perhaps your own wealth and privilege make you feel guilty and uncomfortable, so you’d rather ascribe your charmed life to race instead of facing the fact that you, personally, are one of the few truly privileged people in this country.

From your ivory towers you and your fellow leftist one percenters haphazardly label everyone who disagrees with you as small-minded bigots, terrified of losing advantages they’ve never known and entitlements they’ve never enjoyed, and you wonder why you lost the election.

Here in Manhattan, where a MAGA hat is a 100 percent reliable form of birth control for men, I’m sure most everyone agrees with you, but that’s the danger of living in an echo chamber. Venture outside of your bubble and you’ll find that you’re part of a jaded, uninformed minority whose views of the working class are as ignorant as they are offensive.

This is not an issue of race; the only color of privilege in America is green, and the interests of the truly privileged one percent on both sides of the aisle are well served by suggesting their advantages are enjoyed by all 62 percent of Americans lacking melanin. If they didn't pit races against one another, eventually everyone might recognize the real enemy.

Some Dude replied:

@Gary Taustine
You sound better aligned with Bernie Sanders than with Trump. How do you figure that the poster man-child for upper class greed is going to help the working class? That defies even pretzel logic.

And Gary Taustine:

@Some Dude
I'm no socialist, I'm an independent capitalist, and I don't think Trump cares any more about the working class than Rian Johnson cares about Star Wars fans, but I know that the trade deals Trump has been shredding rewarded huge corporations with massive profits for outsourcing jobs. I also know that his tax cuts greatly benefit the super-wealthy while adding to the deficit, but they help those who really needed some relief as well, and the corporate cuts have resulted in historically low unemployment.

So when I see one side rewarding the wealthy while exporting jobs and the other rewarding the wealthy while creating jobs, logic dictates going with the latter.