Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Common Sense from Helen, Abe, and Joseph

A commemorative quotation, from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense": "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." Published February 14, 1776.

I had dinner last night with some friends of friends, Helen and Abe, and their friend Joseph (not their real names). Someone asked how Abe and Helen met and married, over sixty years ago, which brought up their stories of escaping Nazi Europe (Helen from Germany and Abe from Switzerland). My girlfriend asked Joseph if he also had come here because he was Jewish, too. He said, "No, my family wasn't Jewish, but I was beat up a lot in school so they decided I should leave and come here."
"But why were you being beat up?" she asked.
"Because the Nazi rules said my family was Jewish." (His father was sent to Dachau, but released after six months when he "sold" the family business to an SS guard at the camp.)

Joseph's problem was not unusual. Many Jews in Germany were assimilating before the Nazis took power, in part as a result of laws that prohibited Jews from becoming professors or holding public office at the turn of the century, and in part because of alienation from the Jewish community and an attraction to Christianity. For instance, the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in 1886; and his student, Edith Stein, converted to Catholicism in 1921 and became a Carmelite nun, before being killed at Auschwitz.

For some the conversions were shams but many others, including Husserl, became devout, practicing Christians. Being attacked for belonging to a national religion that they themselves had abandoned, with no doubt some feelings of betrayal and loss, might be experienced with a special bitterness. At least that's how Joseph sounded.

I'd just finished reading Norman Finkelstein's insightful, brave book The Holocaust Industry and while I agree with most of what he writes, the book is only half the story, overlooking folks such as Helen, Abe, and Joseph, that is, survivors of Nazi Germany who quickly and clearly see the outlines of Nazi policies in the apparently workaday happenings of everyday life in so-called liberal societies, especially this one. They have no desire to participate in the Holocaust Industry Finkelstein describes, but rather use their familiarity with fascism and discrimination in Germany to orient themselves to its presence here. After John Aschcroft was nominated to be the Attorney General, Abe sent a letter to 100 Senators urging them to vote against his appointment. (And of course Abe is now disgusted by the fact that Gonzalez makes Ashcroft seem like a good person.)

They are all strong supporters of Barack Obama and Helen told me how she arrived two hours before he was scheduled to speak two years ago, was told there was no more room, but eventually was allowed in. The thing that impressed Abe from what Helen had told his was that whereas the African-American professors from Harvard and Yale were saying that Brown versus the Board of Education didn't help Blacks one bit, Obama went up to the microphone and said that if it weren't for that decision, those academics wouldn't even be there to complain about it. And that is how we returned to the question that Joseph had posed at the beginning of the meal: what did the recent Supreme Court decision on handling segregated schools really mean. He had read the entire 160 page document. Abe confided in me that he thought using a racial designation for a legal policy, as the school district had been doing to force integration, was not the right way to do things and shrugged his shoulders, acknowledging he was endorsing a Republican position. I appreciated his honesty and ability to see the situation as a complicated one.

Eventually the conversation turned to the immigration debates. The minute I mentioned the predawn ICE raid at UC Santa Barbara and the arrest and 13 day detention of a Korean student, Helen said, "That's just what the Nazis did!" Abe and Joseph, who had read the New York Times article about the woman who died in detention, deprived for days of her medication while her paperwork was being evaluated, were equally disturbed.

But why aren't more people? Why is the only person I have met in the last few years who has read a Supreme Court decision and is not an academic an octogenerian metal manufacturer? Why don't more people send letters to Senators to insist their views be heard? Perhaps it is the Holocaust's role in defining evil as a onetime only unique event in Europe, and therefore absolving citizens of responsibility for finding horrors elsewhere, so that U.S. abuses are normal government. Or maybe because the history of this country is not well understood by its inhabitants, who may know the vague story of the Indians' annihilation but be unfamiliar with the land grab from Mexico. Or maybe Max Weber was right when he wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism of the shift from a society where people worked to be saved to one where they save to work:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the "saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment". But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

When the imagination, moral and in all other ways, is stunted by the vacuity of obtaining private wealth, it becomes difficult to see anything other than a dollar sign.

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