Monday, January 26, 2015

Overcoming history

Jennifer Teege
Thanks to the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List, most people know the story of how Oskar Schindler was able to save Jews from concentration camps by putting them to work in the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp outside of Krakow making munitions.  The film starred Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ben Kingsley as the Jewish accountant, and Ralph Fiennes as the psychopathic commandant of the concentration camp which supplied the workers to Schindler’s factory.  Schindler's List made a tremendous impact, was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and came away with seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Part of the film’s impact was due to the fact that it was based on a true story.  Schindler was a businessman playboy who started out as a war profiteer who had no compunctions about using slave labor.  Over time, though, he developed a conscience and morphed from war profiteer into a hero by using his own money to pay the commandant for more and more workers to be transferred to his factory.    Because the factory was producing munitions, the argument could be made it was necessary to keep the workers alive as long as possible.  In the end, 1100 workers’ lives were saved.

We know what happened to Schindler after the war.  His name came to represent “The Good German” and he was honored by Israel as a “righteous man.”  Anybody who bears the name of Schindler would be proud of the association with their famous ancestor.

But imagine yourself wandering through a library one day, just browsing for a book to read.  You come across a book related to Schindler and realize for the first time that the name of the concentration camp commandant was Agon Goeth.  You are adopted, but you know that your birth mother’s name was also Goeth.  It’s an unsettling coincidence.  But nothing like the feelings that wash over you as you read further and come to the awareness that your birth mother was this very same man’s daughter.  And you are Agon Goeth’s granddaughter, this man you know from the movie, who used to shoot slackers in the concentration camp from his balcony for sport, and then send in his dogs to rip their bodies to pieces.

Tomorrow, the 27th of January, is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the concentration camp just outside Krakow.  To mark the occasion, ARD, the German public television consortium, has published links online to sixteen radio and television programs having to do with Auschwitz and its aftermath, and on how Germans are processing this event in their history now in the third generation.  One of these is the story of Jennifer Teege, the granddaughter of Agon Goeth and her discovery of her origins.*  

Adding to the drama of the discovery is the fact that Jennifer is a beautiful woman with dark skin.  Americans and others for whom race is still a salient category, and who assign children of parents of different races, like their president, to the black category, would call her black.  Jennifer Teege has been assigned by fate the task of uncovering not only who her maternal grandfather was, but who this man from Nigeria was her mother had a fling with, and who added yet more complexity to her biological make-up. Fortunately, after her mother dropped her off at a catholic orphanage when she was only a few weeks old, she was taken in by a foster family who then adopted her and raised her to become the intelligent and articulate, obviously warmly loved, wife and mother she is today.  There’s one more twist to the story, which many will find ironic.  At some point in her life, before discovering her origins, she went to Israel, where she settled for a time, learned Hebrew, and fell in love, before returning to her home in Germany.

The story of Jennifer Teege is not new.  She published her story in German last year and an English-language version will be published in April with the title: My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past.     But I am grateful to ARD for bringing her story out with all the other reminders of the time into which I was born and a people with whom I identify.

I grew up with people who spent hours talking about their roots.  We were able, on my father’s side, to trace the path of ancestors from Scotland and Ireland to Nova Scotia and New England.  All the immigrants on my mother’s side came from Northern Germany.  One of the great delights in recent years was the discovery that, when I went to visit my mother’s brother-from-a-different-mother in Hamburg in 1961, there was a little girl in the next room.  Her name is Daniela, and she would turn out to be a friend and cousin I now welcome decades later into my life with open arms, and a fellow sleuth in revealing to her siblings that their grandmother was not their grandfather’s first wife, and that he had previously married my grandmother and given birth to my mother, and that they had a whole line of blood relatives in America.

Ancestry sleuthing has been a source of curiosity and delight, in other words, for me and for most of the people I know caught up in the search for roots.  We may joke about uncovering a horse thief or a pirate somewhere in the blood line, but when an ancestor turns out to be on the shady side, we feel sufficiently far removed to feel no shame of connection.  And when they turn out to be heroic figures, we beat the drums of association.

This game takes on an added dimension for adopted children who struggle with nagging questions like why their mothers gave them up and whether there are things in their background about which they would feel shame if they uncovered them.  The endless academic debate over the relative importance of nature and nurture is one thing in the ivory tower.  It takes on a different cast when it settles into your own flesh and blood.  One has only to think of all the children born of rape, including the thousands of children born following an invasion by a foreign army.  Some of them have to live with the knowledge not only that their fathers were rapists, but that they were thrown away by their mothers, who could not bear to see in their eyes the man who assaulted them.  

Only in modern times have we begun to think in terms of people as individuals, with separate and distinct entities, and with human rights quite apart from those claimed by tribes and nation and family.  Today, as the struggle of Jennifer Teege to come to terms with her personal history illustrates, we can get past impulses to feel shame and fear.  I don't know about you, but the emotion I associate with her is admiration, as I imagine her sharing her history with others like her Israeli friends.  And explaining to her children who their great-grandfather was.

All the same, it is easier for most of us to deny the ugly reality of blood lines.  Even Jennifer Teege herself says at one point that while it was difficult growing up with dark skin in a race-conscious Germany, that racial difference would turn out to be a major aid in getting her out of the months-long depression that followed her discovery of her connection with Agon Goeth.  One book reviewer takes issue with the claim that Goeth would have shot her for being black, but for her it has turned out to be a comfort.  As, no doubt, was the fact that her grandmother was Goeth’s mistress and not his wife, even though she did take his name.  The struggle illustrates the importance we still place on blood and on tribal connections.

We may be living in an enlightened age of humanist values where we are to be judged not by the color of our skin or other accidents of birth but by the content of our character.  But this means engaging the head and living up to the principle of judging each other as self-standing individuals with our own moral choices, and not surrendering to sentimental notions of racial and national identity.  We are all descended from monsters and rapists.  Some of us just happen to have more distance from them than others, but that distance, too, is merely an accident of birth, and nothing to take credit for.   Overcoming history, as the South African policy of peace and reconciliation shows us, is not just a theoretical possibility.  We can make it happen.  Not by forgetting it, but by telling stories.  About the victims, most of all, of course.  But also about Oskar Schindler.  And learning from Teege that sometimes you don’t have a choice to forget, but must find a place to put the facts of history in your head without letting them drive you insane.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the boys defines history as, “just one bloody thing after another.”  It’s a great line.  And it is all that history is if we choose not to engage with it.  The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz tomorrow is a chance to do more than that.  Most people I know will not know another year has rolled around.  And if they do hear of it, they will prefer to just move on.  My father had a number of pithy sayings he would drop into conversation and drive me up a wall with – like "even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.”  Another was the line from the Gospel of Matthew, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”  Let bygones be bygones.

It was by chance, not by design, that I happened to come across the ARD focus on Auschwitz on this anniversary occasion.  I’m glad I did.  I’m glad somebody’s still paying attention.

*I don’t know how long these links will remain.  That hour-long interview lacks English subtitles, but there is another interview which Jennifer gives in English on Talking Germany.  The story is also available at a number of news sources, such as this one.  And, if your German is up to it, there is an extensive interview with Jennifer on Mashpedia with Thadeusz, very much worth seeing in its entirety.  In this interview she is asked why she wrote the book.  It was to give people hope, she says, hope that the world can move on, that people can recover from from misery and from depression.  She'd like people to see her as living proof of that fact.

I should point out that Jennifer Teege is not the only grandchild of a concentration camp commandant to open her life to public scrutiny.  Rainer Höss, the grandson of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, has also gone public, written a book, and done a number of interviews on television, including this one on Südwest Rundfunk Channel 1.  And there are others.  The damage done to individual psyches is still being worked out in the third and fourth generation.

Also, worth adding here, I think, is the fact that the film Night Will Fall will be shown around the world tomorrow (in the U.S., unfortunately, only on HBO cable television) to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Photo credit: photo credited to Miguel Ferraz in taz (the German newspaper, die Tageszeitung)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Can religion claim innocence?

I’m still struggling with a question that’s hard to ask, because to ask it leaves you open to the charge of bigotry.  That question is, “Is there something inherent in Islam that leads one to violence?”

Logo of Boko Haram
In broaching this nearly taboo topic, I am mindful of a couple traps researchers often fall into.  One, unless you are highly disciplined (and even then), what you find tends to be influenced by what you expect to find.  And two, when most people argue, they don’t argue with a completely open mind (why would they – that would only mark them as unread, uninformed, and quite possibly just plain ignorant) but with a framework of expectations and assumptions.  So even when you insist on total objectivity, sometimes simply framing the question leads you, without your awareness, down the wrong path.  The best way around that trap, I think, is to identify your jumping off point and permit people to say they don't agree it's the right place to start.  Here's my jumping off point:  Religions are ideologies based on a questionable assumption – that there is a being greater than ourselves who made us, and has expectations of us.

Because I tend to be hostile to religion (I try very hard to be neutral, and not hostile, and sometimes I succeed – but not always) and because I’ve read a lot of history of religion, I’m aware of the human tendency to be tribal.  And tribalism leads, among other things, to a tendency to bop people over the head who happen to be not of the tribe - who adhere to a different religion, for example.  The pope announced today that he intends to make Junipero Serra a saint (which means you will now be able to ask him to use his weight to get God to have things go your way) – even though between the time Serra landed in Alta California and the time Alta California stopped being Mexico, half the Indian population had died off.   Probably not entirely Junipero's fault.  But sainthood?  Talk about a euro-centric perspective!

But I digress.  I was only trying to get at the point that I don’t see Islam as the only violence-prone religion, merely as the leader of the pack in 2015.  The Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, and even the Christians, tend not to strike fear in the heart quite as readily as do the Radical Muslims these days.  We once had the Ku Klux Klan, but they’re gone now.  We do have occasional wackos using a Christian or a white supremacist justification for killing – Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, for example, or Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.  But these guys are small potatoes compared to ISIS, or to Al Qaeda, or to Boko Haram – radical Islamic groups of unprecedented ferocity.  The Islamic Jihad Organization, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, the Islamic Jihad Union, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs, Hezbollah, Hamas….  Check out this link if you want a list of dozens more.

I have tremendous sympathy for the argument peace-loving Muslims are trying to make – and am willing to grant that’s most Muslims – that it's people who know little or nothing about Islam who are giving it such a bad rep.  And sympathy for the view that it’s our fear, drummed up in part by the media, and our ignorance of the particular responsibility Western groups have for generating Islamic blowback groups, that have led to this question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with Islam?”  But I insist on asking it anyway.

I grant you that Islamicism is not the same thing as Islam.  Islamicism is the ideology that Islam must be imposed by force, the individual is of no consequence, and loss of life - collateral damage to even your own life - comes with the job.  Islam, on the other hand, is a neutral, and possibly benign, force. Possibly.  I just don't know at this point, but it looks to me for all the world like there's something in Islam's fundamental message that is providing the fanatics with what they need to wreak havoc.  Just because Islamicism is not identical with Islam doesn't mean that it is not grounded in Islam.

It’s not just by chance that so many terrorist groups, even when they may not be actively following Islam on a personal level, have Islam in their name.  If it’s not about Islam, but about blowback, why not “The Group to Avenge French Crimes in Algeria,” for example?  The Mossadegh Warriors?  The Iraqi Liberation Front?   Kill the Makers of Drones?  Was bin Laden not motivated to start Al Qaeda because Americans “soiled” the “holy land of Islam” when it put soldiers (including females, no less!) on the ground in Saudi Arabia?  Why does the African group Boko Haram name itself in Arabic – haram being Arabic for forbidden.  And “boko” apparently refers to “Western education.”  And the group’s official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal-Jihad ("People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad")?  Why do people keep saying it has nothing to do with Islam?

Please note I'm not claiming expert knowledge here.  I’m still in the crowd, wanting to know, “Do I have a right to ask this question?”  If not, can you explain to me why not?  Because the reason is not obvious to me.

I just listened to a terribly interesting interview of a man named Maajid Nawaz.  He was on Fresh Air today, being interviewed by Terry Gross.  A wonderfully articulate man.  And Terry Gross was at her best.  It’s worth listening to in its entirely. 

Nawaz grew up in England, the son of Pakistani parents.  At age 16, bullied by racists, he became radicalized and joined the Islamicist terrorist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir.  For this mistake, he spent four years in an Egyptian prison, where, he tells us, reading Animal Farm convinced him his fellow prisoners would not run the world any better if they ever ended up in charge.  He left the radical ideology behind and now works to get to kids before they fall into the same trap.

Nawaz said something interesting when asked the question I am asking – is there something in Islam that is a catalyst for people prone to violence?  His answer was, “Religion is what people make of it.  One can make anything of any religion.”

Up to that point, I was totally with this guy.  His claim that it’s not the source of the message that makes the determination, but how the people receiving the message choose to bring that message to life fits communication theory, that communication is interactive, that what is understood is not necessarily what is intended, that the hearer/reader makes of the message what they will, and that includes adding notions from sources which have nothing to do with the message.  But it's not salad recipes they're looking at in the Qur'an; it's passages hostile to people who insult the Prophet and deny the Muslim faith.  There's a direct connection here between the text and the action of terrorists.

If people of good will have the capacity to select out the passages that suit their desire to be decent, don't people of ill will – or people led for one reason or another into a psychotic state – also have the capacity to find passages that suit their pathology as well?  If there is something there to be gotten, I mean.  I don't see anybody making a jihadist campaign out of the Declaration of Independence.  Or the Bhagavad Gita, for that matter.

The argument by peace-loving Muslims goes, “if you know the history, you know how much of the Qur’an was debated over and over through the years and how much these killer-passages have been explained away by those in the know.”  Right.  I’ve got that.  But if what Mr. Nawaz says is true, that things are what you make of them, then is the reality we are now dealing with not, in fact, a seriously dangerous religious ideology?  And should our approach be not to sanitize the message or sweep it all under the rug, but to call attention to the source and get people away from it as fast as we possibly can?  To secularize the world of Islam?  To persuade those inclined to submit themselves to a cause to die for that it’s not the way to go?

Defenders of Islam love to point out that there was a time when the Muslim world led the world in knowledge and civilized behavior, when Christians were burning heretics and killing their enemies on sight.  Great.  Even if you want to give Muslims all the credit for that enlightened time in history, why were they not able to maintain it?  Europe got lucky.  Just as Martin Luther's notion that God was best accessed by a direct reading of the Christian Scriptures, along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press and gives people access to the books that allow them to put this idea into practice. With the byproduct of widespread literacy, an essential building block of the Enlightenment. And what do the Muslims do?  Out of fear the Holy Qur'an might be misunderstood, they forbid the use of the printing press.

Readers of the Christian Bible eventually came to see its many inconsistencies, its approval of slavery, its denigration of women, and the violent parts - like God speaking to the Babylonians in Psalm 137 and telling them after all they've done to his people they're going to have their children's brains dashed against the rocks.  Nice going, Yahweh.

These days, however, we don't have people reading the Bible and concluding they need to take revenge on their enemies and smash their kids's heads against rocks.  But we do have young jihadists willing to kill and die over real or perceived insults to Islam.

Isn't that something that needs fixing?  Does insisting "Islam has nothing to do with it" really work as an explanation?

I’m still working here to make sense of this question.  Not giving answers, but asking for help in understanding this question.

All constructive comments will be welcomed and appreciated.

Note on the terms “Islamist” and “Islamicist” (at present, I see the two terms as synonymous, and distinct from “Muslim”):

Some argue against the term Islamist or Islamicist (and, I assume, the derivatives Islamism and Islamicism)  on the grounds that not all “isms” are like “fascism” and “communism” – i.e., not all negative - Judaism, being the best example.  We should instead be using a better descriptive phrase such as “Radical fundamentalist Islamic fanaticism.”

But I think that argument is weak.  We are beginning to use the term “Christianist” to identify the fanatics among the Christians who would make their organized religion mandatory all around and punish outsiders in one way or another.  And there is a world of difference between “Islamists” and “Muslims.”  Muslims are people who adhere to Islam, the Muslim faith.  As people they are free to make that choice, just as people are free to deny Darwinism.  It doesn’t make them right, necessarily (maybe it does) but it doesn’t take away any of their rights to fair and equal treatment in a democratic state.  So I’m sticking with Muslims to refer to people with whom I have no complaint, and Islamists, as people whom I hope we can talk out of their radical and very dangerous ideology.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Careful who you sleep with

top left: Jean Cabut
top right: Bernard Verlhac – “Tignous”
bottom left: Stéphane Charbonnier – “Charb”
bottom right: Georges Wolinski
I’m still following the discourse on the Charlie Hebdo killings.  It may be just because this killing bothered me more than most things lately, but I think it seems to have struck a nerve all around.  And the response is all over the map.  It’s hard to know where to start in picking through the pieces.  Teju Cole has a powerful piece called “Unmournable Bodies” in the January 9 edition of The New Yorker.  That’s as good a place as any.  Cole lived in Nigeria till age 17 and it is evident his view of things is helpful in broadening our perspective.

Cole’s New Yorker piece made two points I think are worth stressing. One, that it is possible to defend the right to obscene and even racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.  And two, that when we’re done giving the horrific event its due, we need to avoid hypocrisy and admit there are other horrors equally worthy of our attention, and some of these are of our own making.

What I think comes out of the accumulation of facts behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre is that there is no way to speak out on controversial issues without making enemies, and without looking like you are in bed with the wrong side.   It’s like when you march in a protest for a cause and discover you’re marching next to some idiot with a sign rooting for a different cause, one you’re loathe to be associated with.   You’ve simply got to insist on your right to agree with disagreeable people, and hope people will give you time to explain that just because you agree with part of what they say, you don’t necessarily agree with it all – or even most of it.

I commented the other day on something Arthur Goldhammer said – that we should not “sacralize” the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo since it would be betraying their life’s work of desacralizing everything.  I thought that if you focused not on their intentions but on their accomplishments, that their iconoclasm, labeled foolishness by so many, could also be seen as heroic.  That put me at odds not only with Goldhammer, whose speaks in a voice I resonate with, but with several of my best friends, as well, who argued that I was the one, not Goldhammer, with the wrong set of priorities.

Trouble is, no sooner do I hear myself say that free speech is the greatest of freedoms than I come across an article by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun who argues that liberty is merely prelude to the right of an individual to see the sacred in everyman, and I find myself shifting a little bit.  Not really, since I still have trouble with “the sacred,” but I sense the wisdom in the man’s understanding of human behavior, and am reminded that there are times when one would do well to talk less and listen more.

OK, but what am I to do with my gut feeling that there really is something about radical Islam that is different from other radical fundamentalisms, that religion (all religions) can be the source of inspiration for compassion and kindness, yes, but also for violence and destruction.  Why should I go on listening to protestations that the limitation of women’s rights in Islamic countries, the fatwas, the armies of ISIS and Al Qaeda are something to be swept under the rug as “not the real Islam.”  Why is the real Islam not the actual lived Islam, the attempt to bring back the caliphate, the widespread insistence that the sharia should take precedence over civil law?  And, while we’re at it, are the men in silks and satin, the magisterium and tradition of the Church not the real Christianity instead of the words of a rabble rouser long ago who urged us to sell all we have and give to the poor?

The problem, of course, is that if I pursue that point of view and argue that the most conspicuous of toxic religions capturing our attention today is radical Islam, the inspiration behind ISIS and Al Qaida, I quickly find myself in bed with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, one of America’s most notable right-wing ideologues.  And of right-wingers generally, including conservative talk show host Steve Malzberg, on whose program D’Souza appears in this YouTube video.  Liberals (i.e., my people) defend Islam; only conservatives criticize it.

And when I probe for more of Malzberg’s opinions, I find myself siding with him as he interviews the British radical Islamist Anjem Choudary.    Choudary asks Malzberg if he’s Jewish “so that he knows who he’s dealing with,” and I am put off.  But then, as they talk, my sympathies for Malzberg give way to sympathy for what Choudary is trying to say and is not being allowed to – that the west has not done right by the Muslim Middle East and that whether one considers their violent response justifiable or not, it should not be dismissed as unexpected.

My point in spades: you can’t be surprised when you nod in agreement over the declaration that Hitler built the Autobahn.  Here I am agreeing with the radical fundamentalist who defended the 9/11 attackers, calling them “magnificent martyrs  and who argues for the implementation of the sharia across Britain.  (No!)  And who makes the case for the Charlie Hebdo event being a natural understandable blowback response to western imperialism and the murdering of Muslims and Arabs by the United States, Israel and others.  (Yes!)

Then I come across an article by Maggie Gallagher in her new incarnation as senior fellow at the American Principles Project.   Remember Maggie?  Maggie G was the central voice of opposition to the rights of same-sex couples to marry, founder of the National Organization for Marriage before turning it over to Brian S. Brown and throwing up her hands in defeat and moving on.  (By the way, she’s not the only rat to leave the sinking ship.  Go to their website these days and it’s as if everybody is in hiding: unless you know to type in /about/ after the url you will find nobody willing to identify with the group.)  She has admitted her life’s work against gays and lesbians has gone belly up, but continues to bang on about the importance of Roman Catholicism and the need to spread its values.  Now she’s on the side of those who would downplay Charbonnier and the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, because she’s a friend of the sacred, she tells us.  Freedom of speech be damned.  Can’t mess with the sacred.   And oh, by the way, “I believe Mohammad is a false prophet,” she assures us.

And just when I think I’ve finally found somebody I don’t have mixed feelings about, somebody I can disagree with all of the time, I come across this: She won’t join in with all those claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.”  Because he’s a blasphemer, and not a hero, right?

Well, no.  “I am not Charlie Hebdo,” she tells us, “because Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues were heroes and I am not.”  Because she’s safe and Charbonnier put his neck on the line.  Damn.  It’s like my father used to nag at me, “Even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.” She blogs here if you’re interested.

And who is Maggie currently at odds with?   David Harsanyi, whom I agree with much of the time.  He’s a libertarian, and supporter of gay rights.  Islam is not mocked enough, he tells us.  Should be mocked more.  Right.

And supporter of Glen Beck.


In the past couple of days, I’ve taken the position that the principle of free speech is so basic, so important to freedom generally, that it must be defended at all costs, and run aground with friends who argue that prudence is the better form of valor, that one needs to show good taste and not be offensive, and besides, only fools put red flags in front of bulls and complain when they charge.   I find my fervor cooling and come to see the wisdom of the opposite opinion, that people have the right not to have their sacred cows insulted, that women should not be harassed by whistles and catcalls, that gays and blacks should not have to endure hate speech, that Jews should not have Nazis parading through their towns.  And then I remember how I celebrated when the Supreme Court insisted that such freedoms are at the heart of our constitutional rights.

It’s been an interesting couple of days, trying to get perspective.  I have not changed my mind on very much.  I still think the United States is a killer force with a self-destructive foreign policy, that drones kill innocent people and Guantanamo and torture make us hypocrites and Dick Cheney is a war criminal.  I still think that free speech, including the right to say stupid and offensive things, is as essential to democracy as security is, and maybe even more so, and that without it we will never get our democracy back.  I think information is necessary as well and Edward Snowden is a hero, as are the Charlie Hebdo four, and the Germans are right to recognize that and we Americans are wrong not to. 

I’ve learned a lot more of the lay of the land, where people stand and what they are willing to fight for, and I’m happy to report my respect for friends who disagree with me still goes up in my estimation when they do so.

It’s been a bumpy ride and I’m looking forward to riding some more.

Photo credit: Agence France-Presse, Getty Images