Hold It All

Category: Power and Ideology

The Political Economy of Memory

Alan S. Rosenbaum, ed., Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide

I read this book for my treatment of Wiesel and it gave me plenty of perspectives, arguments and insights. The question of the volume already reflects its Shoah-centric status and bias. For example, there is no debate about the uniqueness of the Armenian slaughter. I still think that this question, which is but one reflection of the cultural production of the American political economy of memory, has its roots in the 1967 June War: after this there have been both sincere and disingenuous reckoning with the Holocaust. And Wiesel is torn — quelle surprise –between these two.

But there have come to be challengers to the implied moral claim that the Holocaust was the worst catastrophe in history (see even Dussel’s footnotes in Invention of the Americas) — and this volume gives them a voice, from Ian Hancock’s meticulous, impassioned claim that there was no difference between the treatment accorded Jews and Gypsies to Dave Stannard’s critique of the uniqueness proponents, especially Katz, for engaging in denial of other people’s Holocausts in the attempt to gain the monopoly on the genocide label only for the Jewish people. Read the rest of this entry »

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Books To Read before We Die

Recently, I gave a bibliophilic friend the new book by James Mustich, 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List. It is a delight to peruse the tome, as the author and his associates have done a brilliant job of layout, summary, enticement—each day I pick it up, I make mental notes of works to reread or discover afresh.

Mustich encourages his readers to start their own list and add books that have been significant in their lives. I noticed that of his thousand, there’s not one by Noam Chomsky. This reminded me that a book by Chomsky that I read, way back in 1985, deepened how I was then learning to see the world.

The timing was perfect. With friends in Louisville, I had the good fortune to be a part of three projects that had as their focus U.S. foreign policy and Central America—the Sanctuary Movement for Salvadoran refugees; Witness for Peace in the war zones of Nicaragua under attack by the U.S.-backed contras; and the Pledge of Resistance which aimed to make Congress accountable for funding the terrorists against the Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan people.

During that period I read Chomsky’s Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America & The Struggle for Peace. I had already been developing a sharper, critical perspective on the role of the U.S. government, having been informed by the radical Catholic perspectives of Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Thomas Merton. Chomsky, free from all religiosity, set as his task to de-mystify the U.S. policies and to expose the intellectuals who were the agents and beneficiaries of that mystification. (It was shortly after this period that I read The Fateful Triangle, Chomsky’s book on the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinians, which influenced me to such a degree that I later expanded a small point Chomsky made therein about Elie Wiesel into my first book.) Read the rest of this entry »

Why Do They Come to Hinder Us?

Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs) [1927]

Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals can be read as a gloss on the Dreyfus Affair. In this polemic against intellectuals who have betrayed their vocation, Benda affirms the contestatory position of a writer like Zola. Benda takes note of the modern perfecting of political passions, particularly those of race, class, and nation. He asserts that “[o]ur age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds. It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity.” [27] And it is just the pursuit of such political passions that constitute what Benda deems the “real” world, of the layperson whose expected mission is to pursue practical interests. The true intellectual, on the other hand, has a two-fold mission: to pursue in his or her intellectual path disinterested activity for its own sake and to remind the laypersons that there is a transcendent set of values that ought to be respected. The true intellectual, according to Benda, would have to agree with Jesus’s avowal, “My kingdom is not of this world.” [43] The intellectuals have an utterly pure mission, in contrast to the impure and practical interests that govern the masses: “I only say that the ‘clerks’ who indulged in this fanaticism betrayed their duty, which is precisely to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and of truth, in opposition to the peoples and the injustices to which they are condemned by their religions of this earth.” [57] It is by steadfastly maintaining allegiance to that cult of justice and truth that the intellectual fulfills her role. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering Is Not Enough

Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

The following  note is from summer 1999 when I was reworking my dissertation to what would become my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001).   Hedy Epstein’s Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug: Autobiographie appeared in Germany in 1999. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust  Industry came out in 2000. 

This collection of essays doesn’t have much in the way of political relevance to my project, but there are good cultural analyses, particularly the editor’s overview to the subject (e.g., Wiesel at the Mets’ game),  Steinweiss’s remarks on Wiesel in Nebraska, Greenspan’s  studies of the evolving reception and discourses of survivors (stigmatizing vs. celebratory), and Young’s remarks on the politics of identity.  

Indeed, it is easier to talk about cultural shifts and Americanization rather than take the more controversial  and critical view that  elites are happy to focus on the Nazi crimes rather than our own.   Those people speaking out — more than 50 years later! — against Nazism may think of themselves, proudly, as moral beacons, say,  Christian “Holocaust scholars.”  But this reminds me of what Chomsky said, “You can tell the truth about Ghengis Khan, but it doesn’t rank very high on the moral scale.”  People got agitated about the Reagan Bitburg scandal of 1985, but not about Reagan’s  aiding and abetting the bloodbaths in Central America at the same time.  

A U.S. American Voice, Laotian Voices

Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War (first published in 1972)

If our country had  decency, at the death of Fred Branfman there would have been coverage, interviews, retrospectives, similar to that at the recent death of U.S. Senator John McCain.  You reading this have surely heard of McCain yet  you may wonder, who is Branfman?

In the 60s Branfman had been a volunteer in Laos, and he later bore witness to what was happening there involving the U.S. Air Force.  He and a team managed to interview Laotians who survived. He worked tirelessly to expose what the U.S. inflicted upon an innocent people.

_____________________

Fred Branfman

The disappearance of the Plain of Jars was indeed “the other war”: automated war, in which participants are never face to face; war from the air, in which ground troops play but a supplementary role; total war, inevitably waged against everyone below; secret war, in which whole societies are eradicated without a trace.

For five and a half years—as village after village was leveled, countless people buried alive by high explosives, or burnt alive by napalm and white phosphorus, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets—the leaders of the superpower waging this war kept it secret.
Read the rest of this entry »

To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

Read the rest of this entry »

Our Only Salvation Lies in Words: On Arenas’s Before Night Falls

All dictatorships are sexually repressive and anti-life. All affirmations of life are diametrically opposed to dogmatic regimes. It was logical for Fidel Castro to persecute us, not to let us fuck, and to try to suppress any public display of the life force.
-— Reinaldo Arenas

 

Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls: A Memoir

Powerful and gripping memoir by homosexual, writer, dissident, which awakened me to Castro’s crimes against naysayers and gays.

Herein are great passages about the beauty of Cuba, its beaches and the sea, the countryside, the animals, the rivers, the trees, as in “And the sky’s radiance was not constant but an unending blaze of changing hues and, stars that burst and disappeared (after having existed for millions of years) just to enrapture us for a few moments.” Or, “I always thought that in Cuba the only thing that saved us from absolute insanity was that, being surrounded by water, we had to chance to go to shore and swim.” Arenas appreciated the created order throughout his life and seemed not to take it for granted. Could not his sexual voracity also be an element of the Via Positiva? For it is all about pleasure and enjoyment and splendor, he seemed, after he came out, remarkably free of guilt and anxiety (from this anyway) and self-hatred. So: “To get to a beach was like entering paradise because all the young people wanted to make love, and there were always dozens of them ready to go into the bushes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Giving No Peace to Those in the Country Who Are Violating All the Laws of Truth  

She represented the honor and conscience of Russia, and probably nobody will ever know the source of her fanatical courage and love of the work she was doing.

— Liza Umarova, Chechen singer

 

Colleagues helped put together the volume, Is Journalist Worth Dying For? about the intrepid Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated in 2006.  The book contains writings from the last years of her life as well as stirring testimonies by those who knew her and respected her work.

For years she’d written about the horrors in Chechnya, which earned her the denunciation you’d expect from her own government.  From Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, such dissidents are ever a thorn in the side of Russian power, which thinks  it is, or should be, worthy only of praise.

Here is a small sample of her voice…

I have never sought my present pariah status and it make me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter. 

I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen: the poisoning, the arrest, the embanking by mail and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats. The main thing is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our newspaper’s offices who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds they stories off-message. The only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya gazeta.

What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.    [6]

Believe me, there is nothing more hateful than, in your own country, to feel that you are a target for shooting practice for parasites living it up, eating and drinking at your—a taxpayer’s—expense. And then they have the gall to denigrate you. [17] Read the rest of this entry »

Three Views: Lévy, Golan, Chomsky

1.

Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote a “Love Letter to Israel in Seventy Lines,” published in The Tablet  under 70 REASONS TO CELEBRATE ISRAEL.   He is a philosopher who lives in Paris, France.  Here are a few lines from his tribute…

The first multiethnic nation, in other words, that really works.

Democracy is hard? Slow? It takes time to build a democracy? In Israel, one night—14 May 1948—was all it took.

Terrorism has been in Israel not for 7 days (as it had in the United States when the Patriot Act was passed) and not for 7 years (as in the France when the liberticidal measures of 1961 were adopted), but for 70 years—and yet its institutions hold and liberty is not infringed.

Yes, 70 years during which Israel has lived, as the verse has it, beside its sword, and yet the spirit of liberty has never waned or wavered.

70 years without a single day of peace, and no Israeli, Jew or Arab, would leave the country for another.

Athens, not Sparta. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Is Learning from History?

1.

Oscar Romero’s Letter
San Salvador February 17, 1980

His Excellency
The President of the United States Mr. Jimmy Carter

Dear Mr. President:

In the last few days, news has appeared in the national press that worries me greatly. According to the reports, your government is studying the possibility of economic and military support and assistance to the present government junta.

Because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view in regard to this news and to make a specific request of you. Read the rest of this entry »