Misremembering and Hypocrisy in the History of Western Civilization

T
he late Tony Judt coined the expression “misremembering” by which he meant that while it is fine, year after year, to commemorate the Holocaust with conferences, memorials, monuments, museums galore, if the commemoration is not followed by a meaningful moral analysis of the lessons learned from such a horrific event, if we periodically commemorate the event, but then dwell merely on the political, the economic, the military, the purely utilitarian considerations of the event, forgetting the much more important moral considerations, then the whole commemorative exercise turns into a sham ultimately dishonoring the very memory of that horrific event.

Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, wrote a powerful challenge to the Western ethical tradition without as much as mentioning the event of the Holocaust. It pervades however the background of his ethical writings as a powerful personal formative experience. Lest we forget, that experience collectively included the gassing of millions of human beings by chemical weapons duly kept secret from the rest of the world. Hitler made sure that his direct orders to proceed with his so called “final solution” were never put in writing so that they could not be traced back to him and he could deny being the reprobate originator of such a despicable crime against humanity, and that moreover he could even deny that he had ever had such weapons (already forbidden by the League of Nations).

When the issue of chemical weapons first came up a few years ago in Syria, Assad, its dictator, had the consummate gall of flatly denying at first that he had them and intended to use them against his own people. Later he was forced to give them up but never punished for actually using them. In Aleppo, as we speak, unharmed civilians, including women and children, are now being massacred when they should be given humanitarian aid and a way to evacuate the area safely. Their hospitals have been barbarously bombed by Assad and his Russian ally Putin, the man who goes on religious pilgrimages to testify to how pious and peace-loving he is. Indeed, to appease or tolerate a bully means ultimately to ensure that he will perceive no limits to his inhumanity.

But to return to past history and misremembering, a pacifist, a man of peace, the Prime Minister of England, Arthur Neville Chamberlain, the so called umbrella man, a year before World War II, when ominous rumors of war pervaded Europe, and after the aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia, went to Germany to confer and appease the feared big bully of Europe, who concluded from that meeting that the West was weak and would not oppose the other invasions he was contemplating, namely that of Poland and Russia, and eventually the Western world and the world as a whole.

That is to say, the bully having been appeased, and the piper having not been duly paid early on, meant that he would have to be paid later on with much more loss of blood and treasure. This has been called an outrageous and false analogy by some pundits, almost politically incorrect, but it is indeed valid in its sheer simplicity. It has the simplicity of the language that every bully speaks and understands. It simply means that once one draws a red line with a bully, one has to confront him the very first time he violates it, not later when he has already been emboldened.

So, I will refrain in this piece from making the case for pacifism or for, at the other extreme, for a vengeful and paranoid reaction to any aggression. After all, even a Machiavelli and his modern devotees, who believe that the end justifies any means, would probably concur that paranoia is a mental sickness and that moreover, vengefulness and violence has never constituted a solution to any two wrongs, for two wrongs never cancel each other out ethically and remain two wrongs.

What I intend to do, rather, is to simply remember here the times when chemical weapons were used and tolerated after World War I, after they had been banned by most nations of the world. I will not engage in apportioning blame and final historical judgments based on utilitarian, pragmatic, political considerations. I leave that to more capable historians. For it seems to me that the reason the remembering is important before proceeding with a moral arguments is that without it, as a misremembering, the moral argument will be fatally flawed and even smell of hypocrisy.

As already mentioned, Hitler used chemical weapons to gas millions of Jews and other “undesirables.” Most of his henchmen were put on trial after the war and found guilty and sentenced to death. But after the war, even putting aside the consideration of the use of two nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese civilians justified because is shortened the war and saved millions of soldiers’ lives, there was extensive use of a nerve gas called napalm in Vietnam where not only soldiers but civilians were hit and justified as unavoidable collateral damage of war acts.

A bit later a brutal dictator named Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people and then against Iran while the US looked the other way and in fact maintained friendly relations with the dictator. There is even a picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with him as special envoy. He, or his boss Ronald Reagan for that matter, never chided the dictator for the use of chemical weapons and in fact supplied him with them. It is also important to remember that the former Soviet Union supplied the one thousand tons of chemical weapons that Assad had in his arsenal until he was compelled to give them up. Nevertheless, he paid no price for just possessing them illegally, and then using them; his worthy ally made sure of that.

The question arises: Have we somehow forgotten all that? Or have we misremembered it? For if we have, then our moral case against bullies and the advocacy of a justified war to prevent future catastrophes and obscenities against children and innocent civilians, is also misguided and may sound rather hollow and hypocritical, on both sides of the Atlantic alliance.

Indeed, the moral obscenity of massacring civilians needs to be confronted as a Kantian deontological moral imperative, one way or the other, at the risk of becoming a moral pigmy and a coward. The issue is how do we confront it? Do we do it the way a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King would, via non violence and diplomacy with war only as a last resort and the threat of war as an incentive to the bully to come to the table, or does one do it via paranoia and vengefulness, usually counter-productive?

It remains a fact, however, that a terrible crime has been committed, once again, and to redress it properly as the moral outrage that it is, we as a civilization (Western, so called) and all those who continue to call themselves civilized, need to remember, to acknowledge, and to take a modicum of responsibility and do amends for all the other similar crimes committed with chemical weapons and weapons of mass destructions. Those crimes are unworthy not only of civilization but of man’s humanity. Which is to say, we need to look deeply into ourselves first and examine our own historical record and our own conscience, with no anger and no paranoia.

Misremembering and pious pronouncements and hypocritical commemorations to the Holocaust with no moral lessons derived from them, simply will not do. As the saying goes, it behooves us “to put up or shut up.”  

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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