July 9, 2007

Can You Imagine?


But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,

-- Sonnet 18

In the end, it is not our failure to learn from history that condemns us to repeat it, but our mind's turning away from even the briefest glimpse of what the dark passages of history were like that damns us. We may know, but we refuse to see. We blind our own mind's eye. It is our inability to imagine the most evil things that all men are capable of that corrupts us.

No, do not say "our inability" to imagine. Say rather, "our refusal" to imagine since the imagination itself -- if we were honest -- can indeed visualize carnage and depravity with ourselves as the actor and never the acted-upon. Our mind can and does see things that we cannot stand to admit. Our mind can bring to an image and hold in our mind's eye things of infinite vileness.

And in that image we see, most of all, ourself. And so we turn away, turn away, and assign what we may have imagined, might have seen, if only briefly, as but a bad dream, a short nightmare; something that will pass at dawn when 'the sleep of our reason no longer breeds nightmares.' In America, the only depraved things that actually happen -- we are assured daily -- are those of individual criminals, they are never the responsibility, the known and foreseen result, of the crimes of a whole people that "could not" imagine, that "refused" to imagine, and so turned away, turned away.

Many years ago, when I was a book editor in Boston, I spent a day with the distinguished Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld. My purpose was to, as we said then, "woo the author" and acquire him and his books for the house. Aharon Appelfeld had just won the Israeli Prize for literature and was considered, if not a "hot property," at least one that would, as we also used to say, "add luster to the list." Since my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was the publisher that had given the English-speaking world Mein Kampf in 1939 and continued to sell it at the time, the addition of a celebrated Israeli author writing in Hebrew was a luster devoutly to be wished.

I had dutifully read all of his works available in English (translated from his chosen language of Hebrew) and put on my very best suit, my very best tie, and my very best Bahston editorial manner. Since he had won prizes and high critical regard the house had no problem with taking him for a lunch at Loch Ober, a Victorian era restaurant with a menu the size of a small town phone book and prices that were, even then, astronomical. I was pulling out all the stops in the "designed-to-impress-editorial-express." Appelfeld was, as I now dimly recall, not the sort of man to be at all impressed by the vanities of the world.

Today the Internet entries for Appelfeld give his pre-Israel life a short entry. The Jewish Virtual Library states:

"Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Rumania, and deported to a concentration camp at the age of eight. He escaped and spent three years hiding in the Ukraine before joining the Russian army. A post-war refugee, he made his way to Italy and immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1946. He currently resides in Jerusalem."
Short with no sweetness about it, that paragraph sums up an experience that most living Americans can only dimly perceive; that most living Americans know nothing about and about which, if the truth were told, most living Americans wish to know less than nothing; something we "refuse" to imagine. It is a very short story about a boy's life taken out of its halcyon first years, plunged into the deepest dark bloodpools of genocide, and left there to steep.

Wikipedia's brief entry for Appelfeld notes:

"In 1940, the Nazis invaded his hometown. His mother was killed and Appelfeld, a boy of eight, was deported with his father to a concentration camp in Ukraine He escaped and hid for three years before joining the Soviet Army as a cook. After World War II, Appelfeld spent several months in a displaced persons camp in Italy before immigrating to Palestine in 1946, two years before Israel's independence...... Aharon Appelfeld is one of the foremost living Hebrew-language authors, despite the fact that he did not learn the language until he was a teenager. His mother tongue is German, but he also speaks Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian, English and Italian. With his subject matter revolving around the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jews in Europe, he could not bring himself to write in German."

At my lunch, and subsequent afternoon spent with Appelfeld, some of the brief details in the biographical facts of his life were filled in.

There were the years in hiding, the years when he pretended to be an orphan, a refugee, a Gentile -- anything other than what he was, a Jew escaped from the camps. There was his passage as "a cook for the Soviet Army." As a cook of around 13 at the time one wonders what his actual duties were.

After the war the entry notes that Appelfeld "made his way to Italy." According to him this 'making of way' entailed walking for over three months across the entire landscape of a shattered and gutted Europe. What he saw on this tour of the ashes of that culture is something that recurs in his books, as are the things he did to survive that time and reach Israel as a survivor. To know what he saw and suffered and did to survive you need to read across the whole of his work since they appear only in flashes, like snatches of bad dreams and nightmares fitfully remembered.

At the time we met, I'd read Badenheim, 1939, the story of how upper middle class Jews in Germany came, by stages, to their doom. It is a book in which the horrors do not unfold on stage, but like the great Greek tragedies, wait off stage in the wings of history to gather up and destroy a whole people who, like so many now, "refuse" to imagine what awaits them; "refuse" to imagine how their "Happy World" can ever change.

Little of my conversation with Appelfeld remains in my memory save for one question and answer. I asked him what he thought his single message and driving force behind his writing was. His answer was essentially and in paraphrase, "As a Jew no matter how safe you think you are, no matter how assimilated you think you and your family might be, you aren't. You are never safe and you are never assimilated. You know could always happen again. You know it will."

From time to time his statement comes back to me when I'm faced with the inexplicable actions, the weak thinking, the unfathomable ignorance, and the cultural cringing of my fellow countrymen in our present era. Yesterday it was the bizarre editorial from the New York Times calling for immediate retreat and surrender in Iraq. Entitled somewhat poetically "The Road Home" the editorial is a monument to "the refusal to imagine" mindset that has overtaken so many Americans after years of the unremitting media water torture on the issue of Iraq. It's key passage reads:

"It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.... Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide."

When I first read this blithe gush issuing -- without heart or care or conscience -- from whatever mind originated it, and passed by whatever chortling editorial process approved it, I felt the twinge of nausea that I often feel when reading the carefully crafted and anonymous twitterings of that paper's editorial pronouncements. But, like most of those moments, I stopped ingesting it and, in time, my nausea passed.

Later that day I was speaking with a friend and the subject of the editorial came up. My friend was mystified by it, hard pressed to understand how a paper like the Times, a paper filled with intelligent people whose families had had no little experience with genocide, could so blithely advocate a policy which would, if carried out, condemn hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqis to death in a thousand brutal ways that we all would "refuse" to imagine. What could possibly be the motivation, the obsession, the vile-on-the-face-of-it commitment to such a policy? Didn't they understand what it would mean?

My answer at the time was that while the editorial board, the publisher, and the Finzi-Contini owners of the New York Times knew full well what it would mean, they didn't care. The settling of political scores and the advancement of their internal political agenda was what mattered. It was indeed the only thing that mattered and their agenda was simple -- they sought "The Restoration" of The Floating World.

The inevitable genocide of the Iraqis would take place off their stage and would not trouble their sleep on beds made plush by three inches of Memory Foam. Of course, their media companies and their minions would report the killings in due course and in the appropriate tone -- taking care not of offend whatever entities were their reporters' hosts for the viewing of the slaughter -- but the slaughter itself would not matter. Their bubble would not be pierced. Their catered dinner parties would go on undisturbed. Their parades would roll through the Village without rain. Their dogs would be walked for them and their dogs' droppings scooped and disposed of for them. Their hands would not touch the droppings.

Their summer homes in the Hamptons would be cleaned and buffed for them. Their waiters at their beach clubs would bring them their beverages on a tray and they would sign for them. Their drivers would always be waiting at the door for them, cars washed, polished and swept. Their power tables at breakfast and lunch would always be set and reserved for them. They would again be welcomed at White House fetes and the bedrooms there would be prepared for them.

It would all be as if George Bush and September 11, and Afghanistan, and Iraq had never happened. There would even be Bill Again -- playing that cool saxophone, smoking those big cigars, and laughing into the long and languid summer nights in the Rose Garden. All would be as it once was. This they could imagine.

Whatever might or might not be happening in Iraq then would be reported as the reports of summer storms in the Midwest tracked as green and red blurs by radar are seen on the Weather Channel -- distant thunder never coming closer. They would "refuse" to imagine it had anything to do with them, that it was anything that could happen to them. After all, the new New York Times Building was several miles from Ground Zero. That was Downtown, they were Midtown.

No. They were safe at last. They were fully assimilated into the safest country on Earth; the Finzi-Continis of our time. They were, once again, fully-vested members of the power elite of the United States of America. They weren't running some dying newspaper on the West Side of Manhattan. They were back. Whatever happened elsewhere was the fault of the previous lost years. History could never happen to them. History, once again, was at an end. History was, once again and this time for good, something that they actually "could not imagine."

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Posted by Vanderleun at July 9, 2007 10:11 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

History is coming for us, all of us...

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at July 9, 2007 11:18 AM

You are correct and at a greater speed than we know. Or can know.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at July 9, 2007 11:28 AM

The first symptom of BDS, all shall be wonderful once one does exactly the opposite of what Bush wants.

You want to see something interesting? Replace every instance of "war in Iraq" with "darwinism" and "Bush" or "President Bush" with "darwinist" and see how it sounds. You may have to do some additional editing so it sounds right, but not all that much.

It's the same pre-Aristotalian reasoning, the same willful disregard for inconvenient truths in both cases. You could use holocaust denial, global warming denial, HIV/AIDS denial, or even sasquatch skepticism buzz words and get the same result. The Times editorial was first draft Michael Behe, when Behe is groggy with the flu.

Even worse, it was an act of hate. Hate for a man who dared overthrow the duly ordained successor to the holy prophet Bill Clinton. And then refused to abide by the findings of the self-enlightened. The Times editorial board is nothing more than a band of Rousseauan fundamentalists who never read Rousseau in their life.

As the saying goes, "You have the right to your own opinion. You do not have the right to your own facts."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at July 9, 2007 12:01 PM

The larger tragedy here is the millions who willfully absorb this sentiment without a second thought. one begins to see how the Germans fell in line with Hitler's Malignant narcissism.

As I doubt many westerners have the stomach to deal with the Islamic fundamentalism we currently face, I have to agree with gabrielpicasso's comment above.

Posted by: Mark Krauss at July 9, 2007 3:22 PM

I simply cannnot comprehend the mindset depicted in your essay.

Then again, I've always been a worrywart.

Seriously, I think I'm coming to understand why Rome fell. They must have had the same kinds of feckless politicians and intellectuals that we do. The very idea that hordes of smelly, ignorant barbarians could defeat mighty Rome was laughable. The ruling classes assumed that the Roman army could deal with any threat. After all, they had always done so in the past.

Of course, as time went on, the children of the elite became less and less likely to go into the military, and they increasingly outsourced defense to members of the Germanic tribes...

Posted by: rickl at July 9, 2007 5:28 PM

We are on a runaway train. Our constitutional, legal and political systems are broken beyond repair. World War IV is being birthed before our eyes in the Middle East. We have learned nothing. The open pit awaits us all.

Posted by: Bob Sykes at July 9, 2007 6:50 PM

"When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood. Look to it yourselves.'"

The NYT is quite right in desiring peace (or at least the absence of visible aggression), because peace is a great aid in acquiring happiness. Likewise the NYT is correct that genocide in Iraq, or even the wider Middle East, will have little effect on the happiness of the vast majority of the world outside of the small part which is being butchered. Also, since the NYT opposed the war from the beginning, they may, without hypocrisy or sentimentality, call for a general retreat from the war against Islamism. By this strategy, they might best succeed in their ambitions of a restoration and firm and final establishment of a new leftist order. Besides, we do not intend to establish an American empire. Eventually the Iraqis must fend for themselves, and, if the NYT was honest about it, would they not bet on an outcome like Gaza?

Yet the infamy of this act will not escape them, or any of us. Options remain in Iraq, yet passively allowing genocide so that life can return to a Seinfeldien world is an act of genuine evil. We will be judged and found wanting if, as a people, we allow this to succeed. It will be remembered as is remembered: "He was crucified under Pontius Pilate."

Posted by: LRFD at July 9, 2007 7:53 PM

Seems like I always start my comments to this blog with a "wow". Some of your articles are like a corner post in a fence line to which all the other posts are connected. This is a corner post. You are so correct... Americans are going to be like a teenager that steals Dad's car, wrecks it while drinking beer with his buddies, then says, "Well, I didn't know."

Posted by: dave harris at July 9, 2007 8:41 PM

The nature never changes. History will repeat itself, always has always will.

Posted by: jeffersonranch at July 10, 2007 6:22 AM

Does this mean that the editors and owners of the NYT are psychopaths?

Would that essay be enough to diagnose them?

Posted by: austin at July 10, 2007 10:31 AM

This is great stuff, and you're correct, it's coming at us at a much great speed than we can comprehend. The more comfortable we are in our lives, the more jolting the first shock waves are going to be.

We need to fasten our seat belts and get ready for a ride like no other.

Posted by: Webutante at July 10, 2007 8:37 PM

If "moderate" Muslims were worth protecting from the lunatics among them, they wouldn't need it - they would take care of the matter themselves.

Since they apparently can't or won't, there is no obligation upon America or anywhere else in the West to spend any more lives or treasure at all, civilising people who don't want to be civilised.

What we need is not to stop them killing each other; it's to stop them killing us. And part of the way of doing that is to stop - immediately, permanently and completely - any people who are citizens of Muslim countries, or who call themselves Muslim, coming into America (or Britain, the second target). And to make it as uncomfortable for those already here as possible - ban construction of new mosques, ban Muslim marriage ceremonies, ban halal slaughter and ban construction of prayer rooms in any commercial establishment and time off for prayers. Even such things as reversing the decision to allow traditional Muslim female dress in schools as an alternative to proper school uniform.

And throw out, immediately, any Muslim not a citizen, and throw in jail any all rabble-rousing clerics who are citizens.

But it won't get done. Why? Simple. Muslims were given, by no merit of their own, control of one of the world's most important resources. Something also needs to be done to make that irrelevant.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 11, 2007 2:36 AM

A response here:


Posted by: shaun at July 11, 2007 2:50 AM

A response here:


Posted by: shaun at July 11, 2007 2:52 AM

Yeah, Shaun.... We could have just continued to enforce the No-Fly-Zone and Sanctions against Iraq in perpetuity.

Stop trying to relive your drug-addled glory days, Shaun, you old hippy. Not every war is Vietnam. Not every President is Nixon. Not every insurgent is Che Guevara. Not every march is the March on Selma. Not every dictator is Castro. Not every tyrant is Mao.

Stop dragging us into your Groundhog Day life. I was born in 1968. You sound like some dopey old hippy

There is no fool like an old fool....

Posted by: Gray at July 11, 2007 10:04 AM

Oh would that if another terrorist attack is to come it will come to mid-town to Pinch's new Taj Mahal.Perhaps then the former paper of record now one I would not insult my fish by rapping them in it --- perhaps then Pinch and his minnions will get what they truly deserve. Destruction at the hands of those they support.

Posted by: John Griffin at July 19, 2007 7:30 PM
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