“It doesn’t matter who it’s being done to – blacks, whites, Muslims or Jews – homogenising and demonising an entire group is always dangerous.”
– Todd Gillespie, Spiked
“There are no dangerous peoples; there are only dangerous situations, which are the result, not of laws of nature or history, or of national character, but of political arrangements.”
– Ian Buruma, “The Wages of Guilt.”
I agree, in part at least, with both of these statements. I recently read a provocative essay at Spiked – quoted below – (I’d bookmarked it at the time of the “Fallest” protests of the past year). I feel ambivalent about the piece – I admit I find something disquieting about it. Gillespie’s essay makes a lot of sense, yet he too easily dismisses the context and background to the Fallists’ anger.
“In this age of identity politics, we are now told not to judge people by the content of their individual character, but by the colour of their skin. We are encouraged to define people by their genetic characteristics, to see them primarily as racial beings. We must assume that every black person is a victim of systematic racism, and that every white person is born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Suggesting that racism is rather more complicated than identity-politics advocates suggest, or refusing to judge someone on the colour of their skin, is heresy.
Astonishingly, even Nelson Mandela’s idea of a multiracial ‘Rainbow Nation’ has been labelled ‘oppressive’ by UCT’s student magazine, because it supposedly ignores racial differences. Just to add to the absurdity, and despite agreeing with the magazine’s arguments, RMF members have in turn slammed the student magazine and its white writers for ‘appropriating’ their struggle. RMF activists, you see, insist on the absolute racial purity of their struggle.”
The same night as paintings and buses were set alight, the words ‘fuck white people’ were daubed on the plinth where the Rhodes statue had stood. These nasty ideas of collective and historical guilt are irrational and counterproductive. Racism still exists in South Africa and the damage of Apartheid is still very real. But that is not the fault of every white person. In the same way black people should not be asked to speak on behalf of their race, or all Muslims apologise for the actions of Islamist terrorists, so all white people should not be figuratively burnt on the pyre of ‘decolonisation’ on university campuses. It doesn’t matter who it’s being done to – blacks, whites, Muslims or Jews – homogenising and demonising an entire group is always dangerous.
It’s also extremely ugly. In Cape Town, these students study and live in buildings built by European colonists. Let’s hope they don’t burn down their university as well.”
Yep: we whites are just so very good at telling the victims (there’s that inconvenient word again) of historical, structural racism to just somehow get over themselves, to appreciate all the good our colonial forefathers have bequeathed them, and just move on. And of course, that proverbial white bleat which magically absolves us of all culpability: “It wasn’t me!”
Yes I know it wasn’t the present generation of caucasian Americans who decimated the Native Americans and brutalized the American Negro. It wasn’t the present generation of white Australians who almost wiped out the Aboriginals. And during the time of these atrocities, not everyone endorsed or perpetrated human cruelty. Not every Englishman supported slavery, or wanted Boer women and children interred in disease-ridden concentration camps. Not every German wanted Jews gassed (Thank God for Widerstand – the german resistance to Nazism – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Rabe…); not every white person supported the apartheid regime – (and to suggest so is to cast dispersion against the many and varied voices raised against apartheid both inside and outside South Africa). Amongst the Afrikaners, there were always the verkrampte and the verligte. There have always been – whether activists, or clergy, abolitionists, resistance or rebels of one sort or another – men and women of conscience.
To say, it wasn’t me seems a naive statement of self-exoneration. It leaves me with the disquieting sense that all that needs to be said has not been said.
This breezy side-stepping of the matter of the suffering of others is at the core of the problem: a sort of blindness, an obdurate refusal to see. This failure to acknowledge anguish was evident at the time of the TRC when gum-chewing, laughing apartheid apparatchiks thought some carefully worded confessions would exonerate them, and everyone could move on. And they were largely right – the apartheid murderers (Wouter Basson, Craig Williamson, Magnus Malan et al) largely just “moved on” with their easily won indemnities, their TRC get-out-of-jail-free cards and arrogant contempt for the commission (Remember PW Botha’s arrogance?). The same applies to the MK leaders on whose watch the Quattro camp atrocities took place: their casual dismissal of Paul Trewhela is another baleful example of moral bankruptcy.
Unfortunately the families of the murdered and disappeared couldn’t move on quite as breezily as the cynical perpetrators of evil. For the former it was business as usual, start a security company with your mates or take up a cosy position in the new regime. Let bygones be bygones, let sleeping dogs lie (and many did just that – lie through their teeth). Cold comfort for the victims, in a deeply flawed process which left them with their grief, sense of betrayal, and wounds too deep to heal.
Herein lies the dilemma of a society caught up in a miasma of evil: how do we locate and punish the guilt of individuals and simultaneously acknowlede the broader context of culpability – without homogenising the group? Are we all guilty by association? Is guilt undifferentiated, ubiquitous? If so, how do we prevent new injustices, scapegoating, pogroms, genocides, Stalin trials and demonizing of entire peoples? Gillespie is right to draw our attention to the danger of demonizing an entire group, and yet the shaming of the German nation (a conveniently homogenized group, no?) was, seemingly, necessary for that nation’s healing too. The kriegskinder, and their children too, have lived with shame, and the literature on the subject has a bearing on the South African situation and its post-apartheid, “born free” generation.
(I should emphasize that the German nation was itself a victim of terrible crimes too – the firebombing of Dresden, the mass rape of German women at the end of the war – see note at end of post).
I need to emphasize the importance of this point: Sean Fitzpatrick wrote a piece for CERC, called “Dostoevsky and the Glory of Guilt”. He writes, “… in what way we are all responsible for the sins of all is impossible to say precisely — but it rings true, jarring though it is, if it is true that all men are obliged to love one another and be the presence of Christ to one another. The failure in this latter regard only fosters the failures in following Christ. It is, without doubt, the responsibility of all Christians to provide that example, that care, and that love. The crimes of the wayward reflect on all who have been baptized into Christ. That is a harsh saying — but it may very well be so. It is for mankind to take responsibility for his fellow men, that no one might be lost to the wolves.”
Of course the Christian moral framework isn’t for everyone, and the Eastern church has a very different understanding of sin as a corporate experience compared to protestantism’s focus on individual culpability and forgiveness.)
Maybe I am simply not at home in either side of the argument. I hope a less polarized and more nuanced position may yet be found.
In thinking about what Todd describes as “An obsession with victimhood” I should like to share a link to an invaluable essay titled “Victim chic? The rhetoric of victimhood” by Michael Ovey (http://www.jubilee-centre.org/victim-chic-the-rhetoric-of-victimhood-by-michael-ovey/).
Worth a careful read, especially with regards to the mutual demonization of Serb and Croat in the Balkans conflict.
In summarary, “the rhetoric of victimhood allows us to cast ourselves without qualification as victims, or as saviours of victims, while dramatising our chosen opponents as demonic without qualification. This paper outlines how we sometimes use the role of victim. It analyses the spiritual dangers of manufacturing such blanket identities in relation to usurping God as creator-judge and subverting basic principles of justice, and contrasts victimhood rhetoric with the example of Christ. Instead of victimhood rhetoric, we should prefer roles following the example of Jesus, who sees humans in relation to the perfect justice and mercy of God.”
Christ confronts victim and perpetrator with a radical message of love, which contains within itself the equally challenging notions of truth, justice, forgiveness, repentance and humility – values distinctly absent from the debate.
(Ovey looks at Stephen Karpman’s drama triangle – a psychotherapeutic tool for examining conflictual human interactions.)
The Bosnia Crisis: Serbs, Croats and Muslims: who hates who and why by Tony Barber, 8 August 1992 (https://www.google.co.za/amp/www.independent.co.uk/news/world/the-bosnia-crisis-serbs-croats-and-muslims-who-hates-who-and-why-tony-barber-in-zagreb-traces-the-1539305.html%3Famp?client=ms-android-huawei)
“The very idea that a nation can and should be held accountable for its history, that a people can collectively experience remorse, guilt or atonement, is one of our age. We may question whether the psychological processes of an individual can be applied to a group, but the atrocities committed in this century in the name of a nation simply cannot be explained or expiated through the identification and punishment of specific culprits. The Holocaust set a new standard of evil, “crime against humanity,” requiring not only the punishment of those who actively perpetrated it and the chastening of those who silently condoned it, but also the atonement of an entire people.
There are those, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn most recently, who argue that Russia and the other nations emerging from Communism cannot become whole without atonement, that seven decades of terror and lies cannot be forgotten, even in the name of national peace. “National reconciliation is a great thing and much needed,” Mr. Solzhenitsyn argued on his return to Russia in May, “but there cannot be national reconciliation without spiritual cleansing.” Closer to home, our own soul-searching over Vietnam suggests that national trauma is not the exclusive province of former dictatorships.
BUT it is not Mr. Buruma’s purpose to psychoanalyze or philosophize, nor to equate the burdens of Germany and Japan; on the contrary, he underscores his belief that the atrocities committed by the Japanese Army are not comparable to the premeditated, systematic killing of Jews in Germany. What he does with each country is to trace through concrete examples and facts how the trauma of a lost war and the legacy of savagery have determined not only the postwar politics of Germany and Japan – the governing structures imposed on them by the victors – but also their identities, their attitudes, their behavior as nations.”
– Sins of the FathersBy Serge Schmemann;
Published: June 26, 1994, New York Times, http://nyti.ms/2hEB3ah
“The majority of the (rapes) were committed in the Soviet occupation zone; estimates of the numbers of German women raped by Soviet soldiers have ranged up to 2 million. According to historian William Hitchcock, in many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. At least 100,000 women are believed to have been raped in Berlin, based on surging abortion rates in the following months and contemporary hospital reports, with an estimated 10,000 women dying in the aftermath. Female deaths in connection with the rapes in Germany, overall, are estimated at 240,000. Antony Beevor describes it as the “greatest phenomenon of mass in history”, and has concluded that at least 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia alone.” (Wikipedia)
“From the outset of Nazi rule in 1933, issues emerged which brought the churches into conflict with the regime. They offered organised, systematic and consistent resistance to government policies which infringed on ecclesiastical autonomy. As one of the few German institutions to retain some independence from the state, the churches were able to co-ordinate a level of opposition to Government, and, according to Joachim Fest, they, more than any other institutions, continued to provide a “forum in which individuals could distance themselves from the regime”. Christian morality and the anti-Church policies of the Nazis also motivated many German resisters and provided impetus for the “moral revolt” of individuals in their efforts to overthrow Hitler. The historian Wolf cites events such as the of 1944 as having been “inconceivable without the spiritual support of church resistance”(Wikipedia)