Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Myth and Supermyth

There's a story about a guy from out in the country who leaves home, stays away for a few years, and then comes back for a visit. Not a whole lot has changed, except he notices that the rickety old roadside farm stand where his family used to buy vegetables and fruit has changed a bit. “They still sell produce (but indoors, with air conditioning), but there is now a gift shop, and they also have hayrides, a maze, a haunted house (on Halloween), mystery weekends, music festivals, and a Holocaust museum.” Thus, many signs of the times rolled into one.

I thought of this last month when Americans were, once again, expected – or at least strongly encouraged -- to stand down and observe Holocaust Remembrance Day. And I asked myself at the time how much more “Holocaust remembrance” we could come up with on that day than on any other day, since our culture is already saturated with the Holocaust narrative, and has been for quite a while. It seems that there can never be too many books, magazine articles, TV programs, movies, conferences, college courses, panel discussions, museums, exhibits, plays, musical compositions, art works, statues, murals, and every other conceivable commemorative device to not only keep the narrative alive but right before everyone's eyes, and in everyone's ears, and in everyone's consciousness, at every waking moment. And one wonders, not only “why?” but “why here?” Was America responsible for those events in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s? Hardly. Were Americans (at the time) victims? Possibly, in some cases... but to a significant degree? Did America in any way aid or abet the efforts of the Nazis and their allies? Quite the contrary. So why are we the ones who have to have our noses rubbed in it time after time, and undoubtedly still will even after all living memory of those events is gone? Why is it so important to make Americans feel guilty.... or to at least make certain they “never forget”? Are we the last, best hope of the world's Jews, and is the constant beat of the Holocaust drum the only thing that will keep us from going to sleep at the switch? Sometimes it seems as if that's the intent. But one would think that simply making sure that the history of that era was taught properly in our schools would be sufficient; why do the “lessons” of the Holocaust have to be repeated, ad infinitum, in every conceivable public forum? We certainly don't do this with other important “lessons”, like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution... or whatever might be gained from studies of the Civil War, and the labor movement, and women's rights, and racial strife, and so on. Those subjects all have their place, but they are seldom the occasion for the elaborate displays and the downright browbeating that the Holocaust seems to require. So I ask again, why is it the particular burden of Americans to do most, if not all, of the “remembering”? Why are we expected to gird our loins on a daily basis and, with sword in hand, utter the cry “Never again!”... while the rest of the world goes on about its merry business with nary a thought?

The first thing to understand in talking about all of this is that the Holocaust is a myth. Now, wait a minute! Put down that phone! Let me explain what I mean by that before you hotline me to the EU Holocaust Denial Police. When I say that the Holocaust is a myth, I don't mean, by that, to say that it didn't happen. The idea that “myths” are, by definition, fiction is... well, a myth. A myth can be, or at least be based upon, real events, but it's much more than that. It has significance, and is dealt with, in a way that is, to some extent at least, out of proportion to the actual events, because there is an agenda involved that is much greater than mere historical awareness. So, for example, the fact that Americans are expected to feel guilty, and don sackcloth and ashes once a year, because of the Holocaust, gives it away as a myth. No one expects Americans to do this in observance of the Armenian genocide, or the planned starvation in Ukraine, or more recent events such as the Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia, or the Rwanda massacres, Darfur, and so on. As terrible as those events were (and are), they are generally treated in a proportionate way... based on geographical proximity or remoteness, time passed, and even things like cultural empathy, religious ties, family ties, and so on. (And yes, elements of racism creep in as well, as in: “Well, that's just the way things are in Africa” -- or “in Asia”-- or wherever.) So, admittedly, a recent Jewish immigrant living in New York City in the late 1930s would have kept very careful track of the news out of Germany. But would a farmer in West Virginia? And if so, why? And even if “no man is an island”, shouldn't we be every bit as “observant” when it comes to the above-listed genocides and massacres as we are of the Holocaust? And yet this is clearly not the way things are. Those other events were, and still are, basically considered the problem of the people involved (despite the occasional dithering by the U.N.), whereas the Holocaust is considered a problem for the world in general -- and an unresolved one at that; a "why" question to which there will never be a sufficient answer but which is fated to be raised again and again. That is one difference, and one reason why the Holocaust can be considered a myth in addition to its status as a historical event. Another reason is the core function of a myth – it serves as a means of self-definition for the group (tribe, race, ethnic group, nation, etc.) in question. The mythical event defines – not only at the time but once and for all – the group's identity, its historical significance, its mission, and its place in the worldwide social/political/power structure. Golda Meir is supposed to have said that, because of the Holocaust, “Now we (the Jews) can do anything.” This is taking the mythical event as a license, or imprimatur, or basis for some unique privilege that can never be rescinded.

A lot of the above ideas can be found in any anthropology textbook. But what makes the Holocaust myth unique is that it is not confined to the group in question but is expected to be agreed to, and adopted, by the world in general – by all of humanity, in fact. This goes significantly beyond the usual function of myth and comes very close to one group imposing its very metaphysics – its concept of reality – on others. And again, why this is considered necessary is a good question, when one thinks about it. The tendency is to take it for granted, because the Holocaust narrative has been adopted, wholesale, as an essential part of not only the historical baseline but also the worldview of most Americans. But what comparable phenomenon can one point to in history? I can't think of even one other, as a matter of fact, except possibly for some mass religious conversions. Down through the ages, myths have been confined to the group for whom they were created, and generally regarded as curiosities (or dangerous delusions, even) by everyone else. But the, what I will call “metaphysical conquest” that the Holocaust narrative represents is so complete that no one ever stops to consider how unique it is – not to mention whether it's advisable that it be universally adopted. Clearly, the recovery of the Jews from the Holocaust has to rank as one of the great historical miracles of all time, especially when one considers that their political power is probably greater now, world-wide, than it has ever been in history. And it is that seemingly-miraculous recovery that has, undoubtedly, inspired a lot of the “Christian Zionists” to jump on the Israeli bandwagon, quite certain that they are thereby putting themselves on the winning side (of all of history). Furthermore, when one contemplates the survival and persistence of the Jews in all of the centuries since Biblical times, against tremendous odds, it really does seem as if God might have something in mind. (A cynic or anti-Semite might say He is playing a cat-and-mouse game with them, but I'm quite sure it's much more than that.) But whether that master plan has to do with the “end times” as the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists imagine them, and whether it requires the American government to support Israel, without question, and at all costs, is another matter entirely. However, to the extent that there is a pragmatic agenda behind the continual promotion of the Holocaust narrative, I imagine that a large piece of it involves keeping this level of support secure – as the recent meetings between Obama and Netanyahu have once again confirmed.

There are many other interesting observations that could be made in this regard. One is that the Holocaust myth, or narrative, has been incorporated in its entirety, albeit implicitly, into America's own myths and narratives. Suddenly, to the ever-lengthening list of America's significant and unique qualities, and the various elements of its mission (or burden) to the rest of the world, was added the role and the mission of not only aiding the Jews, but playing a key role in the establishment and perpetuation of the State of Israel. One can only think that by allowing this to occur, we have become Jews by adoption – i.e. the old shoot has been grafted onto the new vine, to reverse the Biblical imagery. And again, if the Evangelicals are right and the Jews are the key to history, this can only be a good thing. But if Israel is a terrible mistake and a dead end – as even some devout Jews believe – then it can only spell destruction for both them and us. At the very least, it is one of the most remarkable phenomena of our time that the Holocaust narrative has come to completely dominate American foreign policy – and this is true whether or not the Evangelicals, and/or “Neocons”, are in or out of power in Washington, as recent events make quite clear.

Another observation for which living memory is fading fast is that the Holocaust was not even _part_ of Jewish history until less than 70 years ago. Jewish identity since that time is so inextricably bound up with the Holocaust that one tends to wonder what basis it even _had_ up to that time. Well, of course, there was ample basis for Jewish identity up to that point, and perhaps the most relevant to the present discussion is that of the Jews as the “chosen people”. Understandably, many Jews, as a result of the Holocaust, decided that the Jews weren't “chosen” after all... or, if they were, they were chosen more for suffering (of a mysterious, absurd, and totally undeserved sort) than for anything else... or that they can hardly have been chosen by God if God does not exist. So to fill this, let's say, metaphysical gap, a new idea came about, which is that the Jews are _self-chosen_. But every other human group is self-chosen as well, so the narrative had to be expanded to incorporate a choice for the Jews on the part of all other peoples as well... or as many as possible. But what is the basis for this? How can one group possibly talk other groups into considering them not only their equals, but their superiors? (This attitude is nowhere more clearly manifest than among the “Christian Zionists”, who have a chronic inferiority complex when it comes to the Jews – even completely secular ones, like the ones who run Israel.) Well, again I say, this is one of the political and social miracles of all time. One can point to relentless propaganda and “P.R.”... to academics and the media... to “political correctness”... to the shunning and isolation of anyone considered “anti-Semitic”... to “hate crime” legislation... and so on. These are all part of the practical means of perpetuating not only the Holocaust narrative but the related myths of Jewish exceptionalism and superiority; but is that explanation enough? We also have to take a serious look at the failures of many Christians, and of their designated shepherds, over the years. Wherever spiritual and moral weakness is found, something will move in to fill the gap – it has always been this way. We have the spectacle of guilt-ridden Christians apologizing about everything at every turn, the way American presidents continue to apologize for slavery nearly 150 years after the fact. And yet is this based on moral strength, and the courage of their convictions? No – it is, rather, based on uncertainty, insecurity, and relativism on all levels. The paradox is that, in this day and age of relativism and “tolerance” it remains true that nothing is more inspiring, or intimidating, than self-assured absolutism and dogmatism – hence the rapid rise of Islamic radicalism and militarism (AKA “terror”). And the Jews have succeeded in promoting a “secular dogma” that, nonetheless, shares an all-important quality with more traditional dogmas, i.e. that it cannot be questioned at any time, by anyone, under pain of being shunned by the “international community”.

So am I saying that Judaism can only triumph where Christianity is weak? Or that the only way for Christianity to triumph is for the Jews to be oppressed? It certainly does appear that the history of Europe, at least, has been a sort of see-saw affair with Christians and Jews constantly pitted against one another, and one group being dominant for a while only to be overthrown, and the cycles just repeating themselves over the centuries. And note that we're not talking just about religious conflicts in the historical sense; we're also talking about conflicts between what E. Michael Jones calls “revolutionary Judaism” -- which is secular and materialistic – and Christianity, as exemplified foremost by the Bolshevik Revolution, but by many other revolutions and conflicts besides. And yet, I cannot give up the belief that Jews and Christians can live side-by-side in peace... even if Christians persist in praying for the conversion of the Jews, an act which – as we know – is considered downright scandalous these days, even if it's only done once a year on Good Friday.

Then there is another idea which feeds into, and is symbiotic with, the Holocaust narrative, and that is what I call the “myth of Jewish innocence”. This is, if you will, the opposite side of the coin from the traditional anti-Semitic premise that the Jews are responsible for all the troubles in the world, and that if we could only get rid of them – through whatever means – Valhalla would be ours. The counterargument to this position is, of course, the one that says that Jews are always victims, are always innocent, and have never done anything to provoke the wrath of the “goyim”. But realistically, what are the chances that any group, tribe, people, or race on earth has persisted, since its origins, in lily-white innocence and purity? Has any group been without sin? Has any group been only the victims and never the victimizers? And yet we see this facet of the myth promoted on a daily basis when it comes to Israel's policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians: Since Israel can do no wrong, then any conflict or disagreement that occurs must be the result of wrongdoing on the part of the Palestinians or their Arab sympathizers. But historically as well, this idea has always been presented – by the Jews about themselves -- as axiomatic and obvious. But we conveniently forget that, for example, at the time of the accelerated persecution of Jews by the Nazis, the Bolshevik Revolution, in which Jews played a key role, was only twenty years old, and the engineered famine in Ukraine was recent history. Plus, there had been brief, Jewish-led communist takeovers in places like Bavaria and Hungary after World War I. And let's not forget Spain! So to say that, at the time of Kristallnacht, for example, there was already a bit of “scar tissue” concerning the role of the Jews in recent European history would be to grossly understate the case. And yet the notion that the victims of the Holocaust were all, without exception, innocent and helpless is a key piece of the narrative.

Now, this is not to say that it's OK to persecute Person B for the crimes of Person A, simply because they belong to the same religious, ethnic, or racial group – but that is not what the Holocaust narrative says either. What it says, or implies, is that European hostility toward Jews in the 1930s was the result of centuries of anti-Semitism aggravated by the outcome of World War I, but that – at the same time, mysteriously – it came as a bolt out of the blue, which is why so many Jews were trapped and unable to escape. And this is, in fact, one of the abiding mysteries connected to the Holocaust; there were ample warning signs... ample reasons to fear gentile hostility... political movements springing up all over the place that had Jews as their targets. So why the delay? Why the failure, in most cases, of self-defense? Why were Jews, in so many instances, simply led to the slaughter with hardly a word of protest? I think some of the reason, at least, is that same presumption of total innocence – the fact that the pre-Holocaust Jewish narrative, for centuries, had been that they are always victims, always innocent, always the “done to” rather than the “doers to”. People who meet their foes on equal terms tend to be a bit more realistic about things like this. They recognize that, while they have been in the right on occasion, they have also been in the wrong often enough – especially in the eyes of others. No Russian is surprised or shocked when he gets an icy stare from a Ukrainian. When an Armenian looks daggers at a Turk, the Turk would be a bit na├»ve not to know why. But the Jews, again -- “Why do they hate us? What have we done to deserve this?” (implication: nothing) (And you'll notice how closely this pleading parallels that of American politicians and the media after 9-11. Coincidence? I don't think so.)

So – this is my theory, at least – it is this universal, age-old presumption of innocence that has, in so many cases, failed to fortify the Jews against attacks from without. This is not to say that to put up decent self-defense there has to be an acute awareness of all of the reasons why someone might want to attack and do you in. But there at least has to be a modicum of awareness of how you appear in the eyes of the outsider... how you might have offended, wittingly or otherwise. And at least the Israelis have “gotten real” on this count, since it's all too obvious what the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states might have in the way of grievances. The Israelis know, in other words, that they have stepped on more than a few toes -- even though they feel completely justified in having done so. So Israel, unlike the European Jews in the 1930s, has its defenses in good order, and its retaliatory capabilities fully developed and ready at a moment's notice. But the old-time European Jews, because of this presumption of innocence, and despite a long history of persecutions and pogroms, simply could not imagine the extent or depth of hostility they might encounter, especially in places like Germany, where they had been welcomed and highly integrated into the larger society for centuries.

Now, I don't want to leave this topic without talking about the strange phenomenon of what is called “Holocaust denial”. The first thing to get straight is that Holocaust denial is not the same thing as “anti-Semitism”; logically, there is no need for them to be one and the same, or to be held by the same people. A person can certainly be an anti-Semite without being a Holocaust denier. In fact, I imagine the average “neo-Nazi” thinks the Holocaust was just groovy, and wishes that the Nazis had been allowed to finish the job. And I'm sure there are a few Holocaust deniers out there who have nothing against the Jews but simply can't imagine that an event of that magnitude ever happened – or could have happened (especially in a “civilized” place like Europe). Maybe they consider it an insult to the highly-advanced German culture to even imagine that such a thing could have originated there; who knows? But here's the point. Just as – as I've said, with qualifications – the Holocaust is a myth, “Holocaust denial” is, more than anything else, a counter-myth. It is, if you will, a reaction or “push-back” to the endless, day-and-night stream of what appears to be propaganda aggressively thrust into everyone's face by all the aforementioned parties. Another way of putting it is that it is not the Holocaust per se that has led to Holocaust denial, but its mythologizing. This is because the mythologizing and “absolutizing” process has taken the Holocaust out of all historical context – out of any continuous, objective narrative of war and peace, societies, power, and economics, and elevated it to a status that rivals Wagner's Ring Cycle. Putting the Holocaust into a historical context, then, is considered relativistic and thus treated as heresy. So Holocaust denial is, in a sense, a protest movement against this extreme, over-the-top mythologizing... it's an attempt to fight back, if you will, on the metaphysical level, as if to say: “Yes, as terrible as this was, it was nonetheless part of history. It was on the historical continuum. It was not unique, and many comparable things have happened, particularly over the past 100 years, and with an even greater loss of life.” It is also a way of saying “There is nothing so special or unique about the Jews that it requires me, personally, to make reparations into the indefinite future, nor does it require my race, ethnic group, or nation to make reparations.” This, of course, is anathema to anyone promoting the Holocaust narrative, since it challenges all of its core premises. Thus the battle lines are drawn. And the people who deride the “Holocaust deniers” and accuse them of being anti-Semites, bigots, and ignoramuses are totally missing the point. And yes, it's true that some of these deniers make fools of themselves on a regular basis by, for example, saying that 6 million is much too high a number, that there couldn't possibly have been more than ... (some other huge number), and that poison gas wasn't really used, etc. What on earth difference any of that makes in principle, I don't know. If even one Jew was arbitrarily killed, by any means, that is one too many and a violation of all standards of civilization. (Don't forget that it was Stalin who pointed out that if you add up enough individual tragedies they eventually turn into statistics, and hence are easier to deal with.)

So... what we have at present is a world that is expected to pay homage to the Holocaust myth (as defined above), and, at the same time, an absurd battle between those promoting the Holocaust narrative – which includes many national governments – and the “deniers”, who are not so much promoting an alternative myth as simply saying “Not!” lest they be overwhelmed by the daily fare of the post-Holocaust world. And please note, both positions are anti-historical, simplistic, irrational, and “faith-based” in a sense. We might as well be talking about... well, about communism vs. fascism, for instance. There is not a grain of sense to either position. And yet this bogus conflict has come to dominate European politics, and it is starting to corrupt public discourse over here as well. And this is unlikely to change given the great asymmetries in the discussion and among the people involved... and the fact that even reasonable discourse is reliably condemned as an example of “hate”, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. So it appears that the Jews – and particularly the Israelis – have put themselves on a pedestal and then raised the ladder up so that no one else can approach their lofty position (and the more reasonable among them can't ever come down and mingle with the unwashed). Many movements over the years have accomplished the same thing, at least in the short run – i.e. establishing an unassailable position and then calling anyone who questions any aspect of it a fool. But in the case of Israel, we're no longer just talking theory here... or remote history, or sociology, or anything else; we're talking about a real, tangible place with real people living in it, who are constantly at knifepoints with their neighbors and their captive minorities, and are thus creating an impossible dilemma for the rest of the world – or at least that portion of the world that cares, or is expected to care, and that certainly includes Europe and the U.S. on one side and the Arab world on the other, with the rest looking on more bemused than anything else, and seeking an advantage out of all the strife, as China is clearly doing. One might have hoped, at one time, that reasonable discourse would serve to defuse the situation to some degree, but it now appears that continued strife is inevitable, and that new wars are highly likely. For the U.S. to have tied itself to this situation may someday be regarded as the ultimate folly, and the beginning of the end of the American system.

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