The Problem of Cultural/Racial Guilt and Accountability

14 07 2010

This is a touchier topic than I normally tackle, so I will try to write about it without offending anyone.

A Jewish friend of mine  moved to Berlin a few years ago, met a German woman and had an adorable baby with her.  He is now officially a German architect and, while he acknowledges that he would like to move back to the U.S. at some point, he has put down roots in Germany, learned the language, and started a business and family there, so he probably won’t be leaving any time soon.

I had dinner with his mother a few weeks ago, and she expressed that it has been hard for her to come to terms with the fact that her son has chosen to build his life in Germany, considering what the Germans did to many of their ancestors.  How can he live there and not constantly be reminded of the Holocaust?

I expressed my thoughts on the subject to her, and I will express them again here.

I am not Jewish, and thus cannot claim to understand what it is like to have relatives that were killed or persecuted in the Holocaust. But I am not sure there are many places on Earth you can live where horrible, large-scale, unspeakable atrocities have not happened, including America.  How can a black man live in Mississippi and not think about slavery or the lynchings and abuse that occurred there at the hands of white plantation owners?  How can a Japanese person live in Pearl Harbor and not be reminded of the atomic bomb that killed his great-grandmother in Hiroshima?  How can a Native American person celebrate Thanksgiving, knowing that that holiday celebrates a time when the English settlers actually murdered many of the natives, spread diseases and stole their food?

I think it’s unfair to associate Germany and all the modern people living in it with the Holocaust, just like I don’t want to be associated with slavery and racism having grown up in Louisiana.  I fully believe that, given the right conglomeration of socioeconomic and political circumstances, what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere.  It could have happened here, or in France, or in Brazil.  But Hitler wasn’t in any of those places; he happened to be in Germany at a time when the country was politically unstable and susceptible to his charisma and bizarre ideas.  It was a perfect storm, and it was devastating and unthinkable, but it should not continue to implicate the people who are living on that random piece of land.

There also seems to be line of thinking (entirely aside from the interesting conversation I had with my friend’s mother, which did not go here) that those who currently belong to an ethno-geographic group that persecuted and oppressed another ethno-geographic group at some point in history should remain accountable for those atrocities in some way or another.  What do today’s white Americans owe to today’s black Americans to atone for centuries of persecution?  What do today’s Germans owe today’s Jews?  Should we carry the guilt or victimization of our ancestors, or should we all be able to start with a clean slate?

For one, I would like to draw a distinction between keeping alive the memory of an atrocity that happened and actually assigning blame to people who had nothing to do with it.  Johann Althausen, the perfectly nice 25-year-old German guy who loves pickles and hates tomatoes and was born in a random hospital in Munich 1984, had nothing to do with the fact that thousands of innocent people were murdered at Auschwitz decades before he was born, even if it was his great-grandfather that ordered those killings.  I believe that he should make an effort to learn about the Holocaust, to understand what happened in his country and why and how horrible it was.  I believe that he should take that knowledge and channel it toward ensuring that he and his future kids live lives entirely devoid of violence and racial and religious prejudice.  But I don’t think that he should spend his life having to apologize or somehow make up for the Holocaust, just because he happens to be German.

I feel the same way about the racial situation in the States.  Yes, we should absolutely acknowledge centuries of racial oppression and persecution and those consequences that still linger and we should continue to teach our children about it so that they can learn from those mistakes.  But should I carry the guilt of my ancestors’ actions just because I’m white, when I have spent my own life in an entirely opposite way?

No, obviously, I shouldn’t.  I will join the fight for equal rights.  If African-Americans are pissed because “nude” or “flesh” colored bandaids are universally the color of white people’s skin, well, shit.  I agree.  “Nude” should come in a range of shades, because people do.

But if you want me to be understanding when the “New Black Panther Party” intimidates voters in Philadelphia because, well, it’s only fair after years of persecution and denying your people suffrage, then no.  Those voters at the poll are not the same people that counted your ancestors as 3/5 of a person and fought to uphold slavery, and they do not deserve your wrath or revenge.  Further, your displays of racism and psychological abuse at the polls makes you no better than those people you’re so angry with, so how can you continue to convince yourself that you are fighting for a good moral cause?

The longer we continue to keep the strife and resentment and anger towards entire ethno-geographical groups alive because of events that happened long before we were born, the more likely it is that similar events will continue to repeat themselves.

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7 responses

14 07 2010
alex

A lot of this topic is very linked to the relationship between pride and cultural identity. “Proud” groups of people never seem to be able to let any part of history go, whether it be dark or bright. It really blows my mind how so many people don’t see pride as foolish or even remember that it is even included as one of the seven deadly sins. It is unattractive and potentially dangerous.

14 07 2010
bros

this has wider ramifications on the shape of political discourse and the boundaries of the sayable/unsayable. ie: no one can criticize israel because of the specter of the holocaust and this shapes geopolitical outcomes.

14 07 2010
Slab Pie

This is an interesting topic to say the least.
I can relate to your friend’s mother and to your post. I am Jewish. My mother is 100% German. Her/my entire family endured the Holocaust. I grew up learning about my family’s atrocious history of persecution and hearing terrifying first-hand accounts from my grandmother (now 90 years old) about her father and uncle taken to concentration camps, her aunt committing suicide in the bed next to her because of the fear of not being allowed into the US, and many more. Needless to say, my grandmother’s opinion on German people is prejudiced. I’d even go so far as to say that I think she’s allowed to feel hatred and harbor resentment towards the entire country based on her personal experiences. (note: she keeps this to herself and family mostly)
For me, it has been different, but something I have had to work on. Growing up, I internalized the resentment towards Germany. How could ANYBODY treat people (especially my amazing grandmother) the way the Nazis treated Jews, Homosexuals, and Disabled people during the Holocaust?? It takes extra effort to put this type of passion and negative feeling in perspective, but it is completely necessary. Unless I step outside of myself, and think about what applying that kind of resentment and negativity accomplishes (or more likely doesn’t accomplish) in the modern setting, I help create an awful cycle of hate.

14 07 2010
BS

The reason that many people find the dialogue around race and racism so unhelpful is because it is. The most insignificant issues rise to the top because they SERVE racist attitudes, not quell them. Colored band aids make the news because they mean nothing and can whip up emotions in all racial groups. The right wing likes to find crazy cults like the new black panthers because they use that to convince white people that they are being oppressed and losing their country. The ‘left’ (or whatever’s left in the US) feeds into it by pretending that this it’s a real issue. Even the article you posted to was so poorly researched and written that it linked the New black panthers with the ACTUAL black panthers, that were disbanded years ago and were nothing like this group. A quick run through her writing seems to indicate that Carol Swain is at worst a self hating black and at best, a fu–ing idiot. The Huffington post should not give her an outlet.

But there are real, important issues that are simmering below the surface that need to be discussed an understood. Some thoughts:

1. Unfortunately, despite all the education, Europe is slowly treading down the same path again with a huge rise in Islamophobia and the french are leading the way with their recent anti-burqa legislation. 1930’s, Jews = Bolsheviks. 2010, Muslims = Terrorists.

This time it’s especially cute because its convinced the left and progressives in these countries that this is a women’s rights/human rights issue and formed an unholy alliance with the ultra right.

The majority of europeans support the anti-burqa laws. This scares me.

2. The United States has its own strand developing with the recent anti-immigration fervor that’s starting the United States. It’s perfectly acceptable for American politicians to go on TV and associate illegal immigrants with rape, kidnapping, and disease.

The majority of americans support the arizona immigration laws. This scares me.

3. Right wing anti-semitism has also found it’s way into middle eastern islamic movements (Iran, Turkey) where it previously was not. Contrary to popular belief, this is a NEW phenomenon and something that should be worrying to people. This scares me. (Note, this does not mean that Iran is trying to get the nuclear bomb and blow up Israel)

4. Zionism has worked for the last 50 years to try and equate Judaism with Zionism and the interests of Jews with the interests of Israel. There are positive signs that this is breaking as the younger generation of American Jews are much more critical of Israeli policies. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Israelis currently support their governments Apartheid treatment of palestinians. Nothing could be more tragic.

5. Quite right that what happened in Germany could have happened anywhere. But too focus on Hitler as a personality is misguided, imo. There were fascist movements in every country as a direct result of economic contradictions, and most importantly, a failure by the left to offer a viable alternative to the economic crisis in those countries. Fascism tends to find some small minority of the population to victimize and demonize as it pounds through and destroys all other social groups and organizations of the left. Jews were generally speaking much further left than most ethnicities and anti-semitism was used to whip up anti-socialist hysteria in all european countries following the russian revolution. Moreover, many western countries refused Jewish refugees precisely for that reason, many of them were socialist, communists, and anarchists and they did not want rabble rousing in their own countries.

6. I’m not entirely sure that it is a bad thing for an country or ethnicity that gets swept up in ultra right fever to temper their nationalist tendencies for some time. Until recently, it wasn’t common to see German flag waving. I think that’s a good thing and maybe we could use a little of that here.

7. Using the US as an example, there is a difference between using american history to make white people guilty, and using it to help people understand certain socio economic realities. Today, America is MORE segregated than it is integrated and if you measure all social, economic, and health indicators black people are still second class citizens.

I think more importantly, maybe we should stop discussing racism in the past tense. The civil rights era was successful in removing a lot of formal racist policies. But as far as giving black communities control of their social and economic destinies, it was a failure.

And judging by the various indicators in the US and the West, fascism is not just history.

15 07 2010
bros

golf claps!

15 07 2010
Wing-it

Golf Claps ?????????

19 07 2010
swirz

good job on this here. that’s a tricky one, a dynamic that will ultimately determine whether this country makes it past the next economic/social collapse. Are we at a disadvantage, that when times become challenging, we aren’t more ethnically/culturally homogenous like Japan, or Poland, or Argentina?

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