A time comes when silence is betrayal

What a boon that we have Martin Luther King Day.

2017 was a depressing year for many Americans who care about our public life. And New Year’s Day 2018 did not bring with it even a grain of hope that the coming year will be better in that regard.

But a mere two weeks into 2018, we get to celebrate Martin Luther King, and for a few hours to enjoy a reset on hope and vision, on high ideals and moral clarity.

I joined a crowd of a couple of thousand in front of the Cambridge Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where the temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit and snowflakes bounced in the wind, to hear Senator Elizabeth Warren call President Trump out for his most recent expressions of racism, and call upon the assembled group to fight the way a previous generation did in the 1960s to ensure that racial and economic justice will roll down.  Then we were all put to work to do three hours of service to help the needy in Cambridge.

Earlier, at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Boston, assembled politicians were asked what was their favorite King quotation.  Warren and several others responded with the theme of King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York where he publicly announced his opposition to the Vietnam War.

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

This week we will pass the one year mark of President Trump’s dark and angry inaugural address and of the Women’s March, which brought a coalition of many, if by no means all, together to let off steam and express our rejection of Donald Trump’s agenda. Looking back at all that, I recall that those events were quickly followed by the furore over President Trump’s attempts to cancel visas to the US for the next 90 days, and we began to see judges and journalists seizing every chance they could to hold the new president’s feet to the fire. Their admirable work has continued.

But for many of us who do not have obvious means by which to fight for the values we see eroding in the present climate, the emerging situation this time last year had an effect that I didn’t initially expect.  We found we wanted to claim the space of our own lives and give none of it to our president. People who used to be news junkies stopped watching the TV news, refused to speak the name of the president, and sidelined those who handily gravitated to the next Trump joke. We chose to lie low.

Now that a year has passed, now that we have checked in with our brother Martin, who continues to admonish us across the decades that silence is betrayal, it seems as if it is right to lie low no longer.

It is time to recognize that Pope Francis’s words in his New Year’s Eve homily are right on target – that the ordinary things we do in life, and the way we go about doing them, DO make a difference because they contribute to the establishment and protection of norms.  And the past year has told us nothing if it hasn’t told us how quickly hard-won norms unravel.

So watch this space, not because it offers new or startling insights about current American politics, but because it is a place to honor the many who are out there setting norms for a better future.


Americans want to help refugees…

At a panel discussion on the global migration crisis held last week at Washington, DC’s Newseum, many of the questions from the audience requested practical guidance on how we Americans can help with resettlement. The panelists were less than totally able to answer these questions satisfactorily, a fact that captures at some level the vague cloud that surrounds the US refugee resettlement system. Indeed, an individual who has spearheaded refugee resettlement in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a forum several weeks earlier, run by the Episcopal Church, that when he launched his program, the US State Department advised him to operate “under the radar.” The authorities, it seems, fear that Americans who hear about refugees will be more inclined to push back against their arrival rather than roll up their sleeves to help.

A first step in changing this, according to the global charity Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is to get the word out about the actual situation of refugees and displaced people worldwide. MSF devoted the past week to informing the people of Washington, DC about the realities of global migration. Timed tickets were available free of charge for a guided tour through an outdoor exhibit on the National Mall, close to the Washington Monument, where we were helped to understand through a number of hands-on re-enactments what it is like to be a refugee or displaced person.

My guide was a nurse from Connecticut in her sixties who has worked for MSF in South Sudan, Burundi and Tanzania and Afghanistan over the past fifteen years. She told us each to select items that we would take in an emergency evacuation. The options were pictured on laminated cards that we could carry with us on the tour. At each stage along our “journey” we were forced to choose one of the items we were carrying to give up for lack of space or sell in order to pay our way on the next stage of the journey. My five items were passport, family photos, medications, baby’s bottle, and water. The item I kept the longest was my passport. A number of my fellow travelers made the same choice. I have no idea whether this was a wise choice. My sense of randomness about it probably replicates the sense of randomness that overshadows most refugees as they try to make good choices hour by hour.

On our tour, we found ourselves in an inflated raft, squeezed closely so that twenty of us could just fit as we sat on the raised edges. Such a boat, we were told, would carry as many as sixty people from Libya or Turkey to Europe. Then we were shown a rudimentary refugee camp, including a latrine, the method by which people wash their hands after using the latrine in a place of water scarcity, and packets of dry peanut butter that can be easily distributed to nourish large numbers on the brink of starvation. In the next tent, a kind of clinic run by MSF, we saw how measles vaccines are kept cold without electricity and we viewed an efficient new malaria test instrument that can be administered to thousands in a single day. We learned the importance of cell phones – essential items for maintaining communication between scattered family members.

I learned that one of the main preoccupations of communities receiving refugees is how to ensure that refugee camps not become permanent dwelling places, in the way that the Palestinian camps have in Southern Lebanon and on the West Bank. Lebanon has not allowed official “camps” for Syrian refugees, so the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (now comprising one fifth of Lebanon’s population) are informally camped out in the Bekaa Valley, or renting patches of land closer to cities. The positive aspect of this approach is that the refugees become more integrated in the local economy, and Lebanese as well as refugees gain from the UN aid for the building of infrastructure. But 40 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in temporary accommodation including garages, shacks and informal camps. They have little protection against the cold.

Deborah Amos of National Public Radio, who has recently taken up US refugee resettlement as her new “beat,” spoke at the Newseum of the dilemmas facing reporters who are getting the refugee story out. It is hard to find new things to say about a story that seems much the same from day to day. The goal is to humanize the situation, not get caught up in statistics. “You want to tell small stories rather than big stories.” You can focus on the tragedy, or you can focus on resilience. You can focus on the welcome offered from various countries, but you also describe countries that move from feeling welcoming to feeling threatened.

Most refugees are skilled people, middle class people, who expect to find places where they can charge their cell phones and use ATM cards. Instead of malnutrition, the diseases seen among refugees coming into Europe are chronic diseases, such as heart conditions. Today’s refugees prefer not to stay in camps: conflicts today are lasting longer than they used to, so refugees know they are not well advised to assume that they will get home soon.

And yet refugees resist becoming assimilated in their place of arrival, surely a sign that they have not given up the possibility of getting home one day. A matter for huge concern is that half of global refugees are children and two thirds of those children are not being educated, a situation that bodes ill for the future, and yet  Syrian refugees in Turkey resist sending their children to Turkish schools. They want their children to be taught in Arabic, not in Turkish. Initially some Arabic language schools for Syrians in Turkey were financed by the Arabic speaking diaspora, but over time these groups have run out of money.  One theory about why there was a surge in refugees from Turkey into Europe in fall 2015 is that the closure of these schools caused Syrian families to decide that Europe was the only place they would be willing to have their children educated.

A Dream Realized

The opening of Washington, D.C.’s new Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday, September 24, occurring as it did in the same week as police shootings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte, captured perfectly the mixture of grief and dignified struggle that has defined the African American story.

The juxtaposition was obvious to all.  We carried it inside us as we shared in the realization of a long-held dream to see the African American story honored in a central spot in our nation’s capital. President Obama underlined that the museum would not cure the racial ills of the United States. But, he said, the museum’s exhibits “can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly see each other.”

The new museum, with its distinctive architecture described by the New York Times as an “inverted ziggurat,” stands close to the familiar obelisk of the Washington Monument, within view of the site of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech and of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that provided King his setting,

The day of the museum inauguration was a day when we thought a lot about dreams. Many who spoke that day referenced the poem of Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Hughes spoke for African Americans in the twentieth century. In recent years a new swath of African American writers have eloquently confronted us with the continuing deferral of African Americans’ dignity in American society: Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Edward Baptist, (The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns). Black Lives Matter has gotten the word out about the kind of acts that have been rife ever since the ending of slavery but that have been treated with denial and callousness.

The opening of the museum was not so much an explosion as a jubilant acknowledgment that the African American story is and always was central to the American story. The ongoing struggles make that affirmation more meaningful, give it an edge, remind us that the battle for the world we aspire to is never won, is fought daily.

And somehow or other, I, and, I believe, many, many of us, felt drawn in last Saturday, knowing we were all part of this story. The story sends out a shaft of light that pierces our ongoing protections and defenses, that brings us alive, that teaches us what it means to love and engage.

Attending a concert of spirituals at Washington’s National Cathedral earlier in the week that was held in honor of the museum opening, I sat down beside a young black man and we introduced ourselves. “My name is Efram,” he said. “Pronounced like A-frame,” he added. I said my name was Margaret. The concert began, and I saw that Efram was looking up each of the songs on his i-phone so that he could follow the words. “Nobody knows the trouble I see,” “Take my hand, precious Lord,” “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” – songs of resistance, of acknowledgement of deep emotions trampled, of separation of mothers and children, of exodus, of pleas for deliverance. When the audience was welcomed to join in, Efram shared his i-phone with me. It turned out that he had been born in Ethiopia. None of these songs was familiar to him, but he wanted to know them.  Leaning in towards each other, we sang the three verses of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” reaching our heads higher for the crescendos as if we had been doing this together for all of time.

Book Review: David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting

David Rieff is not the only writer discussing the current history-memory “boom” to propose that “forgetting” might have some social advantages over “remembering.” His book, In Praise of Forgetting, published earlier this year, is the most recent in a genre of literature that asks us to fine tune our assumptions that more knowledge of the past offers liberation or healing.

Reiff’s book is a complex reflection on matters of memory. Early in the book he cites Ecclesiastes 1:11 (“No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them”), alerting us to the possibility that all efforts to uphold memory and history imply an unfounded romanticism about the enduring value of the past.   But this is not Reiff’s real point, for he recognizes that human beings order their experience around memory and history, even if such efforts turn out to be shortlived.

Neither is Reiff questioning the importance of addressing war crimes in the immediate aftermath of conflict, especially crimes that were kept secret by a regime. That said, he recognizes that the longer the delay in revealing such secrets, the less satisfying is apology, or by implication, redress.

In arguing for less memory rather than more, Rieff underlines that ending impunity can sometimes have negative consequences, which, he says, is contrary to the message spread these days by the human rights establishment. His case in point is the Dayton agreement, ending the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. A “just” ending of the war would have meant prolonging the war. The decision to allow Bosnian Serbs to retain most of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina they had seized through “ethnic cleansing” was a recognition that the best was the enemy of the good: ending the war was a more important goal than achieving true justice.

Reiff’s main target is collective memory – the process by which groups assert social identification – and the romanticism and nostalgia that this has created in Israel, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Armenia, to name a few. Collective memory is a product of social and political forces, and therefore is never a truly accurate rendition of what actually occurred in the past. Reiff argues that collective memory is usually false and often dangerous.

This argument pushes back against a late twentieth century tide of interest in collective memory that Rieff understands well. He captures the way that the Holocaust has elevated “memory” or “remembrance” to a form of justice. This is understandable in the face of an event where almost no justice in the legal sense of the word was possible.

Likewise, Rieff captures the way that the translation of Maurice Halbwach’s book Collective Memory into English from the original French in the 1980s provided new openings for exploration of the power of group memory in society.   Halbwachs’ book, first published in 1925, has been used to legitimize the validity of substate group identifications in an era when the power of the state to define national identity has been on the wane.

Rieff also captures the ongoing discussion about the difference between history and memory. Today memory, the living remembrances of individuals, has won the preferred position over history, the written record that remains after all who lived through the events have passed on. Thus story telling, even if not vetted for its objectivity or fact-based rendering, has moved center stage in current culture. And concerns about accuracy, whether in such movies as Selma and The Imitation Game, or even in some local history endeavors, have been reduced to second place.

In the face of conflicting tides and whirlpools of debate that feed the memory boom, Reiff cuts through the sentimentality about collective memory. The political purposes that hold memory hostage and the illusions that collective memory produces do indeed raise the question whether the caché currently accorded all memory is such a good thing. As Reiff proposes, in a number of cases Santayana’s aphorism that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” may well have become displaced as a moral imperative by Nietzsche’s “active forgetting.”

But forgetting is not easy to bring about, especially in our era of democratized communication. Moreover, memory is an important source of meaning making in rapidly changing times such as those we live in. The question whether we can find a morality of memory to fit our age is one that Rieff only partially examines. He does not reference the literature of forgiveness or restorative justice. But he does propose that we cut through the cant in the exploration of this important area of human experience.




























It could be that the rapid in which we live enlivens our interest in memory because we feel the need to anchor our sense of things and impose meaning on a world that challenges previous definitions. in the 1 believed that collective memory supported our hope for progress. Margalit expanded on this idea: memory, he said, allows us to hope that all is not meaningless.


Here is diverges somewhat from


Reiff is


In the peacebuilding world, we have long recognized the short term inter-relationship between peace and justice in post-war countries – that more of one implies less of the other. Another aphorism that reigns in post-conflict peacebuilding is that one the long term you cannot have true and lasting peace without justice. This latter proposition, argues David Rieff, comes from the human rights community, whose endeavors are framed with reference to the law. The call for justice is a call for remembering, to the point that remembrance is at often synonymized with justice. And certainly, in the immediate aftermath of war crimes, justice cannot be side-stepped.


But Reiff raises the question whether the human rights community has served us well.

Calais Jungle

Switzerland, July 22

Yesterday, while attending a forum on European migration issues, I learned that in the town of Calais on France’s northwest coast, a growing shanty-town known as Calais Jungle populated by migrants and asylum seekers, now has a population of 7,300 and is likely to reach 10,000 by September. This deteriorating situation in Calais, not widely known in the U.S., cries out for attention, if only to allow those of us living at a distance to sense the shocking and heart-rending tensions and contradictions still surrounding Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis.

Calais, best known to the Anglophone world as the entry point into continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel, is a gathering place for refugees and migrants who have set their hopes on getting to the UK. Camps of this kind have been forming in Calais since the early 1990s. They have been set up on unoccupied land, using tents and other temporary shelter, moving to new locations when the French authorities close them. Last year this particular camp grew significantly. By April 2015, it had acquired, for the first time, showers, toilets and electricity. Charities have been providing one meal a day.

Because the UK is not party to the Schengen agreement for free movement of people in Europe, the UK is not legally required to allow entry to these people. Nor are they likely to get asylum in the UK as refugees, since they have already been living in France for some time, and therefore can no longer make a case that they are unsafe. But these people do not want to give up on the dream of getting to Britain, where many already have family members, and where they believe their chances of getting jobs are better than in France. The current population includes over six hundred children not accompanied by an adult, many of whom are waiting to be reunited with family members in the UK.

Frequently inhabitants attempt to board trucks or trains entering the Tunnel. One man recently walked almost the entire 31 miles of the tunnel, with freight trains rushing past him inches away, only to be arrested shortly before his arrival on the British side, and forced to return to France.  Just one month ago the port of Calais was forced to close for a time when migrants took to the streets, erecting barriers in the road in order to slow down vehicles heading for the tunnel so that they could board them. Police dispersed the migrants with tear gas.

The alternative to going to the UK for these people is to request asylum in France, but these migrants regard that step as giving up on better possibilities in the UK.

Left wing groups, including Jeremy Corbyn, embattled head of the British Labour Party, have been lobbying the British government to let in a good number of the migrants.  British who want to demonstrate their compassion for the Calais situation have mobilized an aid convoy for the refugees, but French authorities have blocked its departure from Dover, the port town on the British side of the Tunnel. This policy arises from French recognition that anything they do to improve the lot of the inhabitants of the camp is likely to encourage more people to come.

France seems unable to find a means effectively to disperse these people, even though conditions in the camp are unsanitary and crowded. In February of this year, a court in Lille allowed the Calais police to evict 1,000 migrants from the camp. But since the February evictions, the numbers have grown even greater. The authorities have brought 125 shipping containers into the shanty-town as a form of temporary housing for 1500 people. Permanent buildings are not possible because of the sandy soil.

The news site infowars.com reported in January 2016 that the French Army is making contingency plans for the “reappropriation of national territory,” in case these groups acquire weapons and become more hostile to authorities.

The situation presents the French authorities with a terrible dilemma.  Let’s fervently hope they can find a way out of this before the law of the jungle has its way.



All-or-nothing thinking

Several talented writers commenting on the mood of our times speak of the poisonous effects of “dualism,” which we popularly refer to as “all-or-nothing thinking.”

Much of the time we hold conflicting ideas in our minds successfully. This is how we retain a sense of reality in a complex and contradictory world.

But when the complexity becomes too great, we shift into a different gear as we search for simpler forms of understanding. At such times, we tend to characterize some people as “good” and others as “bad,” some ideas as “always true” and other ideas as “always false.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth, in his book Not in God’s Name, describes this state of mind as one when “cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, and when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believe it ought to be.” “Pathological dualism,” he says, is a mindset that divides human begins between the totally good and the totally bad. This makes it much easier to commit violence against other people.

But even if we don’t behave violently, most of us recognize that, when faced with opaque complexity, frustration, or deep uncertainty, we become more dogmatic and more simplistic in our thinking. Freud described this state of mind by coining the terms “splitting” and “projection.” In order to feel that we live in a more ordered universe, we split our inner reality, hanging on dogmatically to those parts that we prefer, and projecting the parts that we dislike onto others.

In our world that is so heavily reliant on the messaging of the media, we are subjected to an increasing number of assertive claims that emphasize simplistic, all-or-nothing thinking.   Along with the complex uncertainty that has entered our lives through recent crises, media-defined all-or-nothing discourse itself contributes to the frenzied, oppositional way in which things are being cast right now.

With social media determining so much of our communication, it is hard to see how this can be avoided, but it raises the question whether there are ways to capture and broadcast the complexity that offers a closer approximation of the truth. President Barack Obama attempted this on Tuesday, when he spoke at the memorial service in Dallas for the five police officers slain at Saturday’s peaceful protest. He sensitively captured the pain of black families who have been the recipients of police abuses, while at the same time honoring the vital role of the police in keeping us safe. He suggested that responding with our hearts is the way to overcome dualist thinking. His message of the heart was repeated by CNN correspondent Van Jones, in an interview with Black Lives Matter that was picked up by The Peace Alliance:

“Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancée, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers, but you have a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check. We are either going to come together or come apart. There’s enough pain on both sides that there should be some empathy starting to kick in.” www.peacealliance.org

If dualism is a problem, paradox is to be welcomed, says Catholic priest and author, Richard Rohr. Rohr points out that most spiritual “truth” has a paradoxical character. The dualistic mind, he says, calls things it doesn’t understand “wrong.” To understand, says Rohr, means to “stand under” and “let things have their way with you.” Understanding, says Rohr, means preparing our minds for the moment when they can discover a willingness to shift and change. This is an expansion of consciousness, a creative act, that allows us to see the world differently.

Elie Wiesel, my teacher

Tributes to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the days since his death last week recognize a great humanitarian and a courageous spokesman but also an individual whose eyes never ceased to reveal the haunting nature of his personal experience of the Nazi crimes of 1933 to 1945. He reached beyond his own people, offering all of us ways to speak about those terrible events, and held a flame against the dark temptation to be silent. His going marks a rite of passage, forcing us to recognize that in coming decades fewer people will be alive who remember the Holocaust as a personal experience, and at some point those events will pass from living memory.

In the autumn of 1986, during my final year as an undergraduate in the Boston University history department, I enrolled in a class called The Literature of Memory, taught by Wiesel. He traveled once a week from his home in New York to Boston to teach the class. Several weeks into the semester, news came that our professor had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which brought TV cameras into our classroom and reminded us, if any of us needed reminding, that our professor was a person who spoke on a global stage.

Clearly, the purpose of the class was to engage with the Holocaust. As most of the students in the class were Jewish and I was a person of Christian background, The Literature of Memory supplied my first experience of being immersed in the collective Jewish worldview. I had had close Jewish friends over the years, but they had not been able to convey to me what this class conveyed. The experience of the class showed me how something you already think you know can mature into to new level of awareness. I was probably far more aware than the average gentile of the details of the events of the 1930s and the Second World War. I was far less aware of possible ways to reflect on the meaning of those events.

I encountered for the first time pushback from real people against the notion that Jews had killed Jesus. Intellectually I knew that this was a problem with John’s gospel. And I had appreciated that Jews of the twentieth century would object to being called Christ-killers, not only because the notion suggested that something that happened twenty centuries earlier had contemporary relevance, but because it was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews. I assumed that the idea that Jews killed Jesus grew from the fact that the crowd that called for Jesus to die and Barabbas to live had been Jewish, even if it was the Romans who orchestrated the crucifixion. But to say such a thing in this particular group was not acceptable and exposed me as the shallow and naïve gentile I clearly was for failing to understand the full weight of 2,000 years of Jewish fury at being dubbed beyond the pale of acceptance because of their so-called role in killing Jesus.

But the principal message I absorbed from Wiesel’s class, viscerally if not directly, was that if there was ever to be an event in history that would defy Christian notions of forgiveness, the Holocaust was surely that event. An appeal to forgiveness in the face of such acts was surreal. This was not a situation where statements like “We are all human,” “We all commit errors” could possibly seem appropriate. By being in Wiesel’s class I was allowed to feel this truth in the marrow of my bones.

Wiesel’s class thus freed me from the inner requirement to defend my inherited Christian principles and forced me to examine them afresh. It allowed me to drill down to the place where I could say that something that had occurred was unacceptable and leave it at that. I no longer had to rationalize the unacceptable into being less than totally unacceptable because the doctrine of forgiveness required this of me. I began to recognize how this aspect of my Christian culture had the power to undermine my passion in the face of needed social change, and could devolve into denial, setting up and supporting elaborate superstructures to conceal the uneasiness that truth introduces. Forgiveness, certainly an option, could never again, after Wiesel’s class, be, for me, a moral requirement.

Wiesel suggests in the introduction to Night, that the Holocaust actually changed the world’s consciousness about God, for clearly God is not all-powerful if God allows such a thing to happen. “…I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity,” he says, “whose revelation was to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.” Wiesel perceived that the hegemony of widespread assumptions about God was undermined by the Holocaust. God, if God existed at all, would have to be discovered differently.

I recognized, by spending a few hours a week in close proximity to Wiesel, something of the struggle for meaning once a person has been pulled into the undertow of the world’s evil. For Wiesel, what redemption was possible came through testimony. As a student of history myself, I had often heard quoted Santana’s warning that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. But Santana had never seemed to capture the issues well for me. Too often, precisely, those who remember hang on to patterns of thought that predispose them to repeat history. Remembering in order to prevent similar actions in the future was, for me, a discredited idea.

Wiesel was saying something different from Santana. We witness, he said, because there are times when witnessing is all we have. “I decided,” he said, “to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead.  And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”  When facing a choice between “history,” the written record endorsed by the hierarchy – the official narrative – and “memory” – the personal narrative – Wiesel chose “memory,” and he regarded memory as the essence of morality. “Memory,” for Wiesel, was not unreliable. It was not poetry. “Memory,” for Wiesel, meant testifying to the facts of the case. Even though he will have a place in history as a man who contributed hugely to the collective memory of the Holocaust, his life and teaching point us away from the current fashion to reify manufactured collective memory, instead locating truth in the lived experience of the individual.



What meaning should we take from President Obama’s Hiroshima visit?

A month has passed since President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, but the discussion continues. A Japanese friend of mine wrote to me Monday saying that The Japan Times earlier this week had a full page Readers Forum entitled “What do you think about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima?” Comments in this Forum were positive and largely forward looking: e.g.,

“President Obama is pursuing a change. Now, it is our responsibility to take the next step.”

“The strong words of President Obama are engraved in my heart. His visit to Hiroshima did not only please the Japanese people but also gave the entire world a glimmer of hope for the future. After listening to the historic speech, I thought ‘What can I do?’…”

But comments also recognized that this visit was about the past, even if apologies were not being offered:

“Through this visit I hope the world can see the importance of acknowledging the past.”

Even though most Japanese continue to believe that the atomic bombings were unjustified, nearly 80 percent of surveyed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said they were pleased with the visit, according to a Kyodo News poll taken at the time of the visit. Only 15% felt that an apology from the US was called for.

Whatever political motivations Obama had for this visit (think North Korea’s nuclear threat and the US’s new security “pivot” towards Asia), he was, surely, sending a message about the past. He was demonstrating that it is possible to acknowledge the pain of the past even if politics keep aspects of the injurious past alive. He might even have been saying that matters of apology matter less than acknowledgement of pain and forging a new path together.

When asked before the trip whether he would apologize, Obama said in an interview with NHK,

“No, because I think that it is important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions.

“It is the job of historians to ask questions and examine them, but I know as somebody who has now sat in this position for the last seven and a half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during war time.”

“My purpose is not to simply revisit the past, but to affirm that innocent people die in a war, on all sides, that we should do everything we can to try to promote peace and dialogue around the world, that we should continue to strive for a world without nuclear weapons.”

The discussions around the matter of apology during these weeks have been complex. Some commentators said the Japanese government preferred that Obama not apologize, because this might have place an unwanted requirement on Japan to apologize for gross human rights violations committed towards prisoners of war and civilians during the Second World War. Others felt that the framing of this event, focusing on common concerns about nuclear weapons, demonstrated that it is time to move on from the discourse of World War II apology, which seems stale in the 21st century.

After Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, I sat down at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, with Lily Gardner Feldman, a scholar of political reconciliation. Feldman, Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, makes a distinction between “moral reconciliation” and “pragmatic reconciliation.”

With regard to “moral reconciliation,” Feldman highlights that Germany started very soon after 1945 to look for ways to make amends towards former enemy countries and to the Jews of Israel, and over time has continued to observe joint commemorations of the historical events in question, even when it was no longer necessary for Germany to do so. She emphasizes the role of civil society organizations in building links between the German people and citizens of countries involved in the war against Germany, and the assiduous efforts made to rewrite textbooks. She believes that the two primary aspects of moral reconciliation are a repeated acknowledgement of the painful events that occurred, and the willingness to take responsibility for them.

Feldman describes Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as an example of pragmatic reconciliation. She likewise describes Japanese apologies proffered since World War II as pragmatic, linked, as they have largely been, with attempts to reach political goals, rather than to take a moral position per se.

Prime Minister Abe has, likewise, been criticized by the political left in Japan for taking a less-than adequate stance with regard to moral reconciliation.  His 2015 official apology to South Korea for the sexual abuse of Korean women who were forced to “service” Japanese men during the war, while acknowledged as a step forward, had written in an insistence that the matter would not be revisited. This falls short of Germany’s model.

In spite of all of this discussion, or perhaps because of it, I found Obama’s visit refreshing. I did not see it as only pragmatic. He offered a different way of thinking about the past in a situation that has become stuck in one particular frame. True compassion was present, I thought. His embrace of the survivors was deeply genuine. Obama found a way to acknowledge the unprecedented and terrible experience Japanese people underwent, and to point in the direction of a common future.

But it is nonetheless worth asking ourselves whether acknowledgement of the painful past is only likely to produce reconciliation between countries or political entities who are motivated for other reasons to be bound together in a political future…

Brexit forces us to find a new way of engaging with the world

Those who have suffered in the economic downturn are making their voices heard. The populism behind Brexit resonates with the supporters of Trump in the US. Both political movements draw energy from a large swath of people who rightly expect better from a system that has been giving them less and less to count on over several decades and, in the past eight years, have seen the bottom drop out of their hopes for a decent life for themselves and their children.

The UK shows us that the possibility that Donald Trump’s view of the world, a view catering to this sense of anger and loss, could prevail in the US in November is real.

Concerns about immigration have played into this vote, in the same way they create facile  support for Trump. Refugees and migrants are easy scapegoats when fear and loss feed a frenzied political atmosphere.

The economic repercussions of Brexit will be huge but at this point are not easily measured. Right now, all of us UK citizens are feeling its psychological implications.

It is a sad day for the great project of Europe. My generation, the children of those who fought in the Second World War, have grown up with pride in the way that Europe ventured into the unknown with a new economic and constitutional arrangement that harnessed countries previously at war in a common effort to create a better future. Even with its abject difficulties and poor management of a series of crises, Europe has, for my lifetime, given us optimism about how the tragedy of war could be turned to good effect.

It is a sad day for Britain’s image in the world. In the past century Britain has drastically diminished as a world power. It’s connection with Europe – albeit always a somewhat dodgy matter – seemed an obvious way to keep its hand in.

It is a sad day for the UK, which is going to have much less reason to stick together after this. Scotland will have more reason to secede, since Scots largely supported remaining in the EU. Northern Ireland, which has relied on free movement of people and goods across its border with the Republic of Ireland to assuage the sentiments of its Irish nationalist population, will be looking at the new situation ith concern. Could Brexit do what over a century of complex political negotiation and terrorist activity never managed to do – to hasten a united Ireland?

But I suspect the biggest affront we are going to feel over coming months and years as a result of this vote is to our deeper belief that joint institutions, however frustrating and inept, are worth the effort in the interests of making our life on this planet a common project. It will be tempting to be more cynical about other international institutions, and to be less supportive of efforts at joint action.

Let’s hope this moment can introduce some healthy soul searching about the kind of world we want going forward and how much effort we will put in to make it happen.


Polarization and Moral Emptiness: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last night I watched the TV news on two different stations. The first ended the newscast by showing, one by one, photos of each of the 49 people killed in Orlando early Sunday morning. Most were in their twenties, each of them bright, strong individuals with a lot of future in their faces. My own tears blurred the picture. Then I watched the second TV news bulletin. It ended in exactly the same way as the first, and I cried all over again.

Before Orlando, I had prepared my next blog, whose opening paragraph read as follows, “I reject the rote use of the word ‘extremism’ that we are seeing these days. Adoption of this word as a summary description of all that confounds us suggests that a single enemy stalks us, conflating several different concerns, melding them into a less-than-meaningful label and helping to raise the fear factor. It suggests that if we once put extremism in check, we’ll get back to that better world we seem to have left behind.”

Now I ask myself if the thoughts that I recorded in my notebook last Friday stand up to our post-Orlando world. They don’t address the tragedy itself.  But they do address the rhythm and intensity of our times, in which Orlando is the latest in a series of shocking events.

Terrorists will applaud any discourse or behavior that raises the fear level. As people’s obsession with that mysterious conglomerate of problems we are calling “extremism” mounts, their fear mounts in parallel. This creates black and white, dualist thinking and plays into the hands of those who want us to be reduced by our fears.

Two features of life right now invite the use of the word “extremism.”

First, the security sector has chosen to use the phrase “countering violent extremism” (CVE) to replace “counter-terrorism.” The phrase captures the fact that some current terrorist projects have the capacity to mobilize larger numbers than in the past, because they go beyond declaring any particular political goal, and base their appeal on a set of ideas that they attribute to the Koran. Their expression of an extremist Islam makes it easy to draw alienated young Muslims to their cause.

In its second use “extremism” gets applied to polarized and populist politics. In times of relative stasis and satisfaction, the political center is larger than its extreme wings. But the times we live in are different, and they will continue to be different. We are engulfed in an acceleration of change, where assumptions about the past that used to make life fairly predictable are falling away. The most basic of these, at least in the West, has been that if you work hard you can count on having a job and a life of increasing material satisfaction. That assumption carried with it not only job security, but meaning

Polarized politics look extreme, but casting political issues in a strongly-tuned-up fashion is an understandable response to a real problem. The “enemy” is the failure of imagination on the part of all in leadership to search for and find solutions to difficult problems; the “enemy” is the inclination to ratchet up business as usual in hopes that intensification of old methods will bring new answers; the “enemy” is a soul-lessness, a “moral emptiness,” to use the phrase of one of our pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, that leaves many good people paralyzed on the sidelines.

We’ve seen this problem before. The Irish poet Yeats described the mood of Europe in the wake of the First World War,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

…The best lack all conviction

While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

If Yeats is correct, that in times such as ours, the reliable center lacks passion and conviction, how do we go about changing that? What can we of the center do to ensure that the best will have convictions and passions in testing times?

Here is David Brooks’ answer to that question (New York Times, June 7, 2016):

“The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.”

“Moral emptiness” may be related to rapid change, but it is also a product of our twentieth century struggle for values, where, in the West, freedom of choice, as long as it does not hurt another, became king. Freedom is an important moral requirement, but as a core principle it fails on its own to capture the deeper, values-based behaviors that promote human wholeness and maturity. The “extremism” discussion highlights the vacuum of moral content we are presenting to the next generation.