Name that tune

by Yule Heibel on November 30, 2004

Sit down at the computer, Y., you have an hour to spare, the very first one in the day, in fact. You had Chinese take-out for dinner inbetween picking up the kids from their swimming lessons and taking the daughter to choir; you pick her up in two hours. Pour it out now, what do you want to say?

I thought of writing about a Victoria-based ecological and technological dynamo underwater logging company operating in Powell River, whose chairman-of-the-board is a friend who lives a few blocks down the road; or perhaps about what I did last Friday night, when I went to hear Matt Hern (the deschooling advocate) speak at the Victoria Boys and Girls Club, and how his historical summary resonated not only with John Taylor Gatto but also with Gwynne Dyer’s take on the French Revolution’s (and Napoleon’s) influence on our conception of statehood and total war, all in relation to institutional schooling and the various means of circumventing it (eg. home- and alternative-schooling and deschooling); or about the fact that Tommy Douglas won “the Greatest Canadian” contest (and I believe Donald Sutherland, an incredibly sexy guy, is his grand- or greatgrandson) — I mean, any aspect of these topics would make me happy. [editorial update, 12/1/04: Donald Sutherland was Tommy Douglas’s son-in-law. He was married to Douglas’s daughter, Shirley; their son Kiefer Sutherland is Tommy Douglas’s grandson.]

But instead I feel obligated to write about this:

If I had not taken a vow never to compare what is happening here with what happened there, in those terrible times and places, this time I might have made the comparison. It’s hard to be silent, so I will quote from Akiva Eldar‘s report: “As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, [Herman-Peled] was bothered more than anything else by the demand that a Palestinian play music for a Jewish soldier.” [This melody has to be stopped by Yossi Sarid]

This is not a story getting much coverage in the press — The Guardian has an article called Israel shocked by image of soldiers forcing violinist to play at roadblock by Chris McGreal, and BBC writes Israel army forces violin recital, but the Jerusalem Post already reports that Probe clears soldier in violin incident. It will soon be forgotten, but you can visit Horit Herman-Peled‘s site and see the video she shot here.

Alright, you might say, these journalists and activists have an agenda — they’re not telling both sides of the story, they’re not objective. And I might say, So? If you read a report like Molly Moore’s, originally published Nov.29 in The Washington Post and reposted by Truthout, Checkpoints Take Toll on Palestinians, Israeli Army, I don’t think you’re reading the words of a rabid partisan:

For two neighboring societies segregated by the physical and psychological barriers of a conflict dragging into its fifth year, the most intimate contact between Israelis and Palestinians occurs over the barrel of a gun at the 61 manned military checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such encounters exact a heavy toll on both sides, as evinced by accounts from former checkpoint guards who describe working under dehumanizing conditions, and by numerous reports of abuses committed by such soldiers against Palestinian civilians. [More…]

Moore’s point is that both sides are reduced to a level of “reality” that bears small resemblance to what those of us lucky enough to live outside a warzone would consider reality. From the same article, which is an account of abuses at the checkpoints, in particular one that led the trial of an Israeli soldier, another quote:

During the trial, soldiers who had served at the Hawara checkpoint over the past year gave testimony describing what they said were common, accepted practices among combat soldiers who detested checkpoint duty and often received little or no training for what they considered a policeman’s job. In testimony and in interviews, they also argued that the army and Israeli society should accept some of the blame for abuses that they said were the result of an impossible mission.

“When we do all these things, we are not doing it only to the Palestinians, but to ourselves, too,” said Aman, who was a friend of the convicted sergeant and recently finished his military service. “The most important discussion should be in our own society. If you blame the soldiers, you miss the point. . . . These duties corrupt.”

A quote by a friend of the tried soldier ends the article: “They say if you’re a good person, there’s no way you should be doing anything like this and be violent. They don’t understand the situation. They’re living in a movie.”

I found this uncannily close to Ron Suskind’s now famous “reality” assessment in Without a doubt [see note at end of this post]. It was on Maria’s Alembic site on October 27 that I first read the famous quote, in her entry Blunt Pens. She must have had the paper copy fresh off the press that day, and instantly nailed the key quote which made its way around the world (well, the blogosphere):

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

Don’t you see? Molly Moore’s traumatised soldier, doing his duty at the checkpoints, agrees with Suskind’s unnamed informant: he is convinced that he lives in reality, while we’ve all gone out to the movies. This is heartbreakingly sad.

But it’s important. It says something about the plasticity of “reality,” and how easy it is to mould it into something that “normal” people would consider unacceptable. …And it says that abnormal monstrous people will yet remain convinced of their “normality” — reality is that plastic. See, for example, William Grimes’s NYTimes book review of Leon Goldensohn’s The Nuremberg Interviews (edited by Robert Gellately). In 1946, Goldensohn, an Army psychiatrist, was put in charge of interviewing and assessing the 21 defendants of the Nuremberg Trials. He spent seven months with them, taking daily detailed notes. As Grimes’s review points out, “All of them [the defendants] denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the murder of the Jews or any other war crimes.” Their view of reality substantiated what we would call their delusions. Note, for example, how Oswald Pohl, who ran the concentration camp system, saw his world:

[He] struggled mightily to explain that one could administer a system without actually being responsible for what occurred in it. “About the murder of the five million Jews, I had nothing whatever to do with it,” he said. “The fact that I was in charge of all the concentration camps in Germany from 1942 until the end is beside the point.”

Julius Streicher, meanwhile, starts to haggle with Goldensohn about the number of people killed in the camps. He seems to believe that by screwing the number back from six to four-and-a-half million dead, the crime is somehow lessened …or rationalised. And Goering insists that if the Allies hadn’t ganged up on Germany, everyone would be happy and grateful to Germany. For what, you wonder? For uniting Europe as a harmonious confederation of states. Oh yes, I forgot: those damn ends, and their bloody justification of the means. The ends really are a great ingredient for making reality as malleable and plastic as one could want, no doubt about it.

What the banality of evil might really be about, finally, is our ability to believe in ends, and to do whatever is necessary to get there, even when present reality stops making sense. Everyone has that ability, it comes with the ever-changing territory.

Players, take up your instruments. It’s just a movie….

Postscript, Dec.1/04: Thanks to Jonathan Delacour‘s email pointer, I have the NYTimes link to the Ron Suskind article Without a doubt (mentioned above), and also thanks to Jonathan, I now know how to find those “disappeared” articles. Thank-you!

On a different note, I just deleted 3 comments on this article from someone called “Breast Augmentation.” Comment spam slips through whatever filters are in place here, too, but this was the first time I nearly regretted deleting it. Instead of exhorting the reader to purchase anything, the comments were snippets of prose lifted from some kind of pulp fiction. Weirdly poetic, yes, but off-topic, and definitely unwelcome.


maria December 2, 2004 at 1:15 pm

Yule, I have been think for days about how to respond this post — and then, there was that spam, too, which I saw — and I still don’t have well-worded and overreaching phrases with which to address the issues the events your post documents.

All I can say is that, back in the 19th century, when after Napoleon blazed through Europe, my ancestors were grateful for the opportunity to leave the ghetto, to ditch religion and embrace not only reason, but also the culture and history and aspirations of the countries in which they have had to live apart for centuries before.

That “my people” are now capable of embracing and displaying the behaviors that have been instruments that carved out and maintained their Otherness (and kept them apart and isolated, too) for centuries is perhaps an odd way to show how far — and how fast — they have made those instruments their own in shedding their Otherness.

Yule Heibel December 3, 2004 at 1:12 am

It makes me very uncomfortable to put together these juxtapositions, Maria, and all I can say is that I suppose they show that we’re all the same somehow. What’s so awful about that idea, though, is what it implies about “progress” and how it makes one wonder what the point of all that historical misery was. And aren’t those age-old questions?

If I had to choose between Napoleon or, say, the Pope or some other benighted soul, I’d choose Napoleon, no question. My parents came from a small city on the Rhine, Neuwied, which was one of the first to grant religious freedom way back when no one seemed to be doing it. The F├╝rst (Duke, Prince?) later embraced Napoleonic reforms, too, when the French occupied the Rhineland at the start of the 19th c. There was an energy of modernity, progress, reform in the whole thing — law, religion, tariffs and trade: everything was modernised. What a breath of fresh air! That’s something I missed when I was listening to Matt Hern last Friday. He made a big meal out of Napoleonic methods of incipient factory schooling and Napoleonic military cohesion (and how this impressed the defeated Prussians so much that they copied both with a vengeance, and that Horace Mann came from Massachusetts to Prussia to study this phenomenon a couple of decades later, how he got a PhD [which didn’t exist anywhere else in the world at the time] and then took factory schooling methods to America), and I wanted to say, “yeah, but at least it got the kids out of the clutches of the religious dark ages! Or away from parents who were completely out to lunch.”

However, there’s always a two-edged sword slicing and dicing lived experience. And you can’t have Napoleon or Napoleonic reform without …well, without all the other stuff. It’s something having to do with dialectics or something? Maybe you and I are miserable about many of the same things because we see that dialectic or relationship all the time, I don’t know. But we know how quickly things can flip over into something else. Neuwied is today an ugly little town, truly hideous, the old Schloss is a charmless historical curiousity, and the modernist reforms that brought Carl Einstein‘s father to Neuwied to head up one of the local rabbinical schools, …well, the Nazis wiped out all trace of that.

As for what’s happening in the Middle East — no comment, beyond what I implied, which is that it’s not as difficult as we’d like to think to become someone you never thought you could become. All around the world, soldiers are being systematically taught to torture and to learn to withstand torture. It’s very worrying that barriers and institutions built up in previous decades (Geneva conventions, etc.) get ignored. It’s a race to the bottom, i.e. a lose-lose proposition.

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