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Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Condemn by repeating the past.

In the current issue of the Boston Review, Susie Linfield has written an exceptionally provocative review of Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory and W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, holding both writers up against the stark moral witness of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry. It's a fine, bracing piece of critical prose.

The first four paragraphs present an important left-liberal critique of a flaw in a lot of left-wing activism today:

It was the fourth day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and unlike several of my friends, I was not in the streets demonstrating. Despite that, or because of it, two small items—details, really—in a New York Times article about the antiwar protests stopped me short. The first: At a demonstration in Berlin, our German comrades (I do not use the word facetiously, only sadly) hoisted a placard reading, “Dresden 1945, Baghdad 2003: the same crime.” The second quoted a Spanish protester named Juan Antonio Diaz, who told the Times, “I feel even more anger than on the first day because of the images we have seen on television of Baghdad burning, the same thing that happened to Madrid, the city I live in, during the Spanish Civil War.”

Was Baghdad burning? According to the BBC website, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, from which I got most of the news, parts of it certainly were. But throughout the course of the war, the American bombing was clearly aimed almost exclusively at Saddam’s presidential palace compounds and other government-related buildings. The city was not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, razed, and great care was taken (whether for humanitarian or political motives) to avoid civilian casualties. Of course there were fatalities, and appalling mutilations, and fear and anguish among Baghdad’s citizens; this was a war. And like all wars, one could argue that it was wrong in principle, which is to say on political grounds. But one could not plausibly—that is, truthfully—argue that the American bombing campaign represented the desire to terrorize or decimate a civilian population. From a military, political, and moral standpoint, the U.S. attack on Baghdad resembled neither the Allied firebombing of Dresden nor the Fascist assault on Madrid. In fact, I can think of few worse analogies.

And yet that analogy and others like it remained, shouted (and, more alarmingly, written) with passionate intensity by reasonable, well-meaning, and well-educated people throughout the world. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that argument-by-historic-analogy has become a prime mode of political discourse, especially among those who consider themselves intellectuals and leftists. (Think of, say, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, comparing the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound to “a crime comparable to Auschwitz” in the pages of El Pais last year.) This is a problem not of exaggeration or laziness or stupidity, but of epistemology and understanding and intellectual courage.

The propagators of such analogies would say they are using historic knowledge to heighten moral awareness and thus prevent the commission of present and future horrors. But I fear that the opposite is true: The reliance on historic analogies is an evasion of the particular, indeed novel, political complexities that face us now, complexities that have emerged since (but are not solely the result of) September 11. Like photographs of starving children or grieving mothers or blasted buildings, such analogies create instant, Pavlovian moral equivalencies. They shut down critical thought and ultimately, therefore, stifle moral acuity.They simplify both the present and the past. They erase the specific in favor of the generic, and the sharp reality in favor of the fuzzy image. They create fear, confusion and especially guilt (and are designed to do so). Most dangerously, they seduce us into thinking that history is essentially a story of repetition—“the same crime” eternally played out. (The motto of the analogists might be: “Always again.”) And so the brave banner in Berlin and the angry demonstrator in Madrid lead me to a question I don’t usually ask: Is memory—historic memory—a good thing?

If you find the question provocative, read the rest of Linfield's review.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 19 August 2003 at 5:53 PM

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