Edited by Judy Rozner
THE CHALLENGE OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM
In attempting not to be rhetorical or guilty of literary excess, I will be touching upon topics that will be now unsettling to some but will become commonplace for future generations.
When I speak of future generations, it is with the caveat that either this generation or the very next generation will be better than ours in perceiving the danger of maintaining the status quo. Our preoccupation with the world around us, with our bodily needs, and our concern for survival, we have not left much room for mere thought or for the pursuit of ideals, and unfortunately in a collective sense, too much political short-sightedness governs nations and very few of them have ever been or are ready even now to sacrifice themselves to pursue the triumph of what I will call “the good of all”.
Although the Bible presents humanity as having to choose between what is right and what is wrong, I personally have always questioned such a neat and precise separation between good and evil, moral and immoral, between that which is ethical and that which is not. Indeed, political and religious ideologies have provided understandings of these terms and expanded on their often narrow interpretations a range of behaviours that are considered licit or illicit. However, at the same time, we witness the on-going emotional manipulation by the mass media so that even someone who is mild mannered is capable of being portrayed as being aggressive or submissive, to the point of making a good person look like a scoundrel. By mass media I obviously do not mean just newspapers, radio, and television. If anything, by means of their sophisticated presentation, they have merely made the message less intelligible. A great mass of people are already influenced by human voice and gestures, body language, as well as manner of dress.
Historically, military-like assemblies such as parades have been equally potent means of exercising power. Through such venues, otherwise powerless people can be transformed into a battering ram, if need be, with flags, banners, and pennants follow hard behind their cadenced steps.
Certainly history is filled with armed encounters between people while the reasons for their becoming enemies remain unclear. And while world literature is filled with exquisitely lyrical descriptions of conflict – for example, Homer’s telling of the Trojan war in The Iliad – there have been many other conflicts, and perhaps among the bloodiest, when religion was the basis for the enmity, while others had their roots in dynastic struggles. Only in the 18th Century at the onset of the Napoleonic Wars do we see people fighting primarily for constitutional reasons. Karl Marx, took a different approach and never seemed to be entirely convincing given the opposition of the bourgeoisie. At the highest point of its wealth and power, Germany – having become almost entirely Nazi – went on the attack to further its imperialist aspirations. The justification for this aggression was the presumed superiority of the Aryan race, and its exclusive descendants, the German people. Never had history witnessed such infamy.
The vicissitude of humans that had characterized the Holocaust are too well known for me to completely deal with here. The extermination camps, the gas chambers, and the brutality and degradation that above all the Jews had to endure (and we must not forget the concurrent victimization of the political opponents of Nazism, the Gypsies, and the homosexuals) still continue to provoke horror and deprecation. The international climate, indeed almost the entire Western world from the end of the Second World War, have been governed by democratic administrations that, up to now, repudiated all forms of conquest or the favouring and supporting of any kind of absolute power similar to that which was practiced by Fascism, Nazism, Communism, and Francoism.
However, nothing authorizes us to think that the preclusive statement NEVER AGAIN, or the end of extermination and genocide have yet entered definitively into the minds of every human being. What I am trying to convey is that there is a need for other means must be made available before that simple expression becomes a determining factor in our daily choices, and for long as humanity exists.
But before indicating what such instruments might be, let me say that as one’s language is fraught with words such as racism, intolerance, discrimination and other terms of this kind, there must be a reason for them to exist; and that they must have roots in our instinctual sentiments that were codified and ossified in those sounds we call verbal communication or language. If it is true that the evolution of thought (from Aristotelian philosophy to the scientific notions of the present) can soften the significance and tension that each and every terms contains, it is not necessarily a result or an obligated choice. The science of language is able to reveal inferences, interrelations, the clash and wave effects that are created by contrasting words that conflict with one another, but which unfortunately do not possess demiurgic strengths. Linguistics, therefore, does not succeed in eliminating the distorted effects of rhetoric, and here to rhetoric can be added the religious chants of mullahs and even the tolling of church bells on feast days.
The world is filled with rhetoric, and not all of it is markedly negative. The fashion of this mark is quite evident. It is dressed in the same mode, in the strictest etiquette; favouring to cover its eyes in the sun with eyeglasses of same brand and safety of a form of active approval and identity that is vast, transitional, contrary, priestly, and with an objective distinction that is well beyond dialogue and discussion. And when someone makes a decision (and better yet with intolerance) to possess the truth, what is initiated is religious or irreligious conflict, that inevitably and often is followed by military action.
We know that international law recognizes the legitimacy of conflicts, but with one particular prohibition – that of not permitting acts of cruelty on the part of adversaries. Had we not discovered the genocide Nazi Germany had perpetuated upon the Jews, perhaps even now we would not be talking and haunted by the horror of the Second World War. Ultimately, the Holocaust, embodying an appalling tragedy, has inadvertently resulted in fifty years of peace, which the Old World is still enjoying. The warning to humanity that the Holocaust has triggered, is therefore not only the prohibition of any persecution and physical oppression of peoples who are different from us, but ultimately a ban on all wars whatsoever. From this, therefore, has emerged the greatness of the people that have tragically given six million martyrs to the cause of peace.
As a layman, I neither intend nor do I consider myself equipped to enter into theological controversy. I do however know that the summons made by Karol Woytila “to our elder brothers” and the process he set in motion to bring Catholics and Jews closer together, can only result in a lowering of the psychological barriers or at the very least, a lessening of tensions in dealing with one another.
Further steps need to be taken, in addition to those of the religious hierarchy and governments as such. Politicians and religious leaders change with time and carry with them the attitudes of complete populations and solitary individuals. Indeed, each person must fortify himself against the onslaught of powerful economic, political, religious, and multimedia forces by being true to oneself and in solidarity with like minded people. This however assumes a process at odds with the fragmenting of the psyche, though it is one in which integration and assimilation is achieved through personal recovery. And this means everyone! It is only by such method that a basis for a common feeling can come about, while leaving intact particular differences. The United States of America is the most obvious example (as intended by the Founding Father’s, the practical application of which has been the Constitution) of a “reductio ad unum” of very real racial and cultural differences. Here we find a constant movement towards integration and towards mutual respect veering away from prior positions characterized by ethnic differences and struggles. Over time, racial pride has become a status symbol. The way is clearly outlined: Democracy provides the means for diverse peoples to become one.
However if the American tradition that has endured for over two centuries provides hope that the same thing can be repeated with other Western democracies, we should not look for answers at “historical determinism”. Myths, for example, in which people often recognize themselves, as well as mythology or mythography, and for equally inscrutable reasons, the remembrance periodically of one’s martyrs seems to give rise to an uncontrollable need for vengeance. Such mass phenomena or popular rebellion as expressed in the cry, “...we want (and deserve) it all” readily degenerates into desires and subsequent behaviours which lead to “ethnic cleansing” as in the Holocaust. If we fail to prepare ourselves or at least foresee these unmistakable signs, and once having recognized them, seek to eliminate them, then we shall live to regret it.
I know well that 18th Century rationalism as well as historical materialism were at odds with the notion of UTOPIA. The burden of two thousand years of acquiescence and of fatalism weighs heavily on our conscience. And the genetic experiments which were performed on the Jews make it difficult to look to the future with optimism. Their expressed purpose was an attempt to prove the vaulted superiority of the Aryan race and more especially of that segment of it that was to be found on German soil and among German speaking people.
However, it is with science that each day continues to demonstrate its own pure superiority of inquiry and of discovery, that constantly leaves one surprised and even speechless. It is not only the knowledge and the ever increasing conquest of the universe by means of the telescope that makes for greatness, but of equal greatness is the world that is revealed through the microscope. Indeed, it is in that microscopic world – of DNA and in genetic strands – that knowledge resides. So that to know humanity, we must search therein.
The classical world idealized the psyche only after having perceived its existence: while the world of poetry extolled it without mentioning its dangers; and psychoanalysis has limited itself to easing (its) anxiety by means of regression to an earlier state.
I think the time has come – on this eve of another millennium – to thrust, as a metaphore, the spear deep into the molecules, and even deeper into the atom to free that type of “soul” from the body – the sublime from the cruse material. From the scrutiny of that spectrum we shall discern in ourselves that which is sick and that which is healthy. And then in the wake of research on matter and antimatter as envisioned by the physicist, Bruno Touschek, who was expelled from the Lyceum of Vienna for reasons of race (his Mother being Jewish) to theorize on a possible “reversal of time”.
May 30, 1998