Man Without Qualities

Thursday, October 10, 2002

Parallel Evolution

In a prior post, the Man Without Qualities noted: "Among the most vicious forms of incivility is simple failure to acknowledge people who deserve to be acknowledged."

"Civility" is a political concept if it is anything, but there may be a deeper connection between civility and politics than this. One may start from the commonplace observation that some people maintain their self-image as "refined" or "good" or "civil" by simply ignoring that which simply may not be ignored. The connection between this aspect to civility and politics, especially the pathological brand of "civility" that does not accept that failure to acknowledge people who deserve to be acknowledged is grossly and broadly uncivil, is suggested - at least to me - by this passage from an excellent essay of Ron Rosenbaum (thanks to The MinuteMan):

The analogy that occurred to me grew out of a conversation I had several years ago with the philosopher Berel Lang, author of Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide.... Mr. Lang is an extremely thoughtful and meticulous thinker on the question of degrees of evil, and the role of intentionality in determining them. He was speaking about the question of whether one could say there was "a history of evil"—whether Hitler represented a new fact, a new landmark in that history, and if so, what the next step might be.

I suggested the "next step" might be Holocaust denial, because the deniers had found a diabolical way to twist the knife, compounding the pain of the survivors by negating and slandering the memory of the murdered.

Mr. Lang demurred, because he had his own notion of what the next step in the history of evil might be. The paradigm for it, he told me, was the postwar career of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-friendly philosopher beloved to distraction by postmodernists (and Hannah Arendt).

All of whom apologized for him, despite an increasingly damning series of revelations that disclosed his toadying to Hitler’s thugs in order to attain professional advancement, hailing Hitler’s Reich as the ultimate synthesis of politics and his philosophy.

But that wasn’t what made Heidegger a new chapter, Mr. Lang said; it was his astonishing postwar behavior. After everything came out, after it was no longer possible to deny at least post facto knowledge of the Holocaust, nothing changed for Heidegger. He felt no need to incorporate what happened into his philosophy. "His silence," Mr. Lang said, "it wasn’t even denial. For him, it wasn’t important! It wasn’t important …. Now if you ask which of them is worse … the Revisionists [Holocaust deniers] deny it occurred, but their official position, at least, is that if it occurred, it would have been wrong. But Heidegger knows it occurred, but it’s just not important—it’s not something to distort history to deny. For Heidegger, this is not history to concern oneself with."

Not history to concern oneself with ….

Here’s the analogy: Heidegger’s peculiar neutrality-slash-denial about Nazism and the Holocaust after the facts had come out, and the contemporary Left’s curious neutrality-slash-denial after the facts had come out about Marxist genocides—in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, after 20 million, 50 million, who knows how many millions had been slaughtered. Not all of the Left; many were honorable opponents.

But one must keep in mind that just identifying something as uncivil in some context does not immediately lead to the conclusion that it is somehow or somewhere forbidden.

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