Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Embrace the political

Dan Lett of the Winnipeg Free Press is one of the most intelligent of Canadian journalists.

His column yesterday is as thoughtful and thought provoking as anyone could hope for. That said, I have some issues with it (natch, or I wouldn't be blogging about it.)

First, "Fighting over exhibit size is no way to advance debate" is not the most eye-catching of headlines. I blame the editor, not the author, but it's a shame, because it means the column will probably be under the radar for all but those looking for something historical to blog about.

Secondly, as a conclusion, it's just plain wrong. Lett's musings on the nastiness of the competition between Ukrainians and Jews for equality or primacy of recognition for the horrors of Holomodor versus those of the Holocaust as measured in space in the future Canadian Museum for Human Rights, are brilliant in raising questions which are have intrigued me for many years.

Lett writes:

For dispassionate observers, the debate over which is the worst atrocity, or
even whether one atrocity has been given too much emphasis while others have
been marginalized, is awkward, even discomforting. It is, in essence, an attempt
to measure and compare human suffering. For Ukrainians, this is about being
marginalized, adding an insult to the injury inflicted on them in the early
1930s. For many Jews, the debate itself is anti-Semitic, a bid to diminish the
importance of the Holocaust as part of an ongoing war against the Jewish people.

How do we, as historians, and as citizens, measure historical evil and victimhood? Is the perception of the holocaust as the ultimate historical evil in the mind of much of the Western World the product of inherited guilt and/or superior organization, commitment, historical consciousness on the part of the Jewish diaspora, or is there some additional degree of evil inherent in the intentionality of genocide by the Nazis which transcends any quantitative measurement of lives lost and terror and suffering undergone?

There is, of course no definitive answer. I tend to favour the latter explanation, but it is a question that cannot be dodged, and should not be dodged. Yes, this is presentism. Or may the reverse: pastism. Everything is present, and everything is political (in the largest sense of the word.) As William Faulkner put it, in my fave quotation about history :"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Communities exist in time. They are backward looking and forward looking. The debate is nasty, because people care. A lot. And if they didn't, there would be no debate to advance.

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