Lost for Words

lost for words

I begin tonight a little depressed, which is rare for me. The courses I have been taking at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) are over and I miss them. One was an examination of the history of liberalism, starting with John Stuart Mill and finishing with the views of contemporary political theorists, like Isaiah Berlin or John Rawls. At the end, we had a wide-ranging discussion of the place of these ideas in current American political conversations. Compared to the extraordinary careful attempts at defining the concept, words like liberal, liberty, and freedom are being thrown around without a whit of concern for their meaning. This course pointed out the critical importance of being clear about these particular words because, at least for liberal, they have had almost polar opposite meanings at various points in history and in different national settings.

Given the rather unusual nature of this political season so far, the role of language is an important factor. I will come back to this, but, first, mention the second course I took. It was on the work and life of Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor and remarkable writer about his time in the camps. It was not too hard on me while I was reading his remarkable telling of his experience, but now all I have left are the pictures he created in words. The original title of his first book (written soon after his return to Turin), Survival in Auschwitz, is If This Is a Man, when translated from Italian. It is a much more apt title, as Levi is asking throughout if either the German captors or the brutally treated prisoners have any shreds of humanity left. One of the chapters is titled, “This Side of Good and Evil.” The title suggests that what transpired in the camps has no words to describe it.

I am going to quote a bit from this book and another one we read, The Drowned and the Saved, written many years after his release. They help me explain my mood.

What we have so far said and will say concerns the ambiguous life of the Lager (Camp). In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if is it necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional state.

To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. (my emphasis.)

The impact of this quote is magnified many times by the concluding words of the second book in which he is describing those who were his ‘torturers.’ (sic) He finds that word inappropriate.

…it brings to mind twisted individuals, ill-born,…Instead they were made of our same cloth, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save for exceptions, they were not monsters.…Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans, who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride, the ‘beautiful words’ of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of scruples favoured him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

Somewhere-I could not find the place-Levi suggests something like the Holocaust could happen again. I do not, in any way, suggest that such a horrendous event is on the horizon here in the US. But we are seeing terrible dehumanizing of multitudes of human beings in many other places. What come through, and depresses me, is the power of demagoguery, which has not changed since 1933. Note the words, “mental laziness” or “national pride.” Also, “lack of scruples.”

The ultimate lesson I got from all the readings about liberty is that in any pluralistic society, tolerance is essential if a drift toward authoritarianism and demagoguery is to be halted. Most of the writers we read stressed the need for an educated citizenry. Their sense of education was full of civic values and critical thinking, but where is this today? I cannot find much of it as captured in the news. I live in an intellectual bubble, that hardly resembles what I gather is the real world out there in the US, so I have to rely on what shows up in the various media I read and listen to. I see the highly touted social media as dangerously implicated in creating a sort of national “stupidity.” How much intelligence can be transmitted and appreciated via Twitter. That it has become a major factor in our political conversation is distressing, at best.

The conversion of “news” to entertainment creates mental laziness at best. That Facebook is the source of hot topics manufactured by a stupefying algorithm based on comments and likes. I found the recent flap about political “ bias” at Facebook pathetic. To elevate a completely artificial source to something worthy of serious criticism is ludicrous, but also chilling relative to history. The dangers of groupthink have been known for a very long long. The existence of large numbers of believers does not make their beliefs either true or right. That seems to me is what Levi is telling us.

Here’s part of the reason I am depressed. The irony of Trump’s comment about shooting somebody on 7th Avenue is “huge.” Here is what he said, “I could stand in the middle of 7th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. Like Incredible.” I wrote this down, watching him utter the words on You Tube. I end with this, as an example of the slippery slope we seem to be on without even realizing. That’s what is depressing me. Note the lack of humanity here and other other echoes of what Levi reminds us. When we, or any citizenry, stops thinking about who and how we are to be governed, we are possibly embarking on an unplanned and unwelcome social experiment.

I am off tomorrow to visit my daughter and family. That’s a sure bet to restore my equilibrium.