Sunday, April 17, 2011

It May Not Be the Way You Think It Was

Yesterday I read an essay by Nicholson Baker (in Harper's) wherein he explains why he is a pacifist.  His argument is not one I had heard before.  He talks about the "good war" that obviously has to be fought and points to World War II as America's default good war.  We HAD to fight Hitler, didn't we?  Neville Chamberlain was wrong, wasn't he?  Civilization itself was at stake.  Or maybe not.

In an argument that is carefully constructed and amply supported by data, Baker blames the wholesale massacre of European Jews at least partly on America's war policy.  Hitler virtually held the Jewish population hostage in order to keep America out of the war.  Once we entered the field of battle, he immediately ordered mass extermination.  The Jews no longer had any value.  This may sound far-fetched, but Baker's argument makes sense.  The most important thing, he says, is the preservation of life.  Nothing else compares to that.  The desire for revenge, while understandable, leads only to more death.  Rather than bombing Dresden, America and the Jews would have been better served by getting as many Jews out of Germany as possible, but as we all remember, Jews weren't always welcome, even in the United States, and boatloads of Jews were turned away from our ports.  Could we have "bought" the Jews through trade agreements or at least have shepherded them to safety by stalling for time?  Hitler had Parkinson's disease.  Might we simply have waited for him to die, maneuvering furiously behind the scenes to support the resistance?  As we have seen time and again, when the leader of a cult dies, the cult dissolves. 

In recent days I have also read about Russians who still consider Stalin one of the four greatest Soviet heroes and Chinese who believe Americans have never heard of Marx, and I wonder if in this information age we inhabit we aren't ironically as misinformed and misguided as those hapless Russians.  We congratulate ourselves on our free press, our open access to information, our ability to speak truth to power, yet everywhere I look I see evidence of misdirection and obfuscation.  More than ever, I appreciate Pope's observation that "a little learning is a dangerous thing."  We are so awash in "news" that headlines substitute for history.  The demands of contemporary life eliminate time for serious reflection, and our educational system is obsessed with teaching skills and measuring outcomes.  Our children are too often as busy as we are, as distracted by entertaining glitter, as likely to avoid boredom by the easiest means.  It is a facile and perhaps gratuitous comparison, but like the Japanese we are hit by a tsunami--a tsunami of work, consumption, and an unconsidered race for material success. 

If this were not so, why then did so many of our brightest young minds choose Wall Street and wealth rather than service to the public good?  Education is supposed to raise all boats, but this lie is borne out every time the gap between the very rich and the struggling majority widens.  Difference of opinion presents itself as self-righteousness, and changing one's mind in response to circumstances or new information is seen as lack of character.  Of course, changing one's words to fit the moment is just as often a cynical ploy to be on the popular side du jour.  Reasoned argument, reliance on evidence, the ability to be skeptical about even one's own cherished beliefs are so far removed from our public discourse as to be practically invisible.  I may be my own best example.  I have never questioned the necessity of our entrance into World War II.  I honor those who sacrificed and endured and were brave.  But yesterday I questioned for the first time the interpretation of the war that I have been taught since the cradle.  I was reminded that the most important thing is life itself and that our ways of protecting it too often fall short.  I was reminded that an open mind is essential to mental freedom.