News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Guilt, Israel, Radical Evil, and Beyond

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Guilt, Israel, Radical Evil, and Beyond

Pat Lang is known for his realpolitik. A former military man, he sees war through a pretty clear lens and multiplies his perception with intelligence, experience, and learning. His views on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon are unique in this regard, as well as in their ability to raise questions and present perspectives that you just don't find in the mainstream media.

Given this background, you'd expect a less sentimental view of the Mideast conflict than from many others. ...

In one of his postings on the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Lang takes on Charles Krauthammer's view that Israel is an investment by the US. Lang's analysis here is somewhat ironic, since he's taking on the neocon view that Israel is fighting in US interests and that Israel's interests are US interests.

At the beginning of his analysis of Krauthammer's article, Lang summarizes the sentiments behind much US popular support for Israel. Lang writes:

The Holocaust is something nearly all Americans feel strongly about. A nagging feeling of guilt still exists over the issue of whether or not antisemitism played a role in decisions about welcoming Jewish refugees to the United States in the World War 2 period. Did we Americans act quickly enough against Hitler? Are we really not prejudiced against Jews? In spite of the evidence presented by the prominence of Jews in our society, these feelings of guilt linger on.
Lang clearly states the way that many in the US feel toward Israel. The atrocities experienced by Israel throughout history call for a deep and profound sense of reflection on how a single people can undergo so much pain and yet maintain their heritage and their sense of self throughout.

What's important to note in Lang's remarks is its expression of guilt. It's not obvious that I or anyone should feel guilt for what happened to Israel. In most respects, I would probably not know anything about Israel if I had not grown up in the culture I have. Lang points to particular instances where the US did not do enough to help Jews who fled Nazi Germany.

This inaction or even indifference toward their plight is sufficient reason to feel guilt. Given this guilt, we are compelled, it’s often asserted, that we should help and support Israel’s interests in the Mideast since one of the reasons for the founding of that nation is that Jews will never once again face the possibility of persecution by other countries. Indeed, any military action taken by Israel after its founding has been portrayed in these very terms; that is, the fight of Jews against another Holocaust.

Guilt is one of those strange phenomena that can be tied to both real and imagined offenses. This offense can be against anything a person feels is worthy of respect, an authority to whom I owe something that often rises above simple monetary payment. That is, while I expect to get a thing or something similar in return for paying a price, with guilt the return is a seemingly subjective event that others might or might not understand.

In ancient religious practices, guilt is often pictured as a stain or impurity that attaches itself to a person. In more literal explanations this can even be seen as skin diseases or physical infirmities. Perhaps there's no greater testament to this view than that illustrated in the Hebrew book of Job. Job, innocent and "righteous" as he is, is struck down with not only the death of his children and loss of his property but is touched with a horrible skin disease whose boils he scrapes off with potsherds.

Job's friends allude numerous times to the fact that these events and the disease is the consequence of some sin committed by Job. To return to health, Job must confess his guilt. But, as Job asserts over and over again, his innocence is complete. His mind is clear of any fault that could cause guilt.

Few are as innocent as Job believes himself to be. Yet many suffer tremendously and have visited upon themselves many evils that Job would understand deeply, from the inside. Given the fact that few are guiltless or who feel that they have committed nothing to cause guilt, it's not hard to see how many consider the present circumstances in the world to reflect their own guilt.

When one faces horrendously evil crimes such as the Holocaust, the feelings of guilt become even more profound. We all seem implicated in these terrible events. The atrocities committed, the demonic means used to entice people to their deaths, the factory system developed to systematically and coldly kill innocent men, women, and children--all impinge in some way on conscience and call for not simply an expression of horror but a complaint against creation itself.

How could we have let that happen? In a world filled with such evil, the notion expressed by French philosopher Jacques Derrida that we are all guilty yet not guilty becomes understandable, if still disturbingly paradoxical. Its disturbing aspects are the recognition that living in a world with others brings to bear interdependencies and associations that carry with them historical actualities that we may not even be aware of bit that may have a blood-soaked hand attached.

This knotted world of contingency, where innocence is an illusion that the snake-oil preachers wish to sell, involves too much pain and suffering--too much history for anyone to ever be guiltless. The desire to be so or to believe that you are either self-delusive or demonic.

But once you suffer, once you have been reduced to nothingness, there is the desire to say that the suffering was for something, that it earned you something. One thing it could earn you, of course, is the right to exact vengeance on the world. Suffering teaches me justice and my suffering itself becomes the measure of justice. Who will measure up to the nothingness that fills my memories, seeps into my bones and makes them ache for an echo of retribution?

How else explain comments like the following quote from an Israeli politician. Lenin's Tomb quotes:
To those who are disturbed by the images of Lebanese refugees, Itzik said: "There is no nation who can teach us what it means to a refugee and uprooted. They invented the term 'refugee' for us. Enough of the self-flagellation and the self-righteous moral preaching. Anyway we are conducting this war with one hand tied behind our back because of our interest in protecting humanitarian and moral principles against a murderous enemy who makes no distinction and value of human life. I am still waiting for the first Hizbullah members, the first Lebanese, who will express regret or apologize for the suffering of innocent people on the Israeli side."
It is not uncommon for victims of great atrocity to feel guilt. As irrational as that may seem. The victim feels perhaps that they invited the pain or suffering, something in their behavior of lives brought about the conditions in which attack seems justified. What makes this picture even more warped and contorted is the notion that perpetrators themselves can use these feelings to bend the victim to his or her purposes.

As Freud and others who have tried to understand the labyrinth of guilt have shown, along with guilt goes the need for punishment. The punishment is expected and when it does not come, a person will often do something to bring about punishment. Yet, that feeling for punishment can just as easily become the desire to punish others. Whether innocent or guilty, all are seen as complicit in the web of deceit and illusion that brought about the pain and suffering visited upon me.

The guilt-punishment dialectic often turns into a vicious circle of vengeance and retribution. While Freud and others attempted to neutralize the cycle through understanding the guilt. This process involves identifying the source of guilt, talking about it, and understanding its emotional effects. By shining the light of reason on the source–seeing the guilt as perhaps a misunderstanding of what happened (still thinking as a child, for example) or even an attempt to hold on to the guilt for the emotional effect itself–the guilt and its associated need for punishment will disappear.

Perhaps it is right to search through one’s conscience to identify the sources of our guilt feelings. Yet, as once guilt feelings come to the surface and we begin exploring their sources it also often comes to light that there is something in the human psyche that wishes to do evil–above and beyond all reason, simply for the sake of doing evil. Carrying out his radical critique of the limits of reason, the philosopher Kant came late in life to realize this fact about human nature. He called it “radical evil.”

Commenting on Kant’s notion of radical evil, the Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime notes:
Radical evil is impossible to comprehend from the standpoint of hermeneutics because as radical it is something from which the self cannot be released by the self’s own power. It is a transcendent moment of negativity for which the self will always be guilty as long as it exists. It is the dark abyss that cannot be annihilated by the immanent transcendence of self-consciousness. – Hajime, Philosophy as Metanoetics, p. 148
In less philosophical terms and more personal understanding, Hajime describes the appropriate understanding of one’s own impulse of radical evil is the following:
I feel especially obliged to share in the corporate responsibility for irrationalities like the injustice and prejudice evident in our country [fascist Japan]. I feel responsible for all of the evils and errors committed by others, and in so doing find that the actual inability of my philosophy to cope with them compels me to a confession of despair over my philosophical incompetence. More than that, I find that this predicament obliges me–the ordinary person, ignorant and sinful, that I am–to admit that such a confession applies not only to me but to all persons everywhere who are similarly ignorant and sinful.
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2 comments:

The Avid Reader said...

Cynic, you state a number of times that these things happened to 'Israel'. They didn't. They happened to European Jews. The consequences resulted in the creation of the state of Israel.

Just a minor correction.

the cynic librarian said...

Thanks Avid. I was thinking, perhaps, in the biblical sense. I edit to confirm accuracy.