A probing and shocking book, The Nazi Conscience by Duke University Professor Claudia Koonz, examines the kind of conscience and ethical convictions that spread throughout Nazi Germany while she makes the reader feel close to the same dilemmas. Conscience, as used here, is any set of rules based on an ethic that is not always seen by the rest of humanity as having anything to do with justice or decency.
Conscience, she writes, "tells us to whom we shall and shall not do what. It structures our identity by separating those who deserve our concern from alien 'others' beyond the pale of our community." She reminds of Greek, Jewish and Christian tendencies to extend charity and care only to members of the group of inclusion throughout Western history.
During the recent town hall meetings on health care, we have witnessed a spate of violent bullying and psychological (sometimes physical) assault, moods of hostility and derision which has stooped to levels that defy any clear intention to act for the greater good. It is about conserving the welfare of the "us" against the "them," with "them" being perceived as unworthy, unfit and dangerous to our future. "They" are accused of trying to destroy the capitalistic way of life and of trying to take away the God given right to ownership and property rights.
One wonders which "God."
In this context, charity is reserved for exotic causes and people far from our shores and comes in packages or checks, but it surely isn't for citizens on our soil who don't comport with our concept of who counts as deserving. To trivialize Naziism as these protesters too often do, or to reduce any side of a contemporary conflict to the degradation of inflamed name calling is not only repulsive, but it is also unhelpful. The electric charge stays in the air and does only damage.
I think it is nothing less than necessary to study with curiosity the human tendency to have aggressive and genocidal strains in our behavior here as well as anywhere abroad.
There is a duality in our midst, and it goes beyond polarization along political party lines. The river running through this dichotomy of values and actions also has to do with the idea of how we see ourselves. And as long as any group sees the mirror image of good and pure and innocent, there is the implied sanction to assault, eject and negate others who are perceived as "less than."
Most Americans, it would seem, abhor the idea of bullying in schools, and they teach their children right from wrong. A majority of people talk of the Ten Commandments, and many even want them hung up on public buildings. Many of these same people who detest any move of the government to help people in need because it smacks of "Socialism," want the freedom to preach Christian values up front and personal, anywhere they deem fit.
It begs the question, what would those "values" entail?
Clearly, there is one road for the righteous and another for the damned. There are human rights for the right (literally and figuratively) and punishment for those unable to tow the narrow line. And because we are so strict in our teaching, with ourselves, our neighbors and our children, we don't wind up teaching or learning how to temper our aggressive sides: Our sins that we avoid confessing or pin on others.
Once the "others" are identified -- on opposing teams in football or soccer, in hallways of schools because of race or mental or physical stature -- the pummeling can begin. It is the release we are all waiting for since it is considered weak to talk through anger and hate and ambivalence.
There is no room in the town hall meetings we need so badly about how and why our children are so prone to depression and drugs and violence. In this unhealthy social dynamic, we are in fact teaching our children to speak as we speak and be silent as we are silent.
When we are blinded by the false light of superiority, it's because we can't stand to know that in every act of violence everywhere there is a part that resonates inside of us. We delude ourselves that we are somehow "better than" while we crave the violence in our news, on our television sets and movie screens and insist on watching humiliation as high comedy.
My confession, right here is that just now the words and melody of "We are the World" drifted into my mind; I think because of a yearning for a sense of community and for more acceptance of our ideas, our feelings and the imperfections in us all. It is part of a wish for more harmony, where we can investigate our real opinions and common concerns without all of the blame.
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