The Horse Knows

Photo by Joan Summers

The Horse Knows

As a child, I regarded animals as people. Particularly large animals, like the big dog that followed me around when we were at Hilltop, the bungalow colony in New Jersey where my family spent summers. They looked different from human people, maybe, but children don’t make a federal case out of that.

I didn’t ask myself what a dog’s sensory receptors could take in that mine could not, nor what I could do better than the dog could. I didn’t wonder about the dog’s cognitive abilities. The dog was just one of the people you met when you were out of doors.

There was a cat that sat on the landlady’s porch. I would pet her seemingly without end. I didn’t ask myself whether the cat was bored or how she felt about me.

Animal relations were not problematic.

When I was ten, my illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was one of my favorite books. Its hero is Mowgli, the boy who was raised by the wolves. Mowgli has good relations with friends of varied species. They teach him many things good to know: to hunt, to deal with enemies, to be a loyal ally.

How to cry is the one thing they did not teach him. When he has to leave the jungle, he asks his animal friends what’s happening to him, what’s wrong? He should not worry, they explain.

“These are only tears, such as men use.”

When you are growing up, you learn more about such tears. You learn that animals talk only in illustrated children’s books, not in real life. I had resolved not to grow up. I thought grownups were oversized and insincere. But sometimes, you don’t get a choice.

Recently, what with Jerry’s weeks of gradual recovery from his all-too-serious surgery, I told one of his nurses about my own caregiver’s symptoms. She thought I should have a stress test and an EKG.

Turns out it was “only” stress. My heart’s fine. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that my coping stratagems were not fully adequate for the current situation. I would need something more.

Facebook had an advertisement for something called Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. I consider horses to be good for you, with or without the “Gestalt” part. But I hadn’t found any safe way of being around them since I was last in the saddle. I was thrown at a run and really can’t count on falling so well next time. Anyway, the Coach is Joan Summers, so I called her.

Joan said her treatment doesn’t involve riding. You get in an arena with her and the horse. The horse wears no halter. Then something or other happens. I didn’t ask what.

When I arrived, I was introduced to Star, the four-legged coach. With Star looking on, I described, to Joan and the owner of the stable, my previous riding experience, which had ended so woefully. On impulse, I looked suddenly at Star.

“Did she understand what I said?”

“She understood every word.”

There are, the two women explained, energies behind every spoken word. Star was a lead mare, thus responsible for the safety of the herd. So she is precision-tuned to the energies of sound. She might not have gotten the words, but she got the point.

To me, this idea was extremely exciting. This was not just kid stuff. Mowgli was right!

Joan and I entered the arena with Star and began to discuss my sense of who and what I was – who and what I am. Every time I would say something just because I thought I was expected to say it, the horse would knock over chairs, buck or even sit down on the soft turf of the arena. Or she would just trot off by herself till I stopped messing around.

In marked contrast, anything I said that I could entirely vouch for would elicit a relaxed, alert stance. She would come right over to where I was, ears listening, head high, posture elegant and collected.

Well I’ll be!

The horse knows the truth!

Do you know what that means, for a philosophy teacher – or for any of us? It means, there IS truth! And that, deep down, we know it!

So the relativism, the skepticism, the cynicism, the various super-educated, soul-deadening layers of denial … are false. If the horse can tell –

crap from clay —

deception and self-deception from integrity –

so can we all!

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What About the Jews?

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

What About the Jews?

Over yesterday and today has hung the heavy cloud of the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue.

The feelings that settled over me immediately were desolation and isolation.  Plus a welling up of the fright and sense of hopelessness that hovers, always, along the sides of The Well of Time.

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, his novelization of the Book of Genesis, begins,

Very deep is the well of time.

What does that say to me?  There is expectancy.  A story will unfold in time.  It will, because it already has.  There is no danger that the story can be lost, misremembered, or misunderstood.  It’s the story that discloses itself simultaneously with its divinely shaped meanings.  One is safe.  One is within the Ur Story, the tale of human relations with the God who has person-to-person relationships.  There is no way to fall out of it – this well of time.

So, a deranged shooter comes in from a side door and sprays the still-living players with his loaded weapon and rallying cry, “Death to all Jews!”

Why?  Well, I’m no psychologist but I tend to think we are what we believe.  It seems he shares the basic belief of the anti-semite about “the Jews”: that they are a uniform entity, powered by a single, undivided will, able to reach into every corner of this planet, to help itself at the cost of harming every human being and every good thing.

When you think of it, the anti-semite’s belief pays a sort of inverted tribute to the claim God makes for the descendants of Father Abraham:

In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

It’s God’s very promise to the Jews, only with the word “cursed” put in place of “blessed.”

So the rather special, set-apart status of the Jews is acknowledged by the anti-semite, in a manner of speaking, more than by people who don’t seem to suffer from the morbid syndrome I call “Jews-on-the-brain.”

The Bible records, and everyday experience confirms, that Jews don’t all think alike, don’t all will the same things, and don’t act as a single, united force in the world.  Since not every anti-semite is stupid, surely many of the bright ones would have noticed this fact.  Why then is their hypothesis not refuted by these counter-examples?

You might say, well, that’s the nature of prejudice.  It is resistant to empirical evidence when the evidence does not confirm its outlook.  Yeah but such resistance is not confined to bigots.  We’re all resistant to anomalies that might tend to undermine our worldviews.  If we weren’t, we’d be changing our worldviews twice a day at least.  We give up our beliefs only reluctantly, over time, when reality finally compels us to let go of them.

Yet anti-semitism has a strange, more-than-ordinary resistance to reality.  If one form of it goes out of style, the syndrome reappears, reenergized and decked out in a brand new disguise.

The Jews are the marker left

 by God’s dealings with humanity. 

Nobody knows what to do about that historical fact.  Is the sincere anti-semite trying to erase that marker?

Yes.

He’s a very sincere fellow.

You’ve got to give him that.

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Competitive Friendships

Henry M. Rosenthal in the classroom

Competitive Friendships

When, as a young woman, I returned from a year in Paris with an affair to conceal (because that’s what you did about that sort of thing in those days) my women friends from high school and college were all either married or getting married.  There was only one brass ring for women at that time.  Nothing could be clearer.

With possible suitors, I felt literally unavailable – already spoken for — despite the fact that I hadn’t believed that my first love and I should marry.  This was certainly correct where my future development was concerned, but it put me out of the only game considered worth playing for women in those times.

Meanwhile, not positioned to give an account of my own purposes or pathway in life, instinctively I put distance between myself and my women friends.

The young American men with whom I had enjoyed such easy comradeship on our Fulbright year abroad, now locked themselves into the struggle to succeed at whatever they thought it best to do.  Conversations were no longer about the topic addressed.  The topic was the pretext.  These were not conversations.  They were positionings.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s nineteenth-century sage, wrote,

Social life is war.

I have just been reading the youthful correspondence between my future father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and his best friend in college and for some years thereafter, Lionel Trilling.  Trilling went on to make for himself the most brilliant career of his generation as a public intellectual.  Since they had been so very close, I never knew exactly why my father broke it off with him, but that could well have been the reason.  On the race track of life, it’s hard to eat your friend’s dust.  In his youth, my father wrote a short story, “Inventions,” (The Menorah Journal, January, 1928), where he foresaw the friendship’s demise.

Since the breakup that my father foresaw has some large implications, I will try to describe it.  At that juncture, my father was going to be a rabbi.  It did not turn out the right walk of life for him – he became a philosopher later – but then it seemed the most authentic way to assume and live out his Jewish identity.

Trilling, by contrast, did not think there was a God or that Jewish identity – about which he knew little – was any great shakes.  He was not merely “in favor of assimilation,” he really was assimilated.  He not only wrote about English literature, he sincerely felt more at home in England than anywhere else!  His mother was born there.  He admitted to being Jewish only insofar as it was a poor show to conceal an inconvenient fact for the sake of social advantage.

Young men test themselves by sharpening each one’s life instruments against the other’s.  Young lions do the same, from what we see in the National Geographic films.  So, in my father’s short story, it becomes a kind of trial by ordeal for his character in the story to test his personal truth by trying to “convert” his more assimilated friend.

The effort fails, as his character himself admits in the story.  The would-be missionary cannot attain sufficient inner conviction to convince anybody else.  Irony – the Jew’s classic defense against outside deprecations – has bit too deep into his own soul.  He can’t attain the one-pointedness needed to bring off a conversion.  In exasperation, his not-so-Jewish friend exclaims,

But find your God

 before you try to sell Him to me!”

Many years later, my father met the theologian Thomas Altizer at a social gathering.  I was watching from across the floor as my father walked up to him, draped an arm around his shoulder and said, laughing as if the theological notion for which Altizer was famous struck him as irresistibly funny, “You’re the ‘God is dead’ man!”  Still laughing, he dug an elbow into his ribs.

Some time after my father died, I happened to attend a party for academics which numbered Altizer among the guests.  The theologian told me that there was one thing and only one thing he cared about — “and that’s God.  And your father … was a man of God!”

I doubt my father ever learned how to sell Him to Lionel Trilling or anybody else.  But his transparency to the highest reaches of life was evident to some, including his students.  Over time, my father learned to live — with himself and some few friends — at a memorable depth.

The most crucial time to stand by your friends is when they haven’t found their purpose or their God —

and can’t sell either to anyone.

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Evil Is Understandable

Evil Is Understandable

Amazon Customer Review of Abigail L Rosenthal’s  A Good Look at Evil. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2018.

By Barry Cooper, Professor of Political Science, University of Calvary

Abigail Rosenthal is a professor (emerita) of philosophy, which is not the same thing as being a real philosopher. Indeed, there are few enough books written today by genuine philosophers. This is one. Like Socrates, she also conducts conversations with the many non-philosophers, but unlike him, she does so over the Internet in an online column, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Any book with the title, A Good Look at Evil looks to be heavy going, but Rosenthal’s treatment of an undoubtedly important philosophical problem is remarkably accessible to anyone who still retains a hold on commonsense.

To begin with, she takes the view that “good” is the ability to work out one’s own story, the story of one’s own life, what she calls a corrigible nonfiction narrative. And evildoing is the deliberate prevention or interruption of working out your own life-story, whether you do it to yourself or to somebody else. Stories, literally, reveal who I am –as when, having been offered a bribe of some kind –money, a promotion for considerations, a #MeToo opportunity– one says: “that’s not who I am.” This is, then, a genuine and practical philosophy of existence, a recovery of the understanding of philosophy as a way of living. Moreover it is devoid of the high sounding and usually empty words we often associate with philosophy, words that properly speaking are the verbal coin of the realm for intellectuals, sophists, PR flacks and similar frauds.

Rosenthal relies on Aristotle, Kant, and other great predecessors for what we now call a philosophical anthropology, that is, a philosophical understanding of human being, as well as upon more lightweight contemporary moral philosophy. She draws some delightful portraits of contemporary miscreants –the gambler, the rake, the seducer. She tells us a good deal about why politicians, as distinct from statesmen, are rightly held in contempt, and not just in America, but in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Russia, Africa, Asia. Everywhere! Why? Because, she explains in detail, they are invariably sell-outs. One way or another they betray the trust that reposes in their office and do so for unworthy motives. And everyone, including them, knows it. It happens on the grand stage of world politics and the petty stage of academic politics. Political correctness is just a recent instantiation.

Hard cases may make for bad laws but also for very interesting philosophical problems. For example, evildoers do bad things by spoiling life-stories but some are worse than others. Deliberate evildoers are worse than impulsive ones, for example. Moreover, when one moves from doing bad things to individuals to doing bad things to populations, the latter is worse than the former…

The paradigm case where genocide is linked to mass murder is the Holocaust. Inter-tribal destruction, even the example where Western cultures extinguished aboriginal cultures by killing the aboriginal population, as in Tasmania and Newfoundland, do not compare to the Holocaust because the numbers of human beings murdered is not comparable. Moreover, butchery motivated by desire for loot and power or by cultural contempt is (or seems to be) less malevolent than the meticulously planned and executed Nazi murder of so many millions of Jews. Here we have a genocidal holocaust, not mere mass murder or cultural genocide. That is about as evil as it gets. Worst of all, it took the teamwork of the Germans, either active or passive, to get the job done. Under such circumstances, Rosenthal argued, the only appropriate response is to do whatever one can to survive.

The last chapter of the original (1987) edition described what it would be like to think (if that is the right word) like a Nazi. Obviously, it is not acceptable to take Nazi words at face value and entertain some allegedly “higher” notion of good and evil. We, like Rosenthal, suppose that all along the Nazi knew he (or she) was in the wrong. To the claim that they were entirely ordinary, Rosenthal agreed. She adds that they were also quite determined not to know what was going on, which is another way of saying that they knew perfectly well what was going on. Their unctuous evasion was contradicted by their cooperation with the German government and churches to ensure the Holocaust went smoothly. The notion that the Holocaust was entirely the responsibility of the Leader is likewise evil nonsense because everybody (including Nazis) knows that human beings simply cannot sign over their liberty to another. The Nazis were never victims. So far as the very boring Eichmann was concerned, “being that boring is the symptom a persistent and thickly insulated untruth.”

For many readers, the most interesting part of Rosenthal’s book will likely be her discussion of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. I will not go into details because Rosenthal’s discussion deserves to be studied on its own. All I will say is that Arendt was not “taken in” by Heidegger. Nor was she just a young woman in love with her prof, and Heidegger was not simply an opportunist with a roving eye. Arendt’s amply documented life, with which Rosenthal is entirely familiar, details a life story that began exceptionally and wonderfully, and “regrettably she spoiled it.”

 

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Admiration

Admiration

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Despite W. H. Auden, and his poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, we live in a time whose typical mood is suspicion.  It’s almost the default stance.  There’s even a label for the role suspicion plays in the way we interpret people, actions, fiction and nonfiction, past and present.  It’s actually called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Stanley Rosen, my teacher of classical philosophy in graduate school, was a man of rather outsized self-esteem.  Nevertheless, one time he said to me, “I read Plato because he’s smarter than I am!”  Many students read Plato and think they are the smarter and more up-to-date ones.  Why is it so hard for most contemporary people to see what my teacher saw?

When I taught Plato’s Crito, the scene in the Athenian prison cell where Socrates explains to his friend Crito why he feels duty-bound to submit to the death penalty, which is the sentence that the jury has voted – wrongly but lawfully – my students would jump to the conclusion that Socrates refused his friend’s offer to help him escape “because he had a martyr complex.”  As if the man Plato called “the wisest and best man of his generation” had not been persuaded by his own reasoning but by a motive entirely different, less admirable and perhaps unconscious.

We look at each other askance.  We walk and talk and work and live it up (or live it down) but always under a cloud of suspicion.

Lately I’ve been reading Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling.  Trilling was a literary critic who influenced a whole array of attitudes among educated Americans in the 20th century.   By now, his name is no longer in high cultural fashion and there may be no such position of influence for any single intellectual to occupy any more.  So little are we predisposed to admire people for their accomplishments of work or character.  So little space and time and silence can we find in which to entertain such a feeling as admiration!

Anyway, my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and Trilling had been best friends in college and for some years thereafter.  I never knew precisely what occasioned their breakup, but I approached this collection of Trilling’s letters (which include some to my father and separately to my mother) in today’s typical mood of suspicion – no doubt heightened by my awareness that he and my father had quarreled.  I expected to meet a pretentious opinion-shaper, whose airy conclusions had no bite in the real world.

Hence I was taken aback to discover a person I couldn’t honestly fault or deprecate.  Maybe it’ll happen.  I’m not halfway through.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

The letter most striking to me was not one of those Trilling wrote to fellow intellectuals who were famous.  It was his letter to his sister Harriet.

The situations in our lives hardest to handle optimally are the ones that unfold with the people closest to us.  With family.  The people whose closeness we didn’t choose and whom we can’t normally divorce.

Here’s the situation he writes her about.  Probably because of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, their parents have fallen on hard times.  The support of their father and mother has been borne by Lionel Trilling alone.  He and his wife Diana have gone into debt to continue to pay his parents’ rent.  Harriet, their other child, has shirked the common obligation, acting as if it’s not weighty enough, not poetic and interesting enough, to deserve her sustained attention.

Most people I know, if they’ve got a deadbeat sibling, will decide that, rather than provoke ill will, it’s better (more peaceable) just to meet the whole of the shirked obligation by oneself.  She won’t pay in any case.  So why spoil our beautiful family circle by making a fuss?

(If you’re an only child, please accept my congratulations.)

Instead of taking this line, Lionel Trilling writes his sister that his awareness of her unfairness has created a barrier between them.  Emotionally as well as financially, she’s running in the red with her brother.

Now many people would consider that, having gone that far toward rectifying the imbalance between brother and sister, Lionel should stop there.  But he does not.  He goes on to remind Harriet that she is also in debt to several other people, mutual friends.  She may imagine that this awkward fact has flown from the minds of these friends, but such is not the case.  Her other creditors continue very much pained by it.

It happens that, as a child, I knew Harriet (a little bit).  She rented one of the cottages in Hilltop, the bungalow colony in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey where my family used to spend our summers.   Harriet has certainly passed off the stage of cultural history without leaving anything like her famous brother’s mark.  She sang, as I recall, but I don’t know that she ever gave a recital or a concert.  Lionel was slender and looked the part of an eminent literary critic.  Harriet, his sister, did not cut a figure.

What is money?  My mother used to say, “Money is love.”  Meaning, that’s what it stands for, particularly when siblings quarrel over a legacy after their parents are gone.  Did Mom love you best?  Did she love me best?  Whoever grabs the money gets the love.

Likewise, the sibling who has felt less of the parental favor may want to compensate by seizing more of the inheritance.  Or by contributing less to a joint filial obligation.

But really, does that get the love more evenly distributed?  Doesn’t it rather give the shirker more grounds for self-contempt, mixed with contempt for the sibling who – out of misguided “fairness” – has allowed the less-loved child to become a ripoff?

What I admire in Trilling’s letter to his sister is that he did not permit this counterfeit compensation to pass for legal tender.  For her sake and for his own, he stuck by the truth of the situation.

A good literary critic will know what’s a symbol, what’s a metaphor, and what’s neither.  Money is neither a symbol nor a metaphor.  Money is not ambiguous.

The beauty of money is that, when you’re dealing with a deadbeat — or a bad check –

you know it.

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What’s Your Evidence?

Abbie, Philosophy Department office
Photo by Elmer Sprague

What’s Your Evidence?

In the claims and counter-claims of real life, what is to count as evidence?

Recently, I had occasion to try to defend myself to a third party, against the damaging claims of a person who had been victimizing me for many months.   In my own defense, I laid out a paper trail of carefully assembled documentary evidence, backed by a witness known to be truthful, who stood ready to confirm what I said.

To my vast disappointment — in the essentials —

I was not believed.

Let me qualify that.  My documents were not treated as fabrications.  My witness was not dismissed as unreliable.  Only as not probative.  As incapable of deciding the main question: Who here had been the most pitiable victim, the one most entitled to heartfelt sympathy?

Having been involved in two legal proceedings at an earlier period in my life, I know what sort of thing counts as “evidence.”

In the first proceeding, my case went to Arbitration.  When my union counsel looked through the documents I had rounded up, he said I was “the hardest working client” he’d ever had.  I was placed under oath, testifying for five hours, three of “direct” and two of “cross.”

The Arbitrator ruled in my favor.

In the second legal action, a lawyer friend read the Court Papers I submitted and emailed me: “Superb.  Reads like a closing argument.  Now you have to hope the judge reads them!”

The court case was settled in my favor out of court.

In my present situation, I believe the documentation and witness backing my claim to victimhood would have merit in a court of law.

However, we were not in a court of law.  We were friends having a discussion.  But I knew that I had not prevailed.  My adversary had got there first, with a story that made him seem the more compelling victim.  Nothing I could have said or done would have turned the emotional tide in my favor.  We parted friends, but my sense of defeat is large indeed.

During the week that followed, Jerry and I had our first movie outing since his surgery.  We went to see “The Bookshop,” a well-written, very well acted, beautifully photographed English film.  It’s about a woman who wants to open a nice little bookshop in an English village.  The local establishment tries to frustrate her at every turn.  With each snub and cut, she is made to realize that her insignificance is simply bottomless.

If an oblique sense of justice is supposed to shine — even through the mists of social life – the bookshop owner keeps being taught that she weighs less than a speck of dust on the social scales of justice.  For the just and the unjust, the scales stay level.  Justice weighs no more than injustice.

I sat through about a third of this artistic film before saying to Jerry,

We have to leave.

“It’s bringing back my year in England!  I feel asphyxiated.”

In this column, I’ve sometimes inveighed against utopian ideologies that aim to repair this imperfect world by comparing it with a fantasy realm – an escapist’s “unreal city in the future.”

The events of this week were a reminder that the difficult drill in real life is to stay in real life.  To show up.  To hang in.

But how?

Sometimes you feel that every door is shut, ditto the windows.  You feel as if you’re choking.  You just want to jump out of this world!  (Not by suicide.  That’s cheating.)  By dying of natural causes — but soon!  By endorsing some ideology built on proven impossibilities.  By treating the whole world as maya – illusion – and trying to walk around in a benevolent trance, hoping someone will love you for the phony, loving expression on your face.

So how does one stay real, and stay in real life, at times of utter frustration?   So far as I can tell, what you do is look around at the options.  Not everything is shut down tight.  There’s a bit of light in the room.  Ergo something must be open.  Take the door, or the window, that’s open – even if it’s open just a crack!

Take the merest sliver of an opening, and stay alert for further guidance, however you get it.  In the generality of cases, there will be some opening and/or guidance.

We should not scorn to take it.

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Are People Really Good at Heart?

Are People Really Good at Heart?

 “In spite of everything,

 I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

These words — set down as a belief, not a question — are among the last lines in the diary of Anne Frank, before the Frank family’s hiding place was betrayed and the Nazis came for them all.   Did she still believe that in Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp where she died?

I once had a friend, a fellow Fulbright scholar named John Armstrong.  To test his idealistic values, John decided (along with two friends who followed his lead) to drive down the length of Africa, from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope.  The trip was to be sponsored by the maker of the small French car they’d be driving.

As part of his research into the terrain they planned to cross, John asked me to introduce him to Richard Wright, the writer then living in Black American Exile in Paris.  When I told Wright of John’s plan, the writer said instantly, “They’ll never make it past Egypt.”

By fall, a front-page story in the New York Times confirmed Wright’s prediction.  Their bodies were discovered north of Khartoum.  Most pages of the diary John kept were not released by the Egyptian authorities.  Their guide was not found among the dead.

More recently, Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin, a young and idealistic American couple, decided to undertake a world bicycle tour.  They named it the “Kindness Tour.” It was to be a demonstration that the goodness of people will be unleashed if only you let your defenses down and give people the chance to show what’s in their hearts.  Lauren and Jay met with quite a lot of kindness and seemed well on their way to confirming Anne Frank’s thesis, when a group thought to be affiliated with ISIS caught up with them in Tajikistan and deliberately ran them down with their vehicle.  The incident brought these earlier cases to my mind.

Anne Frank should’ve been right. 

John Armstrong should’ve been right.

 Lauren and Jay, on their Kindness Tour, should’ve been right.

In one sense, they were right.  Kindness is the human norm.  We are most ourselves when we are kind.  It often takes courage to be kind, particularly when others are not.  A small gesture of kindness can pull someone out of the deepest despair.  It can put things in their right order and proportion for a fellow mortal.  We are all bound to die someday.  On that day, what will count will be the deeds of kindness we did, however small and seemingly inconsequential.

What went wrong, then?  Anne did not volunteer to be a victim of the Shoah, much less its paradigm case of victimhood.  But John and the Kindness Tourists did volunteer.  What can we imagine that they learned, in their final moments?  If John was left to die of thirst and exposure, he had many days in which to take in the limits of his idealism.  Unless there is something we weren’t told, the Kindness Couple had only seconds.

What was the lesson, the right inference to draw, for these idealists?

Good people are not preserved in their being,

 evildoers are not reformed, 

the world is not improved,

by believing something that

 is not true.

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