I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Illustration Edward A. Wilson

I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

It happened like this.  I was remembering a case I know of, where a young woman, who had her whole life before her, was being forced into the sealed back of a truck.  Uniformed Nazis were turning a hose filled with carbon monoxide into the space where they had confined the young woman and her family.  This occurred in the late 1930’s, the run-up decade before the Holocaust.

As I recalled the incident, I felt myself entering into the mind of that young woman. Nobody could hear her.  Silently, she seemed to be saying,

“I deserve to be heard!”

Editorially, I added my own comment on the sad scene that I was picturing:

Everybody deserves to be heard!”

Curiously, without linkage or transition, this casual editorial comment suddenly changed everything in my worldview: the scenery, the cast of characters, the proportions.  I became what Goethe called a “Beautiful Soul.”  My whole psyche lifted up with pure motives: peaceful, innocent of envy, without violence, acquisitiveness or worldly ambition.  I was a vessel of peace and love, from top to bottom and from edge to edge.

That afternoon, I happened to be due for a manicure at a local salon where television plays on a large silent screen.  This entertains the bored clientele.  In honor of Veterans Day, the big screen was showing a news program with children inviting veterans to visit their school.  I noticed that I no longer associated these frail oldsters with sacrifice for their country – a sacrifice that tragically included incurring guilt while under arms.  Instead, I now viewed them as eager volunteers for acts of the most sordid violence.  I hated and feared them, separately and together.

“Ugh!  What ugly brutes!” I thought, as I watched the ancient veterans genially greeting the schoolchildren.

Driving home, I turned on Willie Nelson’s “Road House,” which plays country songs from an earlier era, songs that tell local stories about real people and still have simple tunes with fiddle and guitar.

“Ugh!” I thought, as I listened to Hank Williams singing ‘Cold Cold Heart,’  “Rednecks getting set to round up a lynch mob!”

Hmm, I thought.  For Abigail to hate country music is a brand new mindset!  Let me scan the wider landscape and see how the rest of the world looks to me now.

Sure enough, the world’s peoples were differently arranged.  On the one side, I saw the seried ranks of oppressed people, like a single high human cliff, joined in their collective victimization.

On the opposing side, Europe and its heirs: arrogant, stupid, self-deceived and cruel.  Worthless! — they all looked to me now.  I hated them.

Then, as suddenly, it was over.  I flipped back again.  How did that happen?  A memory came to my rescue.  It was years ago.  I was attending a Mozart concert in Salzburg, Austria with Anna, my philosopher friend with whom I’d been hitching through Europe.  At the performance, there were truths we held to be self-evident:

Mozart

deserved to be heard.

The old lady in the seat next to ours,

squeaking her chair to interfere with the concert,

had less right to be heard.

Neither oppressed nor oppressors are a uniform bloc.  It doesn’t line up like that.  How does it line up?  You need to examine the particulars.  The devil and the better angels are in the details.

For the last ten days, Jerry and I have been away, partly to get me another round of neuropathy treatments, partly to attend meetings of religionists where Jerry has had panels to chair.  I supposed that the attendees included some Beautiful Souls as well.  Perhaps their epiphanies might be lasting longer than mine did. Whether or not this was so, the meetings were not about concerns particular and private to me.

However, “Dear Abbie” is a different forum, where my private concerns can be mentioned.  Privately, I imagined that, were the embattled State of Israel to be annihilated, many current religionists would think,

“They had it coming!”

They would not say it, of course.  But they would think it.  The Beautiful Jews, if any were around, would think it.  And the Beautiful Gentiles would think it too.  With the following justification:

“The State of Israel extends over Occupied land.”

As if the nations that the Beautiful People come from aren’t on territory Occupied against the wishes of predecessors who were, at some point, displaced by the regimes currently governing those nations!

As if the West Bank of the Jordan River wasn’t Occupied by the State of Jordan between 1948 and 1967!  As if Great Britain didn’t Occupy the land between the inauguration of its Mandate after World War I and Britain’s transfer of its Mandate to the United Nations in 1947!  As if the Ottoman Turks didn’t Occupy the land for the 300 years previous to World War I!

As if the Bible, drawn on for spiritual nourishment by religionists the world over, doesn’t explicitly state that the Promised Land had previous inhabitants: the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Canaanites, the Amalekites, etc. etc. and the famous Philistines – who had themselves crossed the sea from Greece to Occupy the Mediterranean coast, no doubt at the expense of previous coastal peoples.

Why then this pious readiness to say, “the Jews had it coming”?  Why this purportedly moral outrage, so extreme that it actually is capable of legitimating the next Holocaust?

If I wept all the tears that are in me for a thousand years, believe me, it would not be for me alone.  It would also be for the Beautiful Souls who think this is okay.  Why do they think that?  Because the alternative is, for Beautiful Souls, utterly unthinkable.  What alternative would that be?

Just this: If there ever was a God of Israel … or a covenant between Israel and its God, there is one still!

That’s the one utterance that must never

            never

                        never

                                        never

                                                                  be heard!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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