Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Collaborators in a Culture of Death

The other day, a friend of mine linked to an article which argued that we should not refer to the large numbers of unborn killed via abortion as a "holocaust". I agree that this is not a helpful rhetorical move. What I found myself wanting to react to was actually some of the reason behind this, the way that people think about the Holocaust (capital "H", as in the mass extermination of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis during World War Two) versus the way that we think about our own modern evils.

The author explains that a key reason for not making this comparison is that it unfairly paints the people in our modern day who participate in abortion as being like Nazis:
First of all, it is an act of rhetorical cruelty to women who have had abortions, who will easily draw from this the conclusion that they, personally, are being compared with genocidal Nazis. If we are serious about being “pro-life and pro-woman” we should avoid, across the board, statements like this that revile women as murderers, or imply that they are motivated by malice or evil.

And I’m not just saying “don’t make such statements publicly.” I’m not saying that we should speak kindly about women when others are listening, and reserve holocaust comparisons for our private in-house discussions. We should not make such statements at all, ever, because they are cruelly inaccurate, and demonstrate a radical ignorance of the root causes of abortion. Women don’t have abortion because they hate babies and think they should be eradicated – as the Nazis regarded Jews. Many women who have abortions have children already, children whom they love and care for, children they are struggling to feed. If not in poverty, they reside on its knife-edge, and the slightest change to income or expenses could have them facing homelessness. And as the Republican powers that be succeed in dismantling programs intended to protect the most vulnerable, this will be happening more and more. Women choose abortion – and it’s often barely a choice, because they are offered no real alternative – because they live in societies that do not look kindly on pregnant women and mothers, especially low-income or immigrant or racially Other women.
Again, I'd agree this is not a useful rhetorical tactic, but it is worth thinking about why. As such, this isn't so much an argument with the original pieces as a "this is what reading this made me think" kind of piece.

As World War Two fades out of living memory, it has come particularly in the American mind to be a morality tale about how the forces of freedom defeated the forces of genocide. In this comic book version of history, Europeans were either resistance fighters or collaborators, they struggled to save Jews from the Nazis or they were genocide supporters.

But as you read more deeply into mid 20th Century history, a much grayer world comes into view. The morality play version of the war is in some ways a product of the immediate post war years, in which a guilt wracked Europe looked at what had been wrought in the Holocaust and sought to mete out some kind of justice in order to return to normality. This meant separating "real Nazis" from "good Germans" in Germany itself, and separating "collaborators" from "resisters" in the rest of Europe. The most egregious cases were (sometimes) identified and placed into these bad categories, and the rest were in some sense able to tell themselves that they were not at fault because all the evils had been performed by those other ones.

And yet this post war division into sheep and goats was very much a simplification. The war plunged much of Europe into desperate choices, faced with forced labor, conscription, arrest, deportation, starvation, extermination. Those in middle Europe found themselves between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, the soldiers of either one of which might decide to take you to the ravine outside of town and put a bullet into your head for reasons outside of your control.

These evils were, for most people, imposed from outside. Yes, there were the few, the architects of war and mass killings: Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Stalin, Beria, Molotov, and their imitators down the chain of command. They set things in motion and created the cruel circumstances of an inhumane time. But for many people, the experience of these evils came down to questions such as: Do I protect this neighbor at the risk of reprisals against the whole village? Do I turn in that child to protect my child? Do I join this side to try to protect my people from that side?

It's an important point that a way in which the millions killed via abortion in our country differ from the millions killed in the service of Nazism and Communism is that there is no central architect to abortion promising that if only we can wipe our this race or that class, we will achieve a new utopia. But on the ground, the decisions faced by tens of millions of ordinary people are perhaps not so very different. People in desperate circumstances are faced with situations in which it seems possible to dodge some evil or secure some much needed security if only some one person is sacrificed, perhaps someone whom we can tell ourselves isn't even really quite a person or isn't really our responsibility.

What am I arguing here: that we should think of people involved with abortion as more like Nazis or that we should think more kindly of those who participated in the Holocaust? Neither. I don't think that "who should we blast with the most opprobrium?" is a healthy set of moral questions. Moral thought should not be focused on "whom am I fighting against?" or "whom should I hate?" Rather, when we think morally we think about how our own actions are good or evil, and we try to choose the good.

I'd propose that we should deploy a sort of historical empathy, both in seeing how hard and ambiguous some choices in the past may have seemed to ordinary people who found themselves under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances, and also in how our own choices might look for people outside of our own particular historical moment and assumptions. Like those in the past, trying to survive the grinding teeth of evil circumstances, we may not have much choice about the circumstances that we face, we can only be responsible for the choices that we make within those circumstances. We don't make choices that save or kill millions, thousands, or even dozens. We may at times face choices that affect one or two. Those are the choices we may face, and they will be hard enough. We're not absolved of our moral responsibility to do the right thing because the world seems determined to punish us for doing it, nor do we get to pick the world we live in. We are, most of us, making the small choices which seem huge to us, sometimes bigger than us, yet will never make the history books.

The socially acceptable evils of each age make it easier to absolve the wrongs performed by "good people", by "people like us". It's probably not possible to really strip away the social acceptability of the evils our own time is comfortable with, nor is it a great idea to be too eager to excuse the wrongs of people who collaborated with the horrendous evils of the past. But somewhere in the middle we need to be able to see that even some of the things which may seem to be barely a choice, in the sense that society seems ordered to force our collaboration in the evil of the age, may in a moral sense be some of the biggest choices that we will ever make.


Agnes said...

This is a very thoughtful post, thank you! I have seen a similar situation in my country, post-Communist Hungary when the question of Communist collaborators and State Police informants/secret agents was often raised, especially about politicians and members of the clergy. This was another situation where there is no easy judgment (especially in the case of the average person who often had their families, livelihood, their children's future education/career threatened; some who actually refused to collaborate still had a file in the archives of the state police and so were later declared to be involved etc). I like the idea of "historical empathy" and focusing on our own moral choices instead of affirming our own "goodness" wby judging others. It is so very important to distinguish between the sin and the sinner, especially in the case of abortion - and it is very hard unless we practice every day (both making the right choice however hard, and not judging our neighbour for their choices).

Cristina said...

Last year I spent a lot of time thinking what I would have done during the Marcos regime, and my conclusion was . . . Nothing. I would have kept my head down, respected the curfew and other new laws, and pleaded with family and friends not to do anything that would get them in trouble with the military. Most of the resistance groups were Marxist anyway, so I would have been naturally repelled by them. I would have looked at the bright side: the Marcos years were a time when the arts and traditional cottage industries flourished. If I couldn't do any good politically, I'd try to do something good in those other areas. And if things looked as if they'd be really insupportable, I would have started looking for a job post in another country, even one I'd be overqualified for. Anything but do something that would get me or a loved one thrown into a torture brothel.

These days, it's so easy to say that you would have done something. But all that is virtue on credit and we can never truly we sure what will happen if our creditors ever call.

Finicky Cat said...

Cristina, that's about what I'd have probably done, too. Any time I read history or the news, I recognize clearly that unless God intervened, I'd never have been one of the heroes.

Darwin said...

Thanks, Agnes and Cristina. I'm glad this seemed to ring true to your perspectives, being that you're closer to these experiences than I am.