I recently visited the site of the Wannsee conference in the outskirts of Berlin where third and fourth-level bureaucrats worked out the details of the “final solution”: how to make the extermination of 11 million Jews as profitable as possible. It contains, among other things, the Protocols of the conference, preserved by the Undersecretary of State, Martin Luther, living proof of the deliberate, carefully-planned, and astonishingly lucre-mongering project of genocide. In addition, the exhibition has a review of the history of racist anti-Semitism, profiles of the various participants, and maps of the Jewish population of Europe and the damage done by the Nazis.
As I walked through I realized that in some sense, the exhibit was understated. It worked from the assumption that everyone coming here thinks that the Nazi genocide was a shameful, disgusting event that must never again occur – Nie wieder. But, it occurred to me, if the Nazis were to take over Germany again, they probably would change little about this exhibit, including its history of racism. What was presented as obviously bad would, by an alchemy of honor-shame dynamics, become a celebration of the heros who began an as-yet unfinished task.
Reflecting a spurious “shame” that Nazis acknowledged in their attempt to cover the tracks of the Holocaust, even as they held it to be a great deed, Himmler commented in a speech given in Posen, October 6, 1943:
This is a page of glory in our history, which has never been written and is never to be written.
Today’s neo-Nazis express the same ambivalence in their combined efforts to at once deny and resume the genocide. Ahmadinejad’s delight in denying that the Holocaust goes hand in hand with his desire to reproduce it, even if nuking six million Israelis means killing millions of fellow Muslims (even some Shiites).
In a seminal book, Anthony Kwame Appiah, wrote about these dramatic shifts in terms of what the “honor group” considers honorable. The Honor Code and Moral Revolutions addresses three such reversals in which what had previously been considered honorable came to be seen as shameful – slavery in the USA, dueling in England, footbinding in China – and one so-far failed revolution – honor killings in Pakistan.
These reversals in values can be so complete that they become invisible. It’s hard for we moderns, raised in a civil polity, to even imagine what it’s like to think that slavery is an honorable thing (for the slave-owners). Liberal cognitive egocentrism has difficulty conceiving of the zero-sum mentality in which the slave’s degradation brings honor to he who enslaves and degrades him.
Take for example the following comments from Irving Berlin’s essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty” rejecting what Eli Sagan would call the normative political principle of virtually all pre-democratic societies, the dominating imperative of “rule or be ruled.”
This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him ; but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty.
Berlin assumes that gross inequality of treatment is shameful, that such a sentiment is as “basic in men as the desire for liberty.” But for people who live in the zero-sum universe of “rule or be ruled,” the very point of achieving honor is in subjecting the weaker. I make myself bigger by making you smaller.
The inability to understand this gap in what some historians call mentalité, explains why our journalists hailed the Arab protests as a “Spring,” assuming, like Berlin, that anyone who thirsted for freedom would feel shame at inequality of treatment for others.
And yet today, we view people throughout the Arab world who clamor for liberties, like freedom of speech,without necessarily believing that those liberties be extended to those they don’t like. Thus the freedom of Islamists to protest their (too) secular government (like Mubarak’s, which supported women’s rights), does not translate into a concern for protecting the rights of those who would criticize Islam. The honor of Islam demands (at least for Islamists) the repression of freedom of speech.
This radical disjuncture of pre-modern and modern mentalités, between a modern “honor group” and a pre-modern “honor group” can produce startling splits. One can see the contrast quite clearly in the story of the lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah on October 12, 2000. A savage crowd literally pummeled the two to death and dismembered their bodies, dragging the parts through the streets of Ramallah shouting “revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Durah.” Western journalists present shot footage of the events, only to find their film either confiscated by Palestinian police, or have their cameras smashed by unruly mobs. Instinctively, Palestinians understood that such pictures would damage their cause in the eyes of the West, and feared a loss of favor in the global public arena. Intimidation had long been, and in this case quickly became the method of dealing with a Western press capable of embarrassing them.
But this hardly meant that, within their own “honor group” they were ashamed. On the contrary, they turned these savage murderers into heros, and had kindergarten graduation ceremonies in which little girls dipped their hands in red paint and raised them up to mimic the gesture of one of the lynchers.