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Monday, November 3, 2014

A discussion about genocide at the Munk Centre

On October 14, a panel convened at the Munk School of Global Affairs, under the auspices of the Raoul Wallenberg Legacy of Leadership Project, to discuss genocide in the modern world. I had intended to write about what was discussed there sooner, but my own foray into local politics kept me too busy to get to it until now. As it happens, that delay may have been fortuitous and added to the relevance of this post, since a panelist that night,  Jonathan Kay, has since been thrust into the spotlight for two very different reasons. One of them is the announcement a couple of days ago that he would be taking over as Editor-in-Chief of Walrus Magazine, a staple among Toronto's lefty, middlebrow readers;  a move that was bold, unexpected, and will undoubtedly raise the quality of that publication.

Additionally, some reflected glare from the spotlight thrust on Jian Ghomeshi, in the wake of revelations of his reported proclivity to violently assault women as a form of sexual foreplay, has also been thrust on Jonathan, who was a regular panelist on Ghomeshi's CBC radio show Q. As Editor for Comment and a columnist at the National Post, Jonathan has been commenting, quite rationally, on trying to separate Ghomeshi, the accomplished and charismatic radio personality, from Ghomeshi the (allegedly) vicious, narcissistic sexual deviate. Though many people have been infuriated at what they perceive as any attempt to mitigate outrage against a person who committed terrible acts towards women, Jonathan's is a valid argument. In the way that one can despise the personal beliefs and ideologies of Richard Wagner, yet still admire the music he created, separating the artist from the art requires intellectual examination and the courage to discuss honestly held beliefs in the tumultuous climate of the hysterical media whirlwind of the Ghomeshi scandal.

It's always a pleasure to hear Jonathan speak at an event such as the Munk Centre panel. Unfettered by the word number limitations of a newspaper column or the need to speak in talking points on radio or TV, one gets to hear from him detailed, insightful, intelligent, and often very humorous perspectives on contemporary and historical developments that have and are shaping our world.

The word I most frequently use in my descriptions of Jonathan is "reasonable." While that might be something that should seem a requisite quality for someone in the media or in a position of public influence, the unfortunate reality is that there are far too few media personalities who could be described that way. The fact that I have friends on the left who think Jonathan is a doctrinaire "right-winger," and very conservative friends who are convinced Jonathan has sunk into the quicksand of leftist dogma is actually, as far as I'm concerned, indicative of a balanced intellect who isn't married to any political or ideological position. It suggests he views issues, case-by-case, on their merits. Which isn't to say I always agree with Jonathan's positions, but I always expect they'll be sane and well-considered.

Now back to the Wallenberg Project panel about genocide.

In 1985, Raoul Wallenberg, who vanished under suspicious circumstances in Soviet-controlled Budapest at the end of the Second War and at that point was presumed to be dead, was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada.

Wallenberg received that honor for his courageous accomplishment of saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps, and another honor bestowed on his name is The Raoul Wallenberg Leadership Project. That effort is an initiative of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

Aside from Jonathan, the other panelists for the discussion were the eminent Liberal MP for Mount Royal and former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler, and Global Brief Magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Irwin Studin.

It's an obvious tragedy that ongoing discussions about genocide are necessary when the world should have learned the lessons of Holocaust and of the depths to which man can sink, and the unspeakable consequences of what can happen if the world fails to take action to prevent an onslaught of targeted mass murder. Yet genocides have occurred since 1945 in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Rwanda, and a genocide is still going on in Darfur.

Despite these atrocities, one of the points that emerged from the discussion is that while the incidences of genocides seems not to have abated, the magnitude of those crimes, compared with earlier times has, thanks to international awareness of them. We live in times where news is not confined to print journalists from relatively few newspapers. Now multiple cable all-news channels, and the Internet, social media, and smart phones can instantly draw attention to crimes such as ISIS' murderous campaign against Yazidis and pressure a relatively quick response. Whereas half a century ago, such monstrosities, competing with other domestic and international events, might have have only been a half column buried deep in the pages of The New York Times.

Which is not to say that genocide is a matter that need not concern us in today's world. One of the issues that ate up most of the panel's Q & A time came from an audience member's (ok, it was me) question about the degree of commitment that western countries have towards combating genocide when it becomes difficult for them. Jonathan during his talk recalled how the murders and mutilation of ten Belgian peacekeepers during the Rwandan genocide led to that country withdrawing all its forces, reducing the UN Peacekeepers' effectiveness and leaving Tutsi victims that much more vulnerable. I reminded the panelists of a similar occurrence the year before that, when following the killing and mutilation of American soldiers in Mogadishu, Bill Clinton withdrew US forces that has been in place to ensure that famine-stricken civilians were not easy prey for Somalia's warlords.

In reality, we have to understand that combating genocides are a combination of factors, including  altruism, a moral duty, and the not unreasonable expectation that global powers are more likely to be motivated to act when there is an element of self-interest.

Considering the night was dedicated to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, it was quite natural that questions arose about contemporary anti-Semitism and the desire among some to commit another genocide of Jews. A general consensus among the panel was that the existence of the State of Israel has made such an outcome a near impossibility. Despite that country being surrounded by enemies, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and its master Iran and Hamas , who openly advocate for eliminating Jews, the Jewish State's military prowess and determination for survival, plus its existence as an ultimate sanctuary, are all factors that will confound the aspirations of those who want a second Holocaust.

Tragically, it is from within western societies, often on university campuses, that supporters of genocidal maniacs such as Hezbollah, hiding behind the lie of wanting "social justice," are doing their utmost to enable the would-be perpetrators of another Holocaust. Which makes exposing and standing up to such people all the more important today. Our failure to do so would be a betrayal of the lessons of history and of Raoul Wallenberg's courage which ultimately cost him his life.


truepeers said...

Juxtaposing Ghomeshi and genocide?!

I guess the point you are making, and it is one we too easily forget, is that no matter what the evil, it is impossible to do it without thinking you are doing good (and likely by extension being good, to some degree - e.g. the chivalrous Nazi). A Satanist, for example, thinks Satan is good, the enemy of a false or corrupt "creation" that is not the real creation still waiting to be rediscovered via the Satanic rite. A genocide may be a project in national sanitation, or a full blown Gnostic religion. I kill xyz because he is a force of corruption, or because my supposedly "evil" desires are actually good because the truth of the world is that it is all about the will to power and those who try to deny this with goody two shoes talk are just dishonest "priests" or elders out for their own power.

All this, and at the same time, I can be a hospitable and gracious host of a sacred feast.

So, even when I hate myself, and maybe even kill myself, I do it in deference to the good I have supposedly failed. The anthropological truth is that human consciousness cannot but be focussed on the sacred in some shape or form, so that our resentful violence becomes justified in terms of rebellion against those who are alienating us from the "real" sacred. We are creatures of a scene that always has a sacred centre - desiring periphery structure (the lesson is that language/religion/esthetics must have first come into being on a memorable, recreatable, public scene).

So, one moment one is a charming host, when one is normatively signing off on the sacred centre of attention (as we share signs of its goodness on the periphery of desire), while in a next moment one is full of resentment that the signing didn't quite work in winning one some desired transcendence, didn't work because of some corrupting or alienating forces.

I know where my teachers are coming from, and this kind of universal anthropological thinking is a product of the Jewish discovery of monotheism where our God is everyone's God and there is no non-idolatrous way to call his name and request special favours (no murder can be justified), but only divine rewards or punishments depending on one's actions in revealing the oneness of God and our unique relationship to it. Those who want to wipe out the Jews want, ultimately, to wipe out the legacy of this or some such understanding of God and replace it with some "truer" idea of creation.

And this makes antisemitism unlike other forms of racism, and the Shoah unlike, to some degree, other genocides. And it is the resentment of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, or of the fact that today's victimary culture is rooted in the paradigm of the Nazi-Jew (wherein all the "colonized" peoples want to be recognized as the victims of unquestionably evil Nazi-like White professionals in total killing control of modern technology) that makes most discussions of genocide limp. How to address the problem of Jewish historical centrality without turning it into a scandal? ...the kind of scandal that percolates and leads us, Jews and Gentiles, into all kinds of resentful thoughts.

Sorry for the long comment, but I guess I am trying to redeem myself for just being quite rude to an angry Croatian soldier-killer at another site.

Anonymous said...

Very good article.......