On Human Darkness and Democratic Possibility

Author and Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel brought awareness to a reluctant world of the enormity of the horrors of the Holocaust. Before he died at 87 on July 2, 2016, he addressed the challenge he had set himself of preventing a recurrence of those events by repeatedly illustrating the depths of evil and depravity to which humans may stoop when fearful or power hungry or convinced of the inhumanity of those they are persecuting, or indeed, combinations of these factors. In his seminal book, Night, a searing account of his experience as a prisoner of the Nazi terror, Wiesel wrote of his initial awareness of the unfathomable darkness innate to humanity and of its consequences for him, as he described his arrival at Auschwitz as one of more than 100 individuals pressed into a cattle car:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never, shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.1

 

Wiesel survived the death camps in which he was imprisoned and, once freed, he dedicated his life to efforts to ensure that human beings would never again allow themselves to perpetrate such evil and cruelty. Despite his efforts and those of many others, modern demagogues in the decades since World War II have systematically and savagely “othered” groups—as Hitler had othered the Jews—within their nations’ populations to curry fear and favor, and to gain or maintain power. Such has occurred in Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Russia, Rwanda and Serbia, among other nations. These episodes cost millions their lives. Likewise, humankind’s capacity for malice and ignominy was on display during WWII in the United States with the internment of Japanese-Americans, and in the post-war years in the American south, with its frequent lynchings of African Americans and systematic efforts to deny them their civil and human rights.

These examples might be expanded, but they suggest that when free to choose their course, humans may choose horrific behaviors, especially when encouraged to adopt such acts by those they would call leaders. This fact simply underscores what philosophers since the ancient Greeks have known: People may evidence supreme altruism and goodness, but are also equally capable of their opposite. If one would give individuals freedom to make such choices then, as in democracies, one must also find ways to ensure that they are equipped with the capacities necessary to act virtuously and to choose leaders willing to ensure the rights of all those they serve, irrespective of their gender, race or other characteristics.

The United States Constitution sought to address this challenge in part with its Bill of Rights, but those principles alone cannot prevent their usurpation by a leader or citizenry, or both, persuaded to “other” some communities in its midst, and to persecute or demean those groups or deprive them of their rights. Only citizens and their leaders devoted to the common weal and calling upon the “better angels of their natures,” as Abraham Lincoln observed in his First Inaugural Address, may ensure the realization of those aims.2 Our polity now appears to be at a moment in which Americans must soon choose whether they wish to uphold the premises of their Constitution or instead watch as they are undermined. As people make that collective choice, they will also decide which trajectory of their natures they wish to embrace: that which allows them to continue together amidst their pluralism to forge a united nation, or that which tyrannizes some groups and, in so doing, costs all citizens their free society. This turning point has been both created and symbolized by President Donald Trump’s increasingly bold embrace of overt racism and systematic degradation of those who are not Caucasian, whether Americans or residents of other nations. The proximate question is of greatest moment for that minority of the nation’s populace supporting Trump and for his Party’s elites, the majority of whom have also continued to back Trump. The issue takes the guise of whether to excuse his ever more strident racism or to declare it and its purveyor unacceptable in the American polity.

We have arrived collectively at this moment as a nation in the wake of Trump claiming, baselessly, for several years, that then President Barack Obama was not an American citizen. That lie, which sent a message to Trump’s audience that a black man could not legitimately serve as President, was followed by racist comments aimed at Hispanics and immigrants as Trump began his presidential campaign. Once elected, Trump chose to embrace white nationalists and Neo-Nazis last summer after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. In each case, as Trump has othered groups of Americans, he has appealed to his shrinking “base” of roughly a third of eligible voters by suggesting that they are innately superior and that those individuals he has singled out for derision were somehow responsible for any difficulties his supporters might be confronting.

Trump has chosen to add to this record of lies and calumny by demonizing and “othering” Haitians and Africans from “s**t hole countries” during immigration policy talks at the White House recently.3 That is, the President has moved from dog whistling to some white individuals, especially to men with high school or less educations, playing on their fears of demographic group population composition change, to offering explicitly racist comments that demonize and undercut specific groups within American and/or global society.4 Given the fact that the U.S. citizenry is comprised of individuals of different races, ethnicities, national origins and religious beliefs, Trump is denying reality with these remarks, even as he is refusing to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those he attacks. That is the nub of the matter. Like many racists before him, Trump is asking his supporters to imagine that those he maligns are less than human, and certainly that those not born with white skin are “less than,” as a result of that fact.

In so doing, he has attempted to appeal to citizens’ (and humanity’s) worst tendencies. Trump has asked Americans to demean and hate entire classes of people who appear superficially different from themselves on one basis or another so as to assuage fears or address concerns that have nothing to do with those groups, and certainly were not caused by their attributes. Trump’s appeals to racism and to the worst in Americans should give all of this nation’s citizens pause and perhaps remind them that the history of this country has been characterized by the slow extension of civil and human rights to all of its residents, and it is that trajectory and those victories, hard won and unevenly realized as they may be, that Trump’s ugly demagoguery now seeks to undermine and place at risk.

Having said this, it is important to note that Trump is the most unpopular President in modern history and that he lost the popular vote in 2016 by more than 2.9 million votes. Millions of Americans disagree with his policies and pronouncements and millions more are working each day to overcome his most egregiously cruel remarks and policies. At the same time, his party, the GOP, is firmly in control of Congress and its leaders have steadfastly refused to criticize his actions, however outrageous, for fear of alienating the Republican voters supporting him and in the name of securing their own agendas. That silence cannot continue in light of the President’s most recent pronouncements and behavior.

On April 4 of this year, the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. As we do, we will recall King’s work, as we recently did while celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King dedicated his life to securing full human and civil rights for African Americans and the poor in this nation. Trump has now openly attacked the ideas that King represented; that all human beings are created equal and equally free, and that all Americans should be given opportunities to succeed.

As we remember King during this moment of deep polarization in our polity, it might be well also to recall Robert Kennedy’s remarks in Indianapolis, Indiana to a largely poor and black audience when he learned of King’s death in 1968. Perhaps Kennedy’s vision of generosity, empathy and hope on that terrible night can help the nation chart a course forward out of its current self-imposed darkness. In any case, we may all hope that Republican congressional and party leaders and Trump’s most ardent supporters will reject his fresh appeal to racism in favor of a vision of the nation in all of its heterogeneity. Here is how Robert Kennedy framed the country’s challenge in the wake of King’s untimely death:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. …

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.5

Robert Kennedy trusted the American people to look forward with hope, openness and generosity. He called on the nation’s citizens to embrace their remarkable diversity and to find ways to harness their collective energy to move ahead as one people. Trump’s unconcealed smallness, malice and fearfulness directly contradict the American creed and its people’s drive to realize a better and more unified future. One may hope that Republican office-holders and officials will soon see the wisdom of that vision of America and demand that Trump change course or disavow him.

Notes

[1] Wiesel, Elie. Night, New York: Bantam Books, 1982, p.32.

2 Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” Fred Kaplan, ed., A New Birth of Freedom: Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, London: The Folio Society, 2015, p. 331.

3 Davis, Julie Hirschfeld, Gay Stolberg and Thomas Kaplan, “Trump Alarms Lawmakers with Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/us/politics/trump-shithole-countries.html January 11, 2018. Accessed January 11, 2018.

4 Weiner, Tim. One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.

5 Kennedy, Robert F. “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkonmlkdeath.html. Accessed January 14, 2018.