02 June 2011

Sending messages

Given my elemental fascination with Nazism, it's not surprising that I'm reading In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin--I'm always trying to understand how a "modern" and "civilized" society, including some of my own relatives, surrendered so completely to a regime of utter cruelty and criminality. Maybe an account of this family of American observers, I figured, will give me some new insights.

And maybe it still will--I've barely started reading the book. At the point I stopped reading this evening, the Dodds, the ambassadorial "American family" who represented the USA in the early years of Hitler's regime and who are the subject of this book, have not yet even left the USA to take up the post. Right now I'm pondering, not Hitler, but Franklin E. Roosevelt. The new American president faces what is represented as a political dilemma: what to do about the documented, systematic cruelty faced by Jewish people under Hitler's new government. To protest or not to protest? Business as usual, or boycott? Open the gates to refugees, or continue underfilling even the existing quotas?
...Roosevelt understood that the political costs of any public condemnation of Nazi prosecution or any obvious effort to ease the entry of Jews into America were likely to be immense, because American political discourse had framed the Jewish problem as an immigration problem. Germany's persecution of Jews raised the specter of a vast influx of Jewish refugees at a time when America was reeling from the Depression. The isolationists added another dimension to the debate by insisting, as did Hitler's government, that Nazi oppression of Germany's Jews was a domestic German affair and thus none of America's business.
With hindsight comes our realization that the conventional "framing" of that era effectively abandoned millions of people to industrial-scale genocide just a few years later. But even discounting hindsight, simply judging by the standards of that time, a reign of brutality had descended upon Germany, and the evidence was abundantly clear that Jewish people were a specific, special target of that brutality.

Yes, the Depression was a true crisis. In that crisis, Roosevelt threw convention and caution to the wind and became a master of economic and legal improvisation, throwing one idea after another into the supreme effort to head off a financial meltdown. He "reframed" the crisis in practically spiritual terms: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself...." Why then did fear stop him from helping Jews? It's a haunting question.

Some who advocated or denounced various possible American responses to German anti-Semitic brutality were concerned about how those responses would be interpreted by various audiences. I wish it were possible to say to every politician, "Earn a reputation for honesty, and you won't have to worry about 'message'." My fantasy president of 1933 would say to Germans and Americans alike, "O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! ... O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." (Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776.)

I've always been pretty skeptical that it is possible to project a desired "message," or avoid an undesired one, through symbolic behavior. For example, among those debating American responses to German brutality, there was a worry that a concern for the oppressed would send such an irritating message to the oppressors that things would get even worse for the oppressed--but history has few if any examples of tyrants' hearts melting because nobody protested. When the USA invaded Iraq, we critics of this thoroughly despicable adventure were told that our protests "sent the wrong message" to the world, namely that we were not united. Damn right we weren't! What would have been a "right" message, if the "wrong" one was the truth? When the president of Iran sent George Bush a letter, our message experts seemed to analyze every aspect of the incident other than the plain text of the letter.

Coincidentally, while I was thinking about the debates over helping Jewish Germans, I came across this discussion in Christianity Today, about whether or not the U.S. ambassador to China should visit an unregistered church there. Would it send a powerful "message" about U.S. support for religious freedom or would such a visit be unhelpfully interpreted as demonstrating unregistered churches' ties to foreigners? Nobody said anything about the relevance of the ambassador's own spiritual needs. If there is integrity to the ambassador's visit--a genuine communion with other believers and with God--that is the only framing that counts. Any other messaging is bogus, and its interpretation by Chinese Christians or the Chinese government is beyond anyone's ability to control.

Speaking of Iran: Beyond Denial"-- The 1997 Iranian TV series Zero Degree Turn, featuring an Iranian/Jewish romance against the backdrop of the (not denied) Holocaust "... offers a unique invitation to call attention to the relationship between popular media and affective engagement, and to cultivate new knowledge where political grandstanding too often trumps substantive engagement."

"Syria in fragments: divided minds, divided lives." (Thanks to Helena Cobban, justworldnews.org.)

"When children suffer." Thinking prayerfully about prayer and suffering, with the help of Stanley Hauerwas and Peter Greig, as well as Kate and Emily.

"Baptizing dead Quakers."

Blues in Moscow: "I've Got to Sleep With One Eye Open." "You got to be careful what you pray for ...."

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