In the Catholic masses of my childhood the Latin phrase “mea culpa, mew culpa, mea maxima culpa” was prominent. It is perhaps collectively more relevant now than ever.
Or is it?
I find long articles counterproductive, they lose their audience and consequently their impact, but sometimes they just insist on growing, as this one did. Reflection leads to counter-reflections and cross-reflections, to thesis, antithesis and synthesis. My apologies (but hopefully, you’ll plod all the way through it). This article was ready for publication during this year’s confluence of Passover and Easter but out of respect for the feelings of the many friends and acquaintances whose faith is essential to their world view and, in these troubled times, to their psychosocial wellbeing, I refrained. But not without doubts and regrets. The issues involve lives lost and lives destroyed, lives lost and lives destroyed in the past is terrible but that they are still being lost and destroyed without sense in the present seems unforgiveable. Yet, … forgive we will, and probably, at least for a time, forget. Those are easy things for us to do when we are the beneficiaries as well as the actors.
Like most people all over the world, I am in lockdown mode and seeking things to do to save myself from “stir-crazydom”, a neologistic syndrome for these unprecedented days-turning into weeks-turning into months (and hopefully that’s all). After having read almost every unread book I’ve recently bought, I turned to the Internet and found something interesting from Mark Twain. Interesting albeit disturbing. Something important worth resurrecting (an Easter pun, I admit) and sharing.
Mark Twain is among my favorite authors, not only for the many books by which we’ve come to know him, but also because of some of his minor works, “minor” being a deceptive adjective in this case. I refer specifically to his short book Letters from the Earth, a devastating satirical indictment of his time and of ours and of many of the most popular beliefs under which most of us were raised and on which many of our somewhat strange value systems are based. In that book he bifurcates divinity into an actual divinity and divinity as incoherently perceived by man. The results are very disturbing.
Though I was born into a Catholic family and then, as a child, was re-baptized as Greek Orthodox by my stepfather, I long ago lost my “faith” and am not a believer in organized religions. I long ago discarded all the Abrahamic religious variants (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), although many of the people I most respect are adherents of such religions. Indeed, the most positive religions I’ve found tend to be Neopagan and nature based religions that stress tolerance and coexistence not only with our human brethren, but with other species, with our environment, with nature, indeed, with our multiverse. While I have not adopted such religions either, I have always been drawn to spirituality and as a very young academic, I taught comparative religions and comparative mythology (which I decided was pretty much the same as comparative religions). Notwithstanding the foregoing, I do not consider myself an atheist as I have not concluded that divinity does not exist, merely that I have yet to find it, despite a great deal of seeking. In fact, I do not believe than many people who believe themselves to be atheists really are. Many reject deism because there is a dearth of scientific proof to support its existence but that same deficiency exists with respect to the dearth of scientific evidence to prove its non-existence. Proving negatives is not a function of the scientific method although disproving, or at least finding serious deficiencies in positive beliefs, is. I just want to contextualize my perceptions and observations as described below. The fact that they are principally focused on certain geopolitical actors does not mean they are the only ones subject to similar observations, it merely reflects my perception that this particular confluence of holidays seems to render them peculiarly relevant.
As I write, I lost my “faith”. A process that started when I was seven and for some reason felt that if a deity existed it would expect me to put it to a test before committing myself to its worship, and ended when I was forty when I rejected the traditions into which I’d been born but, along the way, I spent a good deal of time trying to understand just what the “faith” I’d lost was and developed the following definition. To me “faith” is the residue of belief bereft of probative elements but oxymoronically made much stronger as a result. Ironic and incoherent, … like today’s polarized “Identity Politics” and “mainstream media”. But that does not mean that I do not see value in “faith”, especially among those with little hope for better alternatives and that is a very broad spectrum.
So (again), … back to Samuel Clemens, ….
Mark Twain frequently makes me think in culturally prohibited ways. In ways we’ve made taboo. And he frequently makes me uncomfortable with the conclusions that seem so obvious through his satirical literary devices. He was obviously a very courageous person. The kind of person we need today in the face of what political commentator Caitlin Johnstone describes as our “false narratives” based world. For example, in Letters from the Earth he quotes from the Torah and Old Testament (pretty much the same source), etc., the story of Moses, the Israelites and the Midianites. Of course, on its own, if one stops to think about it, the celebration of Passover is a commemoration of a slaughter of innocents, all of the firstborn children of Egypt for the purported sins of the Egyptian Pharaoh. One wonders how we Americans would feel should such a “punishment” be visited upon us for the sins of our leaders. Interesting that Sabbath services, whether Friday (Muslim), Saturday (Jewish) or Sunday (Christian) rarely if ever call attention to the genocidal proclivities of their common Abrahamic deity.
Reading Clemens in Letters from the Earth I wondered how, had he lived longer, he would have compared the treatment of the Midianites by the Biblical Israelites with the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis? How different he would have considered Moses from Hitler or Gideon from Eichmann? How different would he have considered Harry Truman’s decisions with reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki from any of the foregoing? Considering his own times, Clemens might well have asked us to consider how indigenous Americans he knew might have answered analogous queries based on his or her own experiences with respect to President Grant or Generals Miles and Sherman and Sheridan and Custer, etc.? Then I reflected on whether most of us are really much different than those whom we most criticize historically.
Somewhere in the Middle East, say, in occupied Jerusalem, some people might respond with the following rationalization “… well, for one thing, all of the Midianite virgins and children, rather than being murdered, were merely taken into slavery and sexual exploitation”, and, others, say in Washington, D.C., might point out that “Indigenous Americans were at least given ‘reservations’ ”
I wonder if either of those observations make the issue better or worst. Indeed, thinking about it and of the mess our world seems to be, trying to understand what seems incomprehensible, is it really strange, given our inherited religious and cultural values, that it is so easy for today’s Israelis to abuse and murder Palestinians, to keep them in ghettos, to steal their ancestral lands? After all, they are treated much, much better than were the Midianites? Happy Passover!!!!
And, given the foregoing, is it really hard to understand how so many “Americans” (no, not the indigenous variant) find Israeli atrocities normal (remember, understanding a perspective is very different than accepting it as valid) as well as finding American neoconservative/neoliberal interventionism all over the world, to the detriment of residents in all the diverse places we claim to be liberating in the name of democracy and the right to local self-determination, reasonable and worth the cost in human lives and suffering? Happy Easter!!!
Are the foregoing valid questions rather than merely rhetorically satirical constructs. Would most of us notice the irony or would we just take the rationalizations at face value? What would Mark Twain think?
Are these observations anti-Semitic?
Antisemitism has been horrible during much of the past two millennia but oddly it has not been predicated on the genocide practiced regularly by the Israelites of old (apparently that was above reproach) but purportedly because, on the one occasion, some Hebrew religious leaders in occupied Jerusalem (occupied by Romans then rather than Israelis) turned on one of their own “heretics”. Why was that considered by anti-Semites so much worse than the historical biblical genocides which that single individual probably found justifiable? After all, Christians, so responsible for so much anti-Semitism, regularly turned on their own heretics in a manner significantly more horrible, usually involving the burning of thousands upon thousands at the stake in the name of the single victim of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin’s “inappropriate” punishment.
Antisemitism during the past two millennia has been both horrible and utterly incoherent but does repulsion at such antisemitism excuse reversion to Israelite genocidal tendencies of the distant past? Does it, in any sense, justify the current Zionist anti-Palestinian holocaust especially given the reality that were it not for the respect that Muslims proffered to Jews and Jewish traditions for over a millennia, there might well be no Jews or Zionists today?
Are these valid questions or a new variant of antisemitism?
Consider the following theses:
- It is not valid to hold the Jews of the last two millennia responsible for the genocidal sins of their primitive biblical Israelite forbearers, especially when so many modern Jews are not descended from them at all? When they are in fact descendants of converts to Judaism, like the Khazars? It is not valid to find today´s Americans responsible for slavery or for the slaughter of indigenous peoples (although perhaps the same rationale fails with respect to more contemporary “adventures”). However, it is certainly valid to hold both Zionists and proponents of American Exceptionalism responsible for their much more recent actions, for their actions today.
- If it is obviously not valid to hold the Jews of the last two millennia responsible for the sins of their forbearers, then how valid is it for today’s Zionist Israelis, especially when so many modern Jews are not descended from the Israelites at all, to lay claim to the lands occupied for millennia by Palestinians, lands the Israelites admittedly took from others who occupied them in Biblical times?
- And how valid is it for the United States to intervene, supporting Zionist claims, when the United States has no legitimate interests in the issue at all, and has in fact, in its unconditional support for Zionism, made the entire world vulnerable to the frequently violent reaction it denominates as Islamic terrorism.
Hmmm, are these interesting questions best left unanswered lest one be accused of anti-Semitism?
An image of a crowd throwing stones in glass houses comes to mind with a benevolent bearded hippy-type in flowing albeit ragged robes urging the crowd not to cast their stones unless they are without sin. I feel a part of that crowd and wonder how qualified I am to ponder these questions. But if we don’t consider and address them things will never change, will never improve. And as another, albeit unknown wise man or more likely wise woman once observed, one cannot make omelets without breaking eggs.
Jews, both today and historically, both genetically and culture, have proven an amazingly resilient People but one wonders at the choice of heroes celebrated in Jewish holidays when there are so many much better examples of the best Judaism has to offer: people like Albert Einstein and Noam Chomsky and Bruno Boccara, or even, if you’re a collectivist, Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin. And one wonders at the hypocrisy of Holocaust memorials in the same world where Israelis, on a quotidian basis, annihilate Palestinians and calumny the Muslim faith, the one that most closely follows Hebrew religious traditions: the Anti-Defamation League of today seems an oxymoron.
And what of American heroes? Americans have, in two brief centuries, virtually conquered the world. Hmmm, we do honor Martin Luther King, Jr., but we also honor slave-owners galore (Washington, Jefferson, indeed, almost all of the “founding fathers”) and of course, Abraham Lincoln, who, to his credit, abhorred the institution of slavery, although he did offer to guarantee the “peculiar institution” in perpetuity in the Southern States if they revoked their secession and whose plan was to deport all the former slaves and their relatives, abhorring slavery was not the same as not being a blatant racist. Don’t we have significantly better role models to offer as heroes? Not just for political purposes, not just to cast shame and criticize, but to inspire and uplift?
We are so divided today, divided among religious lines, cultural lines, lines of gender and sexual preferences, political ideals, races and nationalities. We are horribly polarized, more so in the United States and the Middle East than anywhere else I know of. And we are becoming more polarized rather than less, more calcified instead of crystalized, and the decent leaders among us are calumnied and derided and distorted by the purported journalists on whom we rely for the information essential in a democracy for making wise decisions.
Are we doomed as a species? An experiment by nature gone wrong? Will the multiverse be better off without us? As I look beyond the macro to the micro, I think not. Individuals in their individual interactions demonstrate nobility, generosity and even sometimes honor. Will our micro interactions be sufficient to overcome our macro realities or are those purported realities merely nightmarish delusions spawned by the worst among us, who have us at their beck and call only temporarily because, as a famous political hack beloved by what passes for history once observed “you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.
Troubling questions to ponder as we reflect on Passover and Easter with probably troubling answers, or, in reality, no answers at all given that history, not just in Israel and the United States but everywhere, seems little more than distilled propaganda and justice, in religious and historical terms, is almost always a deceptive illusion, a delusion, or at best an aberration.
Which leads us to why our world is the way it is today.
“Mea culpa, me culpa, mea maxima culpa”!
Or is it?
Perhaps if we look at ourselves in mirrors rather than in the creative artwork to which we’ve been addicted by our narrative managers we’ll find the wisdom to bequeath our progeny a better world. As we reflect, isolated during this unprecedented reaction to a worldwide pandemic that does not recognize racial, religious, ethnic, sexual or political differences, perhaps we’ll emerge a changed People, perhaps even changed for the better.
Who knows but here’s hoping somewhere Samuel Clemens has his fingers crossed.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2020; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia (although he has primarily lived in the United States of America of which he is also citizen). Until 2017 he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.