Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Holocaust: Trying for justice, truth and our blistering humanity

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S. 
As Faulkner would have it, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The injury remains, even if vengefulness subsides. Time heals the broken limbs but only love, enduring justice, truth and acknowledgement pours a kind balsam over the soul.
There are practical limits to the law, to punishment and to restorative justice.
There are things a man could do to bring himself back to the side of righteousness – even those of us who do not believe in ethereal goodness must trust in humankind’s ability for redemption not before a god, unless that god is us. That doesn't mean you escape justice by acknowledging your mistakes. We think, even firmly believe that – except for the barbarity of the death penalty and the inhumane, just or not, caging of those who are too far beyond what we deem redeemable or capable of rehabilitation – the central function of our prisons is to bring people back…better. Then, there is no escaping the notion that if someone managed to do so without being in a prison, we need to accept it. Unless we are just saying: “Oh, but he escaped punishment.” 
Oskar Gröning, the central case of The New Yorker’s article “The Last Trial,” presents just such a puzzle. He worked at Auschwitz, he knew what was done, he – and we are, of course, taking his word for it, but apparently the only incriminating evidence so far is his own word – never so much as slapped anyone. He was also an adult and convinced that it was fine to exterminate the Jewish people because they were the enemy. He was bothered by the “excesses,” that is, by the disorderly killings:
“And amongst this rubbish were people who were ill, who were unable to walk.” A child lay on the ramp. A guard pulled the child by the legs, and “when it screamed, like a sick chicken, they bashed it against the side of a truck, so it would shut up.” Gröning complained to his supervisor. If Jews needed to be eliminated, “then at least it should be done within a certain framework.” The officer assured him that such “excesses” were the “exception.” At one point, Gröning requested a transfer. His request was denied.
When the war was over, he returned to normal life. Then, one day, he decided to confront Holocaust deniers. Nothing in the article says he had realized what he did was wrong. But, one concludes that, in light of history, he probably came to terms with the wrongness of it. One has to assume that because, why would he decide to incriminate himself by acknowledging his role and what he witnessed? He is not feeble-minded not to realize he was opening himself to scrutiny. He also must know that, while many of the victims and their heirs have come to hate the system without hating every single one of its supporters, many have not. I guess it is hard not to understand that.
If he is to be prosecuted, Gröning posits an important question: “then where would you stop? Wouldn't you also have to charge the engineer who drove the trains to Auschwitz? And the men who ran the signal boxes?” 
The question is a burning one. Where do we stop indeed? We see in the papers the news of those hateful gangs who abhor what they call the “German guilt.” They are using it for their own despicable purposes.
I have been guilty of that in a sense. Not with Germans, but using the situation of Germany as a comparison when referring, for instance, to my own Cuban compatriots who cowardly inform on one another to protect the meager gains they have. We have seen that a million times over history. We know we’ll see it a million times more.    
That’s why truth and reconciliation commissions exist. Because we know we are humans and cowards and miserable and we will take advantage of a situation to take over the neighbor’s bakery. We also would hide the neighbor’s kids under our cellar at the risk of our own lives.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, himself a Holocaust survivor, said it best.
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
He also said, one would assume with that unfair, undeserved guilt of the survivor, the best among us did not return” (from the concentration camps.)
I tend to be intolerant. I believe they all knew and took advantage. But the truth is much more complex. Yes, there were the worst among them: who knew and took advantage – sadly, we learn, some were Jewish too, because evil is a human trait and it is equitably distributed among the species. Then, there were the best among them: who knew and took unimaginable risks to do the right thing. Then, there were the rest. That silent majority that is always there and needs to live another day and would align itself with whomever will keep it alive. That majority is us. Heroes and villains are the extremes of the spectrum. That wide middle is us. We can go both ways. We can be educated in high minded principles and we can be whipped up to do the most untoward things.
Then, when the dust settles in history, we, as happens to many decent Germans now, are ashamed of ourselves for the barbarity. And then, again, our own humanity shows: some acknowledge the truth, and try to live decently to make up for it. Others find excuses for the past.
The barbarity of the Holocaust was some decades ago. Victims and perpetrators are dying. We need justice, for sure, but we also need truth, acknowledgment. Societies get sick when their leaders whip up the worst in human nature to their own advantage. We know that. We have seen it here in the United States with blacks, with Latinos, with Arabs, with Japanese.

We have, perhaps, reached the end of the rope in terms of trials for the Holocaust. Time has done that for us. Could we, perhaps, put some of the energy into truth and reconciliation with the future, so that we can prevent and stop the other Holocausts that now surround us? 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Misogyny: The saga of the former Virginia Governor, his wife and the serpent

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

Feminists, please, do help me out. Did I just hear a Judge say in his sentence for former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell that his wife had allowed the serpent into the mansion? Was this said in public or am I just hearing voices like Joan of Arch?  
Moreover, did I then hear Mrs. Maureen McDonnell affirm that, indeed, she had let the serpent into the governor’s mansion? She went so far as to explain the effects of the beastly presence: “The venom from that snake has poisoned my marriage, has poisoned my family and has poisoned the commonwealth that I love.”
Don’t get me wrong. I think they are, for a change, getting both away with something that is very close to murder. Which reminds me of what Bryan Stevenson says: “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.”
I keep saying when this is all said and done, we will end up apologizing to the McDonnells for causing them so much trauma and emotional distress. They could have been sentenced to decades in prison, but they only got three years between the two of them, and are still appealing the sentences.
But my issue here is not that. Please, mind your language. The tropes of the saga couldn’t have been more misogynistic and male-centered if they tried.
  • Mrs. McDonnell is a new day Eve who lets the serpent tempts her and brings an apple to the husband to bite. Seriously?
  • Mr. McDonnell – a man who was vying for the President of the country – was completely under his wife’s spell and, now apparently freed from her hex, no doubt more pressing matters such as impending jail time have a way to get the voodoo out of you, blamed her for all their financial troubles, her convenient crush with a businessman whose largess caused their downfall, the failure of their marriage and global warming. Oh, no, that part was wrong. He doesn’t believe in global warming.
  • Then, we have Judge James R. Spencer of Federal District Court, who wondered in bewilderment regarding Mrs. McDonnell: “How can a person become so bedazzled by material possessions that she can no longer see the difference between what’s appropriate and inappropriate.” Are you serious? Isn’t that the number one reason people lie, cheat and steal? Has he read the convictions of white collar criminals, most of them male, by the way? Does he really think they were not in it for the money?
  • Judge Spencer even chastised Mr. McDonnell because “While Mrs. McDonnell may have allowed the serpent into the mansion, the governor knowingly let him into his personal and business affairs.” Go figure.

But it is even more humiliating because the contention is that Mrs. McDonnell was some easily dazzled woman who could resist neither the temptations nor the pressures of the Garden of Eden, I mean, the Governor’s Mansion. We, women can’t be trusted with that much access, that much power. Any serpent dangling a pearl necklace in our face, and we are done for. 

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