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September 6, 2010


Nick Smyth

As you might know, Bernard Williams argued that there are "real" and "notional" conflicts in this arena. He thought that it was appropriate to pass judgment on others when their way of life was a genuine option for us. If we could live their lives, then their practises genuinely conflicted with ours: "real" conflict.

Perhaps this has something to do with what you are saying. There is something eminently reasonable in only judging someone when you are (in principle) able to appreciate the context in which their actions or thoughts are embedded. This would explain why the 15th century matters to you: it is (roughly) when societies began to look at all like ours. This way of thinking allows us to respect our distance from such people without embracing a full-blown relativism about truth (historical figures may be right or wrong, but there is no way for any of us to say for sure).

However, while this kind of observation soothes our theoretical instincts, it exposes a fault-line in our moral thinking, one you admirably summarize in the Hitler/Khan comparison. The idea that Hitler might one day be viewed as Khan is now viewed... this offends against the pretension to timeless universality inherent in our moral sense, a pretension that is not inherent in our theoretical sense. We commonly accept the idea that science will be both better and radically different in 500 years, but the idea that Hitler might then be seen as just an over-adventurous military leader does not sit well.

Nietzsche lurks here.

D.P. O'Connell

Why wouldn't you explain M.'s way of speaking (whereby he appropriates or adapts the style of the 5th-c. pseudo-Dionysius), with the same sort of sociological analysis of French professors and their closed-community linguistic games that you used in your account of Derrida (when speaking about Taylor's 'altarity') a few weeks ago?

Granted this doesn't resolve the larger issue you raise here, but it seems to me a workable (if not easy) solution to place M.'s statement in this context. It is in some sense repeating what the pseudo-Dionysius wrote, but it is situated in a new context of debates involving Derrida's use of Heidegger and other debates with other French philosophers. It also has, one can suppose, a theological context in the narrower world of European Catholicism.

To the larger issue (with regard to the expectation that others 'tell it like it is'): isn't this a sign of the low esteem in which the faculty of imagination is currently held? There's more to be said about this, but that's just a tentative suggestion.

As for Hitler/Ghengis Kahn - we condemn the Shoah especially (it seems to me) because there are still Neonazis in the world who organize into political parties (like the NDP in Germany), and have actually won support in certain areas. And even political 'moderates' such as Sarko in France are deporting the Roma people as I write this. There are no adherents of Ghengis Kahn still among us, as far as I know. If there were no Neonazis would we condemn the Shoah? I suppose so. But it seems especially important in the present political context.


"the idea that Hitler might then be seen as just an over-adventurous military leader does not sit well."

Look at portrayals of Napoleon over the course of the 20th century if you want to see a recent example of how this happens gradually. In fact, Napoleon strikes me as the perfect liminal figure for exploring the boundaries of modernity w.r.t. military atrocities.

D.P. O'Connell:

"There are no adherents of Ghengis Kahn still among us, as far as I know. If there were no Neonazis would we condemn the Shoah? I suppose so."

This seems an incomplete and unsatisfactory explanation. It may also be a bit off factually -- which is to say, while there are probably no actual adherents of a Genghis personality cult seizing political power anywhere in the world, I suspect that the ethnic conflicts spearheaded by Genghis in his day continue to play out in their own ways in eastern Europe, central Asia, and east Asia. This strikes me as comparable to, e.g. the ongoing anti-Gypsy sentiments of the French political class.

Nick D

Justin: reading this reminded me of Carlo Ginzburg's "Killing a Chinese Mandarin: the moral implications of distance." Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 46-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343886
It is reprinted in several other places including his Wooden Eyes.

D.P. O'Connell

@Picador: Some interesting points you make. I'm not maintaining that the presence of Neonazis in Europe and of practices which were often seen in the early days of the Third Reich (deportation of minorities) are sufficient reasons for a vociferous condemnation of the Shoah.
But it does strike me that they do color our (or, more personally, my) statements in the matter, or the urgency with which I feel the need to make them, and to condemn those who would lie about the Shoah, and to oppose, insofar as I can, parties like the NDP in Germany, and the extra-parliamentary presence and activities of the white supremacist movement in America.
But no, you're right: it doesn't sufficiently address the problem Justin has raised.


I find a similar thing happening in judgments about music. I cannot let current music get away with things that I am perfectly willing to forgive or even admire in music from twenty years ago.

Cell Phone Spy

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