Choose to Know

Posted by @ 9:14 pm on December 8th, 2009

In the fall of 1997 I had a lot of raking to do, but my friends dragged me up to the University of Chicago instead. Kurt Vonnegut was there, reading from his new book, Timequake. During an extended discussion with the moderator, the old man made a keen point about what challenges an audience’s sympathies and what placates them. Referring to Schindler’s List, I think, Vonnegut suggested the movie was exploitative, and that a far better goal would be to try showing Hitler from a sympathetic angle. I would go farther and look for an art that makes me empathize.

No one has done either yet, though Downfall does show him in a very human way (as opposed to most other representations of Hitler, which I think are caricatures and, as such, not human). But would a writer be castigated for showing Hitler as a sad, diligent, intelligent and charismatic leader? Would an audience be able to accept the despot portrayed as a hardworking idealist, perhaps kind and grandfatherly — or would we call for censorship? I doubt it would be difficult to put together a story that showed Hitler, truthfully, as someone we can identify with. It would be scary, but would there be value?

I can’t see how there wouldn’t be. Simply exposing a perspective on Hitler that we haven’t seen before would not make me forget that he was, you know, the worst person ever — but imagine all the things we could learn about relationships, insecurities, and the beautiful richness of despair (or, who knows what else?). I think an art that is bold and serious enough to grapple with Hitler’s humanity would uncover a new, unimagined mode of thinking, one that does more to teach us about ourselves than what our arts and sciences currently offer. I have done bad things and I don’t know why.

At the same time, I believe it would be a simple thing to make an (American) audience feel sympathy for Hitler — just cast Daniel Day Lewis and set it to a John Williams score. But in the end, this will do nothing except mine the narratives already familiar to us and regurgitate them. Similarly, I don’t think the “Piss Christ” approach will work, because the thoughtfulness has to be more apparent and the art itself oughtn’t be superficially shocking. The shocks, done right, would hit us below the surface. They would be revelations like, “Oh, huh. I might have ordered those executions, too.”

We commit similar acts all the time, just by blocking any willingness to understand a bad idea or wicked reality. How hard is it to understand Bush’s war policies outside of capitalist gain? When is the last time you tried to honestly evaluate why we are in Iraq? I submit that if the US was half as hawkish we would be twice as dead, yet the leftist chanters call for Bush’s punishment. Send him to the World Court or ICC — he should go — but he will go as Jesus to the cross — he will go in our place. Kierkegaard said the times aren’t wicked, they’re paltry. And it’s our paltry unwillingness to examine our convictions that adds up to this bullshit world we’re stuck in.

I mean it. I breathe Father Zossima’s maxim: We’re all sinners, and I am the worst. This is what Christianity means to me — how it is that I identify as a Christian whether or not I believe in the virgin birth or resurrection at any given moment — because it is this recognition and move toward forgiveness that offers our only motherfucking hope. Justice is a sham. Justice isn’t a thing; it’s a concept. There is a qualitative difference between a thing and a concept, right? A thing can be achieved, a concept is just a thought. It might lead to action — to the gallows — but that action, being a thing, is not justice. Stop looking for justice and figure out the nature of the wrong, as you see it.

The problem with using a method like that in “The Adventueres of Wigger Chick” to show Hitler as a kindred spirit, or something similar, is that what resonates there isn’t that “I, too, would ignore my child in preference of sex,” (which I’m sure I would do) or, “yes, I have also littered” — no, instead those cartoons point a finger at Wigger Chick and highlight her flaws without implicating the reader. They are often endearing flaws, like how shameless she is in recounting her troubles to an administrator, or how innocently self-involved she is in the “Computers are for NARDS” tiles (I mean, come on, “nards” is a funny word/chunk of dialect), but combined with the roughness of the drawings, they are a step too far removed to garner empathy. If “The Adventueres of Wigger Chick” pulled that trick off a little better, I sense that it would be easier to locate the jokes, which are actually rarely about her own flaws, and even less about race.

But that comic does underscore the Hitler problem. As I see it — and I might be wrong — the knee-jerk reaction to view the strip as racist comes largely from not being challenged to see antagonists as likable. An interpretive culture that is based squarely on dualism isn’t prepared to apprehend the angles. It’s uncomfortable to look at the word WIGGER, but it’s wrong to turn away before exploring it. We have been turning away from Hitler for too long. Racism is not a thing; it’s a concept. As a concept it has an ugly history of leading to reprehensible actions, and we should stamp out those actions wherever we find them. But we should turn the concept in our mind freely. Can you find the Hitler in yourself? Can you wiggle your wigger? These are in you, with the flowers.

Eastern Europe is a tumultuous place, and the Croatians don’t like the Serbians and they talk a lot of trash about each other. When I hear my Croatian friend talk about it, I get upset. I mean, they are terribly, violently accepting of the racist concept. Then, from Slovenia, I heard that Slavoj Žižek finds a lot of relief in hatespeech. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the NFL, but his point is that racist jokes, told in a non-racist way, are a cathartic, proper response to our sterile, paltry multiculturalism. To tell a joke in a non-racist way (i.e. to refer to the racist concept without referring to it) is a profound language trick that is born out of post-structuralism, dealing with how the signified is not the real signified, har har — and maybe someone can unpack it in the comments section.

It’s disturbing that so much is taken for granted at HTMLGIANT. There have been too many posts that tend, marginally, to promote hateful values without making an obvious disclaimer or explanation. Among friends, I’m not afraid to speak inappropriately this way, without the ironic nod, but I’m not brave enough to do it “for the edification” of our Internet brothers and sisters. I’m glad that other contributors are, though, because it creates a forum for dealing with vastly important concepts honestly, in the midst of things, and without the pretense of intentionality.

Because, most importantly, if you’re going to make a movie that humanizes Hitler, you can’t announce that this is what you’re doing.

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