Holocaust Remembrance Day and Osama bin Laden

I passed a momentous day in silence. Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah in Hebrew). It was also the day America celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden.

Both are fitting reminders that there is such a thing as evil, that human beings can still do horrific things to other human beings, that a true conscience can never rest.

It was a day foremost of sadness. Sadness that we are still here. Sadness that we are still a species who wantonly kill our own, who slaughter for politics and power.

Genocide on the scale of the Holocaust may be truly past — but the genocidal impulse is shamefully alive in the human breast.

The death of Osama bin Laden is closure. Nothing more, nothing less. The man orchestrated a great evil. He did so, moreover, with perverted distortion of a great religion. He proudly killed innocents, and he sought to kill the humanity of Islam, to conscript the religion into a program of hatred, hostility and murder.

He failed to convert Islam into Islamism — but we still fight because his ideology of murderous hatred did not die with him. The horror of 9-11 now becomes an ever so slightly more bearable thing because its mastermind is dead. But evil is not dead.

If evil could die, it would have died when the light shone on the death camps after World War II. It did not.

That is why we must always remember.

UPDATE (May 9, 2011): To the proposition that evil did not die with the death of Osama bin Laden, Charles Krauthammer fittingly adds that “Evil does not die of natural causes.”


Watson Wins Jeopardy! — and Let Us Now Praise Sin, Forgetfulness, and Waste

What does it mean that the new Jeopardy! champion is a machine? Watson, an IBM computer, beat the two reigning human Jeopardy! champions (which, by the way, was a significantly greater achievement than a computer beating a chess master–IBM’s Deep Blue 3-1/2 – Kasparov 2-1/2, May 1997–because Jeopardy! requires not merely mastery of rules and data but of language, and its diabolical ambiguities).

Are we now a little closer to The Terminator domination of the machines — or worse, The Matrix deception and enslavement of humans?

No. We humans have three glorious things machines don’t: sin, forgetfulness and waste. Moreover, we have agonizing consciousness of each of these. Machines will never best us — apes, maybe, but not machines.

An aside: we also have Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which, with appropriate programming, would have averted the fascinating horrors of The Terminator and The Matrix:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But on to our best qualities.

I. Sin

The world’s great religions testify to our obsession with sin as a species for many millennia. I’m against sin, to be sure, but step back a moment and consider what the possibility of “sin” means for humans versus machines. We trade total freedom for the protections of enforceable laws and rules. But humans, unlike machines, routinely break laws and rules — sometimes criminally, sometimes humanely. If my wife is in labor, the speed limit is no matter. If a child is imperiled in an intersection, the jaywalking law is no matter. We might lie to protect ourselves or we might lie to protect someone else. We might kill for a selfish purpose, or we might kill to protect someone in unjust peril. We might steal to enrich ourselves or we might steal to avert a grave injustice. The morality of our conduct is always debatable because our human relationship to laws and rules is vastly ambiguous.

We think we can keep tweaking the rules and keep up with human ingenuity, but we can’t. We just end up with massively complex and onerous rules (e.g., the Internal Revenue Code). As Stanley Fish says, “you can never add enough; the proliferation of circumstances always outruns the efforts to take account of them, and after a while you’ve reached the point when every situation will require a rewriting of the rule, which means that there will no longer be a rule at all.”

The possibility of egregious sin is also the possibility of inspired human victory. Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru scenario was an infamous no-win scenario in the curriculum for command-track cadets at Starfleet Academy. Jim Kirk cheated and won, became legendary, and achieved many great 23rd century things. Our pop culture is full of sin, of human ingenuity, of achievements no machine can match because it has no possibility and no consciousness of sin.

II. Forgetfulness

Prions are nasty proteins, responsible for untreatable and fatal diseases, such as mad cow disease. It happens that prions, in their more normal protein state, may also contribute to long-term memory. How marvelously, disastrously human is that? A protein switched one way or the other yields fatal madness or fair memory.

Machines have none of this organic ambiguity, none of this possibility that could yield either death or richer understanding. Moreover, machines never forget.

I’ve often wondered what it might be like to have perfect memory. I don’t mean a photographic memory. I mean a perfect memory of every perception ever experienced — the inability to forget.

We forget so that we know ourselves a little less, and persist with a measure of joy in life despite ourselves. We do tiny good things with our loved ones, in our communities, with occasional strangers, because our self-image is not burdened overmuch by remembering who we are.

Stripped of forgetting, recalling with perfect clarity every sin, delusion, arrogance, every misspoken word and misbegotten certainty, we would do nothing but apologize. We would cease to be useful.

Historians routinely find multiple defects in great people of the past. Now imagine if these great people were afflicted with a perfect understanding of their defects. Imagine, for example, if Thomas Jefferson understood with perfect unforgettable clarity every defect of his character and personality — would he have nevertheless been a great statesman? No. The knowledge, the inability to forget, would have been crippling. He would have spent his days begging forgiveness. And neither the Declaration of Independence nor America would ever have happened.

A machine in Thomas Jefferson’s place would have calculated the odds of a successful American revolution at close to zero and sought accommodation with the British. Thomas Jefferson, being human, could imagine himself, forgetfully, far better than he was, and only therefore imagine our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And the rest is history.

III. Waste

The Human Genome Project confirmed that the vast majority — over 95% — of human DNA is junk. The spectacular freedom of our most important molecule yields, as it develops, the vastly complex marvel of humanity — and mostly clutter. It is, it seems, this junk-producing capacity that makes us possible. We are mostly junk, therefore we are.

If life, if all reality, dwells precariously on a probability curve, then the best banking odds are on the molecule that generates the greatest number of possibilities — most of which will be junk. We’re a mind-boggling possibility that happened within a fertile ferment of possibilities, most of which were junk. And our organizing molecule is essentially disorganized, anarchic, and therefore capable of near infinite diversity.

That’s why we’re all different. We’re each a sublimely unique experiment in possibility.

Machines don’t do junk, unless they are pointlessly programmed to do so. Machines operate according to rules and formulas. Machines have no interest in possibility, much less in junk. Machines are a finite set of decision-tree outcomes. Humans are an infinite set of junk-producing possibilities, a tiny few of which will be sublime.

Possibility defines our superiority. Sin, forgetfulness, and waste make our possibility possible.

Daniel visits Auschwitz

17 July 2010 

Dear Daniel — 

I have never been to Auschwitz, nor even Poland, and I hope to learn from you when you return. You take a difficult journey into the great darkness of your people’s "Arbeit Macht Frei"past. You will read for yourself perhaps the most infamous sign in human history, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” at the entrance to the camp. “Work brings freedom.” 

The camp commander, Rudolf Hess, reportedly intended the words without irony or cynicism. He believed his experience doing menial work during his imprisonment under the Weimar Republic helped him. But the words are etched in history as three of the most cynical ever employed. Jewish prisoners, with ultimate mordant wit, whispered “arbeit macht frei durch den Schornstein” (work brings freedom through the chimney).

I can’t speak to whether work brings freedom. I’m unemployed. But I do know reading brings freedom. In fact, reading brought you into being. 

Your great-grandfather Berthold Levy was a successful pediatrician in Berlin. As the Nazis acquired increasing power in the 1930s, it happened that some of Berthold’s patients were Nazis. “Don’t worry Dr. Levy,” they told him, “you’re a good Jew and we’ll protect you.” Berthold left Germany for British Palestine in 1933. We all know now that Dr. Levy’s Nazi patients would not have protected him. But he had the foresight even then because he had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Reading that book saved your great-grandfather’s life, and brought him to Israel, where he met your wonderful great-grandmother Miriam. Their ever inspirational daughter Jael married the unfailingly generous son of Eastern European escapees from the Holocaust, Chaim, and their beautiful daughter Michal bore you in Rockville, Maryland 17-1/2 years ago — all made possible by reading a terrifying book. 

It is among my greatest privileges in life that I was able to enjoy a few wonderful conversations with Berthold Levy before he died, and that, before her death several years later, I was the beneficiary of so much kindness from Miriam, who was an excellent Scrabble player in her fourth language. You never knew Berthold and likely have little or no memory of Miriam. It will be good for you to remember them as a counterpoint to the horror you must confront in Poland. 

I want you to know about another Miriam as well, a Miriam you’ve never heard of. Miriam Novitch was the first curator at Beit Lochamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters Museum), the gem of a museum located at the kibbutz where I landed by happenstance when I traveled to Israel from Kenya in 1984. I arrived at Kibbutz Lochamei Haghetaot on August 2, and I met Miriam on August 4, when I took my own tour of the museum. I don’t recall anyone else being there.

Miriam Novitch

 Miriam was short, intense, passionate, and a remarkable force of memory and humanity. I was a gangly, wide-eyed, 25-year-old Gentile thinking the museum was pretty cool. She specialized in the art of the Holocaust, the multiple testaments in secreted scribblings, drawings, and paintings to the horror and the transcendence of horror. 

Miriam had published a few years earlier one of her many books, Spiritual Resistance: 1940-1945, which promptly inspired Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps. I have both books, with kind inscriptions from Miriam in very careful handwriting. I did not learn until much later that Miriam had coined the term “spiritual resistance.” She would not have told me. As tough and assertive as she was, she was never self-aggrandizing. The books catalogued art produced in camps, under siege, and on the run. 

I became her assistant, and to this day, because the impact on me was so profound, I still put on my resumé, “Assistant to the Arts Curator of Ghetto Fighters Museum — 1984,” though the job had nothing to do with anything I have done since. Mostly, I performed menial labors, of the sort that must have comforted Rudolf Hess. I can’t say the work brought me freedom, but it certainly brought me consciousness.
Consciousness of genocide, of the human spirit tested beyond endurance, of brutality beyond imagination, of art under duress, of the possibility of preserving beauty amidst horror, of children — like you my child — slaughtered because you were Jewish. 

Of the children, Miriam said to me in her accented English when we were looking at pictures of Jewish children, “to me these little children are as beautiful as the most beautiful Madonnas of the Italian painters. And they were killed.” Kilt, in her word. 

Through Miriam, I was also a naive witness to the tension in Israel at the time between the determination to remember and the weariness, the exhaustion, with Holocaust memories. Miriam said to me once, “I’m not popular in the kibbutz. They say I talk too high things about the Holocaust… I understand, it was too horrible, it left a mark, left a mark on me, I talk about it too much, maybe I am wrong and they are right.” I do not believe I have ever experienced a more profound instance of strength and self-effacement. 

Miriam insisted on writing me a letter of recommendation. I did not understand at the time why this would matter (and part of me still doesn’t), but she understood that I had been privileged to be with a great woman. I was inconsequential, but she wanted to be generous. I am proud like a little boy of this letter, and that’s why I put it on display. 

Around the time I met Miriam Novitch, I met your mother. I saw her dancing Israeli folk dances in the kibbutz dining room. She danced like a poem. And then you happened many years later. 

Remember (and I can’t think of a more important verb), knowledge of history has consequences. I don’t mean history has consequences, which belabors the obvious. I mean knowledge of history — thoroughly internalized and nuanced understanding of what has happened — has consequences. The history of the Holocaust will always be under siege, and not only by Iranian theocratic thugs. Many people for many reasons wish to diminish the significance of the Holocaust or to distort its implications for political designs. You are part of a critical continuity in the story of the Jewish people — the community of all who remember. 

Continue that tradition with integrity my dear son. And don’t let me hear anything more about mediocre grades in history. 

I love you and I am so proud of you. Safe travels. 


Perfect Memory? Maybe Not.

I’ve often wondered what it might be like to have perfect memory.  And I don’t mean a photographic memory.  I mean a perfect memory of every perception ever experienced — the inability to forget.

Stripped of forgetting, we become the cumulative vileness we actually are, and we bow, because we must, and lose the authority to dictate any path forward.  If this happens across the species, then much of human history does not happen — indeed, civilization never comes into being.

Historians routinely find multiple defects in great people of the past.  Now imagine if these great people were afflicted with a perfect understanding of their defects.  Imagine, for example, if Thomas Jefferson understood with perfect unforgettable clarity every defect of his character and personality — would he have nevertheless been a great statesman?  No.  The knowledge, the inability to forget, would have been crippling.  He would have spent his days begging forgiveness.  And neither the Declaration of Independence nor America would ever have happened.

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne — the personification of memory — was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, and the mother, with Zeus, of the nine Muses:  Calliope (Epic Poetry); Clio (History); Erato (Love Poetry); Euterpe (Music); Melpomene (Tragedy); Polyhymnia (Hymns); Terpsichore (Dance); Thalia (Comedy); Urania (Astronomy).

The last, Astronomy, may be a modern exception because it has become a rigorous science, and therefore arguably no longer the beneficiary of a muse.  But otherwise all of Memory’s progeny turn on the magnitude of our forgetting, our ability to fashion partial narratives from our selective memory.  What is Epic Poetry or History or Comedy but the forgetting of vast swaths of tedium, of reality?

The hormones that wash across our brains, the emotions that impel us forward, the stupid certainties that make us charge, perhaps these are responsible for human progress, perhaps not really knowing guarantees our progress.