“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” – Adrienne Rich
Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:
“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. (Source)
Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.
[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]
“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”
Last year, I sharedsome thoughtson Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).
A friend of mine, Hugh Gusterson, wrote this imaginary speech that President Obama might consider delivering if he should decide to visit Hiroshima. Hugh is a very thoughtful person and I thought he did an excellent job here. It doesn’t look like his essay was shared very widely, so I thought I would repost it here…
“The White House is reportedly trying to decide whether President Obama should visit Hiroshima before he leaves office. He should go. And, since he is a very busy man, I’ve written his speech for him:”