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Victims, saturated memory, and manipulation

by PerCLupi Wed Jul 2nd, 2008 at 08:19:47 AM EST

Some time ago, on March 20, 2005, the daily EL PAÍS published an opinion article by Santos Juliá, which I found interesting and necessary, and which was almost ignored or not given importance. His title was "Memory of the victims", and it appeared at a time when some associations of victims of ETA terrorism, in collusion with the PP and others, were being mobilized in the manner known by all: it was intended to impose behaviors and principles of political institutionalization, pretending to hold a special right to do so.
I think that now, last the time and when the subject of official recognition to victims of terrorism in the Parliament of the Basque Country has been raised a few days ago, it is worth recalling that article, relating it to some other matters that were not treated there.

Santos Juliá starts noting that, at any given time, as radical change in our political culture, there was a cut between past and future, being augmented our distance from the past without being diminished the expectations of our future.

He says:

Es curioso leer hoy cosas escritas en las décadas de los sesenta y setenta, cuando se pensaba que alguna revolución, la francesa o la rusa, llevaba todavía en su seno tareas pendientes de cumplir. Poco después, en 1989, Mitterrand decidió que la Revolución Francesa había acabado y Gorbachov actuó omo si la revolución soviética en lugar de abrir el futuro lo hubiera bloqueado. El futuro, que recibía sus iluminaciones de esos acontecimientos -un historiador como Hobsbawm escribía a finales de los años setenta que la revolución rusa marcaba el camino por el que habría de transcurrir antes o después toda la historia universal-, aparecía de pronto más indeterminado, más oscuro que nunca.It is curious to read now things written in the decades of the sixties and seventies, when it was thought that some revolution, the French or the Russians, still carried in their wombs remaining tasks to fulfil. Shortly thereafter, in 1989, Mitterrand decided that the French Revolution was over and Gorbachev acted as if the Soviet revolution instead of opening the future had blocked it. The future, which received its illuminations of those events -a historian like Hobsbawm wrote at the end of the seventies that the Russian Revolution was the path that would be traversed sooner or later by the entire history of the world-, suddenly appeared more uncertain, darker than ever.

And that's why -he said- there is a kind of fragmentation or breakdown of memory, as it is not possible to construct a story of the past with the ability to convey meaning to the present. And so, to remedy that rift, memory evolves from being something individual to being a collective need. And he defined the phenomenon with extraordinary lucidity:

(...) no somos nada socialmente si no recordamos. Aquel acontecimiento traumático que sucedió cierto día en el pasado debe ser continuamente traído a la memoria como vehículo imprescindible para encontrar sentido a lo que somos en el presente. Lo que un día fue duelo se transforma así en rasgo indeleble de la identidad, y la memoria se convierte en exigencia de reparación de lo que en sí mismo es irreparable: la pérdida de un ser querido, la quiebra de un modo de vida, la marca para siempre en el cuerpo de los trozos de metralla. La memoria de que un día se fue víctima de un atentado terrorista se transforma en principal rasgo de la identidad de quien lo sufrió: se es ya para siempre víctima. Nosotros, las víctimas, se dice entonces, proclamando que haberlo sido confiere para el futuro la sustancia de una identidad perdurable.(...) we are nothing socially if we do not remember. That traumatic event that happened some day in the past must be continually brought to mind as a necessary vehicle to find a meaning to what we are at present. What one day was mourning becomes in this way an indelible feature of identity, and memory becomes a requirement for repairing what in itself is irreparable: the loss of a loved person, the bankruptcy of a way of life, the mark forever on the body of pieces of shrapnel. The memory that one day somebody was the victim of a terrorist attack becomes the main feature of the identity of those who suffered it: you are already a victim forever. "We, the victims," it said then, proclaiming that having been one of them conferred for the future the substance of an enduring identity.

And he adds with accurate and beautiful words:

Perdurable quiere decir que si la memoria es un deber permanente, la reparación lo será en la misma medida: no es suficiente levantar un memorial, tampoco recibir una compensación moral o material. El memorial una vez construido, la compensación una vez alcanzada, sirven para recordar no sólo a las víctimas, sino para hacer presente cada día el deber colectivo de su recuerdo y reafirmar así su identidad como víctima. A las víctimas, identificadas en este proceso como un sujeto colectivo, se les confiere entonces una especie de privilegio de la mirada: por haber sufrido, la suya sería la más limpia a la vez que la más profunda; ven aquello para lo que los otros están ciegos y poseen un especial derecho a que su mirada identifique con más altura y penetración que ninguna otra los problemas del presente.Enduring means that, if the memory is a permanent duty, the reparation will be so in equal measure: it is not enough to lift a memorial, nor to receive a moral or material compensation. The memorial once built, the compensation once achieved, serve not only to remind to victims, but to express every day the collective duty of their memory and to reaffirm in this way their identity as a victim. To the victims, identified in this process as a collective subject, it is then conferred a kind of privilege of sight: for having suffered, their sight would be the cleaner as well as the deepest sight; they see that to what others are blind and they have a special right to what their sight identify problems of the present with more height and penetration than no other.

Santos Juliá, having set out very clearly the problem, which reflected precisely the positions of associations of victims of terrorism and of certain mediatic and political companions, he rejects without palliatives such claims, endorsing words and thought of Giovanni Levi:

An excess of memory produces a saturation that may hinder the discernment.

His rejection of that phenomenon (endorsing the thought of Giovanni Levi) is emphatically rejected, although with sympathetic sensitivity, in a way that it is worth being completely exposed, because, besides being placed things in their rightful place, he warns of the problem that they are easily manipulated::
Las víctimas, que reclaman con razón solidaridad, no pueden reclamar mayor agudeza para ver ni mayor capacidad para juzgar. Más aún, las víctimas, en la medida en que están prisioneras del deber de la memoria y pretendan, en nombre de las reparaciones que en justicia les son debidas, emitir un juicio público sobre lo que debe hacer o no una comisión de investigación, un Gobierno, un partido político, un tribunal, se prestan fácilmente a la manipulación de grupos más poderosos y mejor organizados que los suyos; grupos capaces de dar -o quitar- resonancia a sus intervenciones, de hacer de ellas figuras mediáticas, de convertirlas en instrumento de una política.
Entre el recuerdo privado y espontáneo y la memoria como deber colectivo existe un espacio que no deberían traspasar quienes han sufrido un atentado que los convierte en víctimas: mantener el recuerdo como una dimensión de la existencia que no bloquee la percepción del presente, que no juzgue el presente en función exclusiva del acontecimiento del pasado. Nadie puede actuar sobre el presente si por una saturación de memoria queda aprisionado, bloqueado, en lo ocurrido en un momento de su existencia, por muy doloroso e inhumano que el acontecimiento haya sido. En tal caso podríamos encontrarnos atrapados por una memoria que impide percibir las novedades que el tiempo se encarga de echar encima de nuestras espaldas. Atados por el pasado, seríamos entonces incapaces de afrontar el presente y abrir nuevos caminos al futuro: ése es el problema de las memorias saturadas, el problema al que un día habrán de enfrentarse las asociaciones de víctimas del terrorismo.
Victims, claiming solidarity with reason, can not claim greater acuity to see or greater capacity to judge. Moreover, the victims -to the extent that they are prisoners of duty of memory and they seek, on behalf of the repairs to which they are entitled to justice, judge publicly about what a commission of inquiry, a government, a political party, a court should do or not- they easily lend themselves to be manipulated by groups more powerful and better organized than theirs; groups able to give -or remove- resonance to their speeches, to make them media figures, to convert them an instrument of policy.
Among the private and spontaneous recollection and memory as a collective duty, there is a space that they should not hand over those who have suffered an attack that makes them victims: keeping the memory as a dimension of existence that would not block the perception of the present, that would not judge the present in terms of the exclusive event of the past. Nobody can act on the present, if by a saturation of memory he is trapped, blocked in what happened in a moment of his existence, no matter how painful and inhumane that the event has been. In this case, we may find ourselves trapped by a memory that prevents receive the news that the time was responsible for laying over our shoulders. We, bound by the past, then we would be unable to cope with the present and open new paths to the future: that is the problem of saturated memories, the problem to which one day associations of victims of terrorism must be confronted.

Indeed, it is therefore understandable that we need to remember. This is even necessary to substantiate our future. Victims of terrorism need to remember, and we must all support them, understand them, and require that adequate and fair compensations shall be provided. But they can not become "perpetual victims", as something essential, nor they have a special status to govern public life in accordance with their approaches, as a result of having been victimized. The memory is not a permanent duty, because, in that case, the obligation to repair it becomes also permanent and without end. And Santos Juliá takes the basic idea for his approach from Giovanni Levi (microhistorian with a painful past as a Jew): saturated memory prevents the proper judgement.

The possible political manipulation of the pain of victims is a risk which Santos Juliá and Giovanni Levi warn.

And it is a permanent case of manipulation what the government of Israel practises regarding the Holocaust, to the point where we feel guilty for criticizing -not the people- the government of Israel in its conflict with Palestinian people. It seems that the fact that it happened the unspeakable monstrosity of the Holocaust should make us remain silent before any action from the government of Israel. And the very Giovanni Levi -nothing suspicious and keeper of moral authority to speak- said that the memory should not be saturated, because the reparation can not be permanent, eternal, and because the saturation of memory prevents victims from having critical judgement capacity, so that they can be easily manipulated.

The other case of semantics manipulative perversion, to which I wanted to extend the comments made by Santos Juliá in that article, based on Giovanni Levi, is the recent equalization that the Parliament of the Basque Country has made a few days ago, between the victims of ETA terrorism and ETA militants -in general- killed by the forces of law and order. This is a case of opportunistic manipulation and cynicism, which always accompanies the semantic manipulation, because the Basque Parliament did not refer to ETA members -or not- dead by forces of public order, in an unjustifiable and repugnant abuse of office (for example, the GAL). The Parliament called for some and other "victims of terrorism," alike.

I think that this text deserved to be drawn from oblivion.

A good diary, surprised nobody has commented. I don't think the IRA have gone quite as far as to claim their own dead are the equivalent of those who were inavertantly slaughtered, although I imagine that those who were deliberately targetted may be in a different category.

But it's quite interesting how some victims groups, the jewish one particularly, seek to take ownership of the history a=in order to make it fit their agenda. The most notable thing is that there is tendency to want to airbrush away other groups who were persecuted by the nazis in order to make their suffering more unique. Gay groups & the slavic nations have had to work hard to get their suffering, slavery and attempted exterminations recognised by the Holocaust "industry".

the most notable absence is that of the gypsies who suffered an extermination of their pre-war populations that, percentage wise was equivalent to that of the Jews, yet they are largely absent or only belatedly recognised. The American holocaust museum only included gypsies (in a corner under etc) after the most senior Jewsish representative resigned in protest.

but then, wrapping yourself in the matyrs shroud of victimisation in order to win favours in the present is nothing to do with honouring the dead, or remembering the past or even celebrating survival. It's just grubby politics as usual and shold be acknowledged as such..

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 10:56:29 AM EST
the gypsy analogy is somewhat accurate, the Slav and gay ones are not since the Nazi persecution of Slavs and gays was qualitatively different. But even in the case of the Roma, there are significant differences. First of all the  extermination of the Jews was absolutely central to Nazi ideology, the genocide of the Roma wasn't. Secondly 'similar percentages' is wrong. Survival rates were far higher for the  Roma than for Jews (just take a look at East Central Europe in 1939 and now - there were far more Jews than Roma back then, not quite the current situation).
by MarekNYC on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 11:06:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmm, Isabel fonseca argues differently in her book "Bury me Standing".

The numbers game is misleading as a lot of rom were identified as etc, spies, criminal elements or vagabonds. wheras the Jews were always identified as Jews. You have to do more work with the figures to get a good indication of what happened to them.

As for being central to the ideology, I'll grant you that much, but again fonseca makes the point that throughout history Jews and Gypsies have existed on the peripheries of society and suffered the smae slurs. Indeed the gypsies even inherited a similar charge to the Jews as muderers of Jesus. So if the gypsies weren't mentioned by name, the general attitude in Germany had been officially and legally hostile to them for at least 100 years.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 12:00:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How are the numbers misleading? A substantially greater percentage of Roma survived in East Central Europe than Jews. It is true that the stats for the Roma genocide vary to a greater degree than those for the Jewish one, largely since prewar population figures were much better for Jews than Roma, but the pattern is clear.

As for the rest, yes the pattern of Roma genocide was quite similar to that of the Jews, and yes Roma have traditionally resided on the margins of society. In fact they were significantly more marginalized than Jews in pre WWII Europe. However, in hardline antisemitism the Jews are very central. They are not so much subhuman as a sort of anti-human species, the primary source of evil and suffering in the world throughout history . Hence the eschatological notion of salvation through genocide in extreme anti-semitism. Note that this is definitely not limited to the Nazis. The Roma by contrast are straightforward subhumans, seen as inherently anti-social and marginal and thus useless even as slaves; therefore they should be gotten rid of. But that's it, no great disquisitions on the central role of Roma in the world or history.

by MarekNYC on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 12:50:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
After the war, Eastern European Jews had somewhere else to go.  The Roma didn't.  So how valid is it to extrapolate back from today's populations??
by Sassafras on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 05:52:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To take the extreme and by far the largest case, the death rate for Jews in Nazi occupied Poland was 97-98% (estimates vary). Note that the commonly cited figure of  somewhat over ninety percent includes those who fled or were deported to the interior of the Soviet Union.  True, most of those survivors ended up emigrating (Israel, US, France) and if all the survivors in East Central Europe had stayed the numbers of East Central European Jews would have been far higher, but still lower than the total number of Roma currently living there.
by MarekNYC on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 06:27:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the gypsies even inherited a similar charge to the Jews as muderers of Jesus.

I've never heard of this. Who constructed this myth, or where, when?

Otherwise, I can only agree with Marek that the entire spectrum of antisemitism was broader and fuller, mingling both scorn for the fringe poverty of the Jews with fear of their supposed power as counsellors of princes and high financiers, including notions of world power and conspiracy, than the "sub-human" racist theses levelled against the Roma.

This is not meant to belittle the Nazi genocide attempted on Roma, nor their sufferings from racism yesterday and today.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 01:57:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]

  1. The Holocaust was the result of a design and the approach of some political ideas. True. Therefore, I agree to these ideas (Nazis) should be legally banned.
  2. But I qualify article by Santos Juliá (+ Giovanni Levi) as a courageous article, because that was something that needed to be said clearly, in my opinion:
a) We all need to remember, to organize our present and anticipate our future. We must remember and condemn what they should be condemned.
b) But the saturated memory is dangerous and reprehensible.
d) The memory can not require an eternal reward, nor a special status for those who should be the subject of memory.
e) The victim people should not be manipulated by anyone.

This is a very conducive to certain interpretations. My intention was not to enter into such interpretations. Just bring some ideas that I think they should be taken account.

by PerCLupi on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 03:10:22 PM EST
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was an imperfect example of an approach to dealing with the problems you list.  Punishment is one of the worst human inventions. The aim of all separation from the community should be rehabilitation, not punishment.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sat Jul 5th, 2008 at 06:10:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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