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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Mock outrage causes outrage

I am outraged. I’m fuming. How can people be so insensitive? They should be ashamed of themselves.

In fact, I’m so outraged, I think I might be able to wring a decent article out of it. The source of today’s horror is the news, reported in the Telegraph, and no doubt coming soon to a media outlet near you, is the news that in the recent AQA Religious Studies exam, they had the temerity to ask this question:

‘Why are some people prejudiced against Jews?’

The Jewish Chronicle led with this; Michael Gove jumped in with his size 12s. Lou Mensch hit Twitter like it was being rationed by Francis Maude.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, branded the move “insensitive”.

He told The Jewish Chronicle: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.” 

From this link

I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I was reading that right. We can’t question why prejudice occurs? We can’t try to understand the frankly obnoxious reasons that people might discriminate against any segment of the population? We can’t try to unpick the stitches in racism, anti-Semitism, or hate-thought?

How utterly, utterly, endlessly, bottomlessly appalling. Prejudice needs to be challenged; it needs to be understood; its brittle bones broken. The fog of discrimination grows darker in the shadows. It doesn’t emerge, like a miasma, from nothing. It is a primordial soup of ignorance, half-truths, fear, cruelty and imagined injustice. Suggesting that the only appropriate reaction is to condemn it, does the reverse; it condemns us. I have been to Auschwitz several times; after the abysmal anti-life that this place represents, many were inspired to say, ‘Never again.’

Well nothing is dispelled by treating it as something transcendent, mystical and unintelligible. You analyse and confront; you do not retreat into dogma and simplifications. The German people are not inherently evil, nor were the people of Rwanda, Serbia, or any other ghastly gardens of genocide and intolerance. Hate is not defeated by ignoring it, or pretending it arises ex nihilo, like a genie. Understanding it takes us a step towards dispelling it. Refusing to even question its origins is a step towards ensuring that it perpetuates like gangrene in the wounds of the world.

This was a valid question, and always will be. I teach RS, and I have always- and will always- expect my students to understand why humans can hate each other. AQA understood this when they set the question; good RS teachers understand it when they teach and discuss it. Rentagobs, manufacturing outrage are the enemies of wisdom. This question was well-worded, and anyone free from a fetish for headlines and populism can understand that this question, in this context, wasn’t just permissible, but vital; urgent.

Sometimes I feel that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Sometimes, as someone who tries to help students understand why reason sometimes dislocates in favour of race-hate, I feel so weak in the face of the cyclical nature of ignorance and ugly sentiment. The faux, proxy offended play to the sentiments of the bigoted when they classify all explorations of racism as racist.

Humanity deserves better than this. Our children deserve better than this.

Auschwitz: Life, death and the Anti-Life

I took two students to Auschwitz this week. So much has been written about it that it feels like there are no more words to write. And what would be the point? In fact, what’s the point of going there at all? Historians tell us that one and a half million people passed through the gates, loaded into cattle trucks, worked like animals, treated like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals. One and a half million. This is an impossible number to grasp; like encountering a wall that stretches left and right forever, only to be told that it’s not a straight line, but a vast circle, immeasurable and incomprehensible. There’s no purchase on such a statistic; it refutes all attempts to reduce it to anything that can fit in one’s imagination.

The Holocaust deniers take what might even be an understandable view: such a figure is impossible, they say. No, it was only half a million, or a hundred thousand, or none. The very scale of the Holocaust cloaked it in the invisibility of disbelief during the war; the Allies and even the Jewish nation at large couldn’t conceive of its possibility.

Does the figure even matter? On one level, no. Two million dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia; twenty million starved under Stalin and Mao; hundreds of thousands in Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda. The mind’s eye blurs them into a tragic mass, all capability to discern and distinguish individuals crushed by time and distance, by the space between the one of ‘I’ and the overwhelming multiplicity of ‘the many’.

But we are not doomed by this inability; there are ways to at least begin to understand. I cannot even contemplate a distance over, say, a mile, not vividly. The distance between here and Glasgow is 400 miles or so; impossible to conceive when I close my eyes. But I can get there, by travelling as everyone else does; one mile at a time. So it is with Auschwitz. The only way that we, singular, finite units can understand is by understanding each story, one at a time. To even try to do so is to fall into the seemingly endless chasm of Auschwitz. To not do so is to deny the very thing that animates and unites us; our humanity.

One story; In 1941 Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan Friar who was captured and sent to Auschwitz One, the first camp, converted from Army Barracks into a work prison. In punishment for a prisoner escaping, the Camp Deputy- Commander lined up the prisoners and selected ten to be taken away and starved to death as a warning. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men instead- a man he didn’t know. They were kept naked without food for twenty days in an underground cell no bigger than a garden shed; Kolbe lasted so long that, impatient, the Commander ordered his death, by injection of carbolic acid.

That’s one story, and admittedly an inspiring one. There were six and half million stories in the Holocaust, and every one of them is important because every life is important. Kolbe’s story is exceptional because it describes how the purest of motives and deeds can perhaps only blossom in the darkest of soils; the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow behind it. Visiting the cramped, exposed cattle sheds where human beings huddled together with each other three to a bed, some dead, some alive, some dying, most rotting with dysentery, typhus and excrement, the miserable, insufficient sanitation, seeing the chambers where Mengele experimented on Gypsy twins, the starvation rooms, the ash pits where cremated remains were buried…it piles horror upon horror until you feel buried under its weight. No wonder numbness is a common reaction.

And how did we react? As I walked around with Emily and Dami, two fantastic students, we fell silent very quickly, as did everyone. The place cows you into sincerity and sobriety as you start to absorb each grotesque diorama. Iconic images like the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the entrance are emblematic of every horror film imaginable; worse, as any artistic representation of horror can only feebly mirror the monstrous life here. Again, it is magnified into an infinite regress by the numbers involved. Such films seek to shock and disturb with their careful attention to our fear of pain, but Auschwitz presents us with something worse: a testimony to real torture and pain, endured not by a cast of a few dozen, but of millions; not over a comfortable hour and a half, but over years.

For me, curiously the exhibit within the museum that touched me the most was the collection of spectacles, thousands of them, stripped from their owners in the Sauna as they entered, and recycled by the Nazis. They sat in an enormous ball of steel, chaotic and bent, behind glass. Every single pair of legs embraced a human head, and the brain within; their memories, their personalities, their ambitions and their life. Each life as incomparably precious to its owner as my own. I felt my own glasses sit heavily across the bridge of my nose and tried to imagine them as part of that enormous heap in front of me, myself as vanished and eradicated as they were.

For others it was the room full of human hair, bleached grey by time; for some it was the thousands of artificial limbs, or the enormous room full of suitcases, each one written with the name of its owner, some of them bearing return addresses. The refugees had brought everything they thought they would need, and to see the collection of useless, pathetic artefacts was pitiful in the extreme. They thought they were going to be relocated; instead they were buried. Someone had even brought a set of measuring scales. Can you imagine? A set of cooking scales. In Auschwitz.

On and on and on it went. Finally, as the Sun set, we gathered around the memorial in Birkenau, Auschwitz II, where the train tracks ended. By now we had the camp to ourselves. Rabbi Barry Marcus led our group in a service. He provided us with something that I think the visit needed; a clear voice of outrage. It is fine, up to a point, to be reflective, and introspective, and measured in one’s response to the place, but allowing it to be seen as darkly as we wish, we risk reducing the Holocaust to something almost comfortable and ignorable.

He spoke eloquently and beautifully about the necessity of seeing Auschwitz for what it was: the celebration of death; an assault on what it means to be human. As he blew the Shofar Horn and its lonely note sounded in that dark camp where so very recently, Judaism was being rounded up and reduced to lampshades, fertiliser and soap, I realised how vital it was to keep that fact clear in our minds. In a secular age where the old ethical foundations have been unsettled and often toppled by the moral earthquakes of the twentieth century- of which Auschwitz was an essential agent- moral relativism and non-cognitivism are often attractive intellectual and emotional responses to a world that seems to display no inherent justice or provide any karmic reassurances that the good will be rewarded and evil punished.

And I can see that, I really can. But Auschwitz reminded me that, despite the obvious presence of an ethical compass, pointing to True North, this one thing remains: if this is not evil, then nothing is, and nothing matters, and nothing has value. Let Auschwitz stand as a bloody foundation stone to a moral pyramid, if something has to. Let every principle and creed evolve from this axiom: Auschwitz is the anti-life.

School trips are rightly aimed at enriching the experience of the students who participated. A place like Auschwitz becomes what you bring to it: on the surface of things, all there is to see are rows and rows of decimated sheds, rubble, pre-war barracks and abandoned avenues. Take away the history and there is nothing to see; the blood has soaked deep into the soil by now, and the adage that ‘here, nothing lives’ is a patent nonsense. Auschwitz teems with life; nature in its infinite variety breeds here with abandon and fecundity; sparrows swarm and even a faun dashed across our paths early in the evening, as a haunting counterpoint to the palpable presence of barbarity and death that we had steeped ourselves in. Dami and Emily had the sensitivity and maturity of spirit to bring to this trip what was required, as seemingly did the many dozens of students with us: humanity.

The Rabbis finished his service in what was now night, by singing a low, slow Jewish prayer. It reminded me of sand, and sadness, and thousands of years of Diaspora, alienation and sorrow. Kitty Hart-Moxon, the Survivor who had spoken to us the week previously summed it up. She said, ‘Everyone sees Auschwitz as a place where people died. But for some of us, it was also a place where you lived.’ As we walked back to the coach along the rail tracks in the dark, placing our candles along the sleepers and leaving them as sad punctuation marks in Auschwitz’s traumatised soil, I thought of everyone that couldn’t leave. Every life here mattered. Every life still does. The death of one person is a tragedy to us all; if it isn’t, then my life is also without value, because it is made of the same matter.

Whatever happens to us when we die, wherever we go or not, we must treasure our humanity, and that of others; not because we fear death, but because we value life. Herr Einstein tells us that the nature of time is somehow simultaneous; that all pasts, presents and futures are wrapped together into a state of endless, perpetual presence. From this secular, emprirical perspective, no one who has ever passed is ever truly lost: lost to us perhaps, but enduring, existent in a way we can barely fathom. I find that comforting. The victims of death remain, somehow, even if it defies our perception.

May they remain forever in the company of the ones they love.

Why teaching is still one of the best jobs in the world

Most of the time it’s very easy to dwell on the flaws in the education system- and oh my deary, but it’s a compelling place to dwell. But it would be mean minded, and evident of profound self-loathing, if we didn’t occasionally recall (I nearly said ‘touch base’ there, and then I would have had to ritually purify myself) why we endure the flack, the angst and the frustration. I had two experiences in the last 24 hours that gave me what alcoholics would call ‘a moment of clarity’.

First of all: yesterday I and two of my finest A-level students attended a seminar organised by the Lessons from Auschwitz project, in preparation for a day-visit to the death camp of Auschwitz- Birkenau in Poland(and I do mean a day visit; leave at 5am, back by midnight. The Scarlet Pimpernel spends more time when he comes to town). At four hours, it promised to be a difficult, if entirely necessary experience. Afterwards, I felt I would have paid to attend. The reason was the electric, softly dramatic presence of Kitty Hart-Moxon, a Polish/ English survivor of World War Two’s most infamous human abattoir. What an incredible woman.

What amazed me was how animated, how alive she looked, for a woman in her eighties. She spoke for an hour like a machine gun, well practised after decades of recital. But her testimony was vital, intense, detailed and personal. She said, ‘Many people just think of Auschwitz as somewhere that people died; but it was also somewhere people lived.’ And live she did- two years in a camp that held 100,000 people; so many that she said she survived because she knew how to ‘hide’. To be where the killers were not- and the most immediate danger there was, she said, was not the guards, but the fellow inmates, the privileged, the favoured prisoners who could have you killed. Those, she learned to avoid. The average prisoner lived three months; they couldn’t bear the awful reality of the cold, the starvation, the worthlessness of human life. But Kitty, like others endured; and the more she did, she said, the more she wanted to keep surviving, because she had come so far.

She talked about the peculiar hierarchy that existed in the prisoners- with German criminals at the top, political prisoners, then other nationalities, then Jews and so on and so on, in a similar way that hierarchies exist within any prison. The inmates segregated themselves into racial and ethnic groups, for communicative as much as survival reasons, reminding me of Hobbes’ comment that all men, being rational and self-interested, will flee the state of nature, and create a civil society, the Social Contract, in order to advance self-interest through mutual cooperation.

Religion, she said, was a chimeric motivation: some looked at the endless squalor and the bottomless degradation and said, ‘Where is God?’ Others woke up every morning thanking God for sparing them another night. There was no universal reaction, no flight into disappointed atheism or soothing theism. The spiritual experience was relative to the beholder.

Kitty herself survived on the possessions of the dead; shocking to the comfortable contemporary sensibility, but a savage necessity in a world of endless competition and brutality; the alternative was to try to jump onto the hierarchy and make a position for yourself with the collaborators and the capos. She told a string of horror stories, each one more appalling than the most childish of slasher porn films that infect mainstream cinema, because they were true: the time her mother hid her under a corpse in order to avoid an inspection that would have killed her for having Typhus; or when she watched her friends being executed, and she was ordered to load their bodies on to a van; or when she and her family were told they would be shot in the morning (with the accompanying night of terror and awful cognizance preceded it), lined up, only to find that when the guards fired, they were pretending, and they weren’t to be killed then. And so the stories went on.

Just as touching was the Q&A afterwards; it was humbling to think of a question, any question you might have ever wondered about Auschwitz- did the guards associate in any way with the prisoners?- and to hear the answer given by a first hand account, with detail, emotional context and utter sincerity. It was utterly authentic, and liberated the story of Auschwitz from the well-meaning pages of an infinite series of books or documentaries. Mesmerising.

The second experience was another special guest, one I had invited into my school; Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre came to speak to my sixth form. Ian had been involved- and escaped- from a Canadian Cult years ago, and devoted his time to teaching about the dangers and methods of, and countermeasures against cults in the UK and internationally. Like Kitty, his familiarity and prominence in the field was an honour to behold.

He spoke confidently and authoritatively about a subject which is increasing in prominence because of the very public movements of Scientology in the UK. Not that I’m making a connection between Scientology and cults, because as Ian pointed out, they have a penchant for suing people that make that claim, and even my humble blog might fall under their omni-computer or something, endlessly trawling Google for defamatory comments.

So I am in no way saying that the Church of Scientology is in any way associated with quack science, pseudo religion, cults of personality revolving around a quasi-mystical semi-divine leader who has found ‘the answer;, and which doesn’t like being scrutinised, criticised, probed too deeply as to its aims and core beliefs, and requires substantial cash payments to progress through the hierarchy. Oh, or that it likes to segregate members from their non-Church family members. I’m just concerned, that’s all.

Like I say, he was fascinating, and I recommend anyone who is interested to get in touch with him and the CIC here, because it’s very worthwhile. And I thought to myself- for there was no one else with whom to do so- how lucky we are sometimes, to be in this kind of job; where you can go from one once-in-a-lifetime experience, to another. There aren’t many jobs where variety, challenge and inspiration are- or can be- integral parts of the professional experience. This job’s a blast.

I’ll get back to the snide, cheap shots at Michael Gove and his ilk soon.