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THESE DAYS, THE United States is into moral introspection concerning governance, divisiveness, immigration, Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, and many other issues. Isaac Chotiner’s article “How to Confront a Racist National History,” The New Yorker, July 6, 2020, describes his extended conversation with Susan Neiman, American moral philosopher and author of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2015. Here are tidbits gleaned from Chotiner’s article, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
Background. As described in Wikipedia, “Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman dropped out of high school to join the anti-Vietnam War movement. Later she studied philosophy at Harvard University, earning her Ph.D.
During graduate school, she spent several years at the Free University of Berlin.” Slow Fire, 1992, is her memoir about being a Jewish woman in 1980s Berlin.
Neiman has taught at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Since 2000, she has been at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, where she serves as Director. The Forum’s website offers an extended sheltering-in discussion with her and Noam Chomsky.
Germany’s Reckoning with the Nazis. The New Yorker writer Isaac Chotiner says, “In her 2019 book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, the philosopher Susan Neiman examines the different ways in which Germany and the United States have confronted their past sins.”
Neiman explains differing approaches taking place in the two Germanys: “The pressure came in West Germany from civil society. In East Germany, it came from the leadership, who were communists, and who recognized that the Communists were the first group that the Nazis attacked. You had a top-down process on one side of Germany, and bottom-up process in the other side.”
She says, “I don’t idealize the process that the Germans went through in facing up to their criminal past. It was long, it was reluctant, and they faced an enormous amount of backlash.”
America’s Slow Recognition of its Past. Neiman notes, “We have a ninety-year-long hole in our history…. And it’s not just ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ There were hundreds of films glorifying the Confederacy, because everyone wants to be a rebel, right?”
A First Step. “The statues really need to go, first of all. And they’re going. It’s a symbolic act, but an important symbol. And the idea that statues are about history or heritage is ridiculous. We don’t memorialize every piece of our heritage. We pick out what we want people to remember.”
A Monument’s Purpose. “Monuments,” Neiman says, “are visible values. They portray the men and women who embodied the values that we want our community to share, that we want our children to learn.”
She continues, “We need to continue the educational processes that have begun. And when I say ‘educational,’ schools are important, but I really think media, culture, and the arts are at least as important.”
What about Columbus, Washington, Jefferson? “Contextualization can be an option in some cases,” Neiman says. “It really needs to be decided case by case. But we have to acknowledge that we’re not upholding history, we’re upholding values.”
The italics are mine, but I suspect Neiman would not object. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020