Admiring Yourself: The Holocaust, Racism, & Sexism

“…“the present memorial cult that seeks to inflict certain aspects of history and their presumed lessons on our children, with its favorite mantra, ‘Let us remember, so the same thing doesn’t happen again,’ is unconvincing. To be sure, a remembered massacre may serve as a deterrent, but it may also serve as a model for the next massacre” …

Klüger echoed critics of “the Americanization of the Holocaust” and “the end of the Holocaust,” for whom brutal historical reality was displaced by redemptive and enjoyable kitsch. The problem of this oxymoronic “Holocaust aesthetics” became apparent to Klüger after a young woman approached her at a book signing and said, with a smile, “I love the Holocaust.” Klüger was taken aback. She understood that the woman loved not the event itself, but reading about it. “But her naïve and undisguised pleasure brought up the question: Should she love to read about the Holocaust? Should we in any shape or form feel positive and empowered or cathartically purged when we contemplate the extinction of a people? My impulse was to say to this woman: You shouldn’t. Stop reading these books, including mine, if you enjoy them” …

As Klüger’s former colleague Gail Hart reflects, “I think she was a little bit too hard on those who, say, visited Holocaust memorials and Holocaust museums because she said that, you know, they were trying to admire themselves for hating the Nazis.”

—Jonathan Catlin, “Against Redeeming Catastrophe: In Memory of Ruth Klüger.” Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. December 2, 2020.

Yesterday, I was noticing how there were so many “Black Lives Matter” and equivalent posters up in the windows of my wealthier neighbors (fuller disclosure: I have an anti-racism placard in my window too). But, you don’t see these posters in the windows of people of lower classes. Then, this morning I read this bit about Ruth Klüger and it seems her critique of Holocaust aesthetics is just as applicable to the problems of racism, sexism, etc. There’s something about putting people, or groups of people, on pedastals that makes us like ourselves more for liking these groups. Americanization is a fair enough term.

The thing I wonder though is whether this is necessary for human beings to come to grips with the demands of justice. We have to believe what we are doing is right, and it is easier to do if we like those in need of justice. But, is justice only for people we like really justice? Are people likely to pursue learning about injustice if the path offers nothing but pain? Isn’t fear of pain and rejection why there is so much injustice in this life?

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