The Fallen Cypress


Austin, Texas,
Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life? --Plato, _Symposium_, translated by B. Jowett


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JUNE 11, 2009 1:29AM

Not Again (On the Holocaust Museum Shooting)

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Here’s the sickest part, for me:  the shooting at the National Holocaust Memorial Museum didn’t surprise me.  It reminded me.

Reminded me of That Man, the glassy-eyed non-traditional student who plagued my first semester of teaching; of the day he remarked, in a world religions session, “Hinduism teaches that human nature is basically good, but Judaism teaches that it’s basically evil.”  No, it doesn’t.  He demurred.  I said, to inform the other students if not to convince him, that Judaism interprets Genesis 1 to mean that G-d made everything good, including human beings, that we’re able, through an informed conscience and reasonable effort to resist temptation.

Reminded me of OurLadyofPunk, a student who worked as a waitress in a small town in Texas.  During the 2000 election, she told me, disappointment in her voice, that she overheard many diners saying no one should vote for the Dem ticket because of Joe Lieberman.  Can’t have a Jewish VP, according to the diners in that restaurant, in that town.

Reminded me of the joe-blow kind of guy who told me that his oral presentation was going to be on Judaism.  Then he gave a long sermon advancing one type of Christian premillennial end0times scenario in which “the Jews” played a significant part – in the course of which, he included the observation that G-d sent the Holocaust to punish Jews.  His classmates’ stony silence spoke their disagreement, but I still hear the of-courseness, the naivete with which he threw out something he regarded as a fact and probably thought the others did, too.

Reminded me of the summer I though of laying off Judaism, omitting it from my teaching to avoid the pain of these incidents.  I had talked myself half-way into it, when Buford Furrow went into a Jewish Daycare and shot up some kids and adults.  Then I knew I had to keep at it.  After that, I never looked back.

Reminded me of That Man, again, who came for a second semester to save the other students from me (according to a self-appointed informant).  This time, he claimed that Judaism doesn’t let non-Jews into Heaven.  I corrected him in class, and then brought to the next session numerous ancient sources saying that righteous gentiles have a place in the World-to-Come.  That’s when he told me I didn’t know my subject.

Reminded me of all the times I’ve wondered why somebody who isn’t Jewish thinks that their (not-Jewish) religion requires them to believe something about what Jews believe.  Or don’t.  Or do, or don’t.  Such that when I correct misinformation about Judaism, these not-Jewish people think I’m “attacking” their faith.

Reminded me of the Jewish student who told me she’s afraid to tell other students that she’s Jewish because some of her friends got beaten up for it in Texas public high schools.

Reminded me of all the times since I’ve moved here that somebody has assumed that I’m Jewish and launched into one of those, “Well I have Jewish friends, but” talks.  And I don’t tell them I’m not, just to avoid the appearance of implying that their biggest mistake was about my own religious beliefs.

Reminded me of the time I wrote up a document summarizing the incidents of religious harassment that I have either witnessed directly, or been told about.  The anti-Semitism took a good page or two, but the document was three times as long.  Pagans, Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims . . . many had been harassed.  I presented this, at a meeting, to higher-ups, as evidence that the university should conduct more formal investigations into religious harassment.  My document was dismissed as merely anecdotal.

Reminded me of my own visit to the Holocaust Museum, to that speechless horror at the event, and also at the undeniable fact that human beings can come to view their fellow human beings as something akin to vermin.

Reminded me of the student who cut me off when I tried to talk about my visit there.

Reminded me that these memes students come in with don't make them violent, but they do provide the soil for hate, or for fell0w-travelling with haters.

Reminded me at my uneasiness with high-flown, ostensibly leftist literary criticism that undermines the whole notion of historical knowability, of fact.  So much of that thought girds itself in critique of power structures, and fails to remember that the non-being of facts serves murders only, never their victims.  (Reminded me that I wasn’t surprised when the Paul de Man scandal broke in the ‘90s.)

Reminded me of how weary I get, having to correct the same hateful idiocies, often so innocently held, year after year.  Reminded me how often I’ve wished that whatever gives people these ideas would just stop it, so that the first pedagogical move didn’t always have to be an ideo-ectomy.

But I know it won’t stop.

Reminded me that neither can I.

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It's especially frightening that you are encountering these people in the academy, even in Texas. I've always thought (hoped?) that education is best defense against ignorance and hate, and I'm sure many of the young people you described learned that crap from their parents, who learned from their parents, etc. Hopefully, through the perseverance of bright academicians like yourself (and all of us really), someday we can turn a corner and break the cycle on these putrid fetid attitudes and beliefs that get passed on from generation to generation. I know I don't want my 3 year old bi-racial daughter to grow up in a world where some ignoramous can cut her in half with ugly epithets and beliefs that were already stale several generations back (though I hope I'm raising her to believe in herself and not let some yahoo define her by his ignorance). Reminded me of the man I saw as I was exiting the secure federal building I work in which also houses a post office. The guard turned the man away because he had something he was unauthorized to be in the building with. I was halfway down the hall when the guard, an Asian-American with the patience of a saint, was in the middle of explaining the rules, when the man, who was at least 70 years-old and with his wife, literally yelled out that "This is what happens when we elect a n----- as president!" referring to Obama and stormed out to lose himself in the streets. I was so stunned I wasn't even sure it had happened. No--I couldn't believe it had happened. I don't know what would have happened should my daughter have been with me. I abhor violence but I was really ready to inflict some hurt on that racist prick. And if he has kids chances are the apples didn't fall far from the tree. You're right--you (we) can't stop. Great Post.
"Reminded me of how weary I get..." Amen. When I was about 12, I remember thinking of the holocaust, "thank God that's over," and of hearing the survivors say "never again," in my head I would answer "of course never again." In my early 20s, the people you describe in your post were on the fringes and to be discounted as a few bad apples. In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd hear this crap as mainstream ideology. It is indeed frightening.
You too? Yes, it reminds me of people I have met and talked to and argued with and then despaired of. Of the Scotsman who told me that Hitler was a great man who went too far and that all Jews sent money back to Israel. Of the Welsh friend who thought that David Irving won his libel case. In both examples I tried not to lose my temper. Failed with the first due to the stupidity of the man, succeeded with the second as I had a copy of "Telling Lies About Hitler", by Professor Mark Evans, which exposes Irving for the hateful anti-semitic scum that he is. Rated and please keep teaching.
Very fine piece. Can't really think of anything else to say.
What an amazing piece. Your memories brought up so many of my own...of lessons in tolerance and their disappointments, as well.

Perhaps we teachers aren't the world changers we hoped but simply the child with our finger in the dike, holding back the flood.

People are surprised, I find, because they conveniently forget this country's own past and feelings toward Jews. They forget about the St. Louis, the ship full of Jews escaping France during WWII that we turned around and sent back. They returned to an occupied France and were taken to camps. They forget about Theodor Hertzl, who came to England and the U.S. asking for Jews to be able to seek asylum in those countries (where most of them wanted to go). Both countries told them they didn't want anymore Jews.

It also reminds me of the shifting demographics in this country and the possible violence headed our way. We need teachers like you more than ever. I truly understand your feelings. How long can we throw pearls among swine who refuse to listen out of ignorance and fear. We have to realize, sometimes, that winning isn't the goal...fighting is. Maybe then, even if you don't save their souls you've saved your own.
Beautifully written piece that so many of us could also add to.

As a Jewish woman who has traveled all over and lived in many areas of this country, I also have countless examples of this. Weary reality.
I just woke up to see all these wonderful comments. Thank you all.

I hope, in my anger, that I made it clear how dime-a-dozen is much of what I've encountered. These kids, a minority of those I teach, but still, are a far cry from the angry young Nazis I saw on yesterday's evening news. But there's a connection between the dots from the garden variety prejudices absorbed from authority figures and the full-blown vehemence. And from this to other hatreds, as several comments pointed out.
Great post. Rated and thanks.
Thanks for reminding me. I mean, I know this stuff is out there. But, since I don't experience it directly, sometimes I forget.

Between the murder of Dr. Tiller and the shooting yesterday, I am feeling very pessimistic about humanity in general right now.
This reminded me that everyone should read this post. I'm heading to DIGG and Reddit. VERY WELL SAID. Hugs to you.
"My Grandaddy didn' bring the fight to Hitler's doorstep so you punks could be anti-semites. Now you apologize to that Rabbi or I swear before my lord and savior Jesus Christ I'm going to break something you're gonna wish wasn't broke."
Very well written. Thank you for saying this, from someone who finds herself uncharacteristically unable to say much on OS lately;

Something is missing in me. I've never been able to comprehend the religious bigotry. The part of a person that swallows this stuff is just not here. I don't understand any of it. I know that it exists but for the life of me I just can't understand the mindset that accepts it as truth and is willing to not just die for it, but to kill for it.
What a jerk. (him, not you).
And congrats on the EP and cover page!
It's desperately sad, and, in my mind, incomprehensible. Have we striven, strode so far only to fall, no, be pushed down? I kept thinking we were evolving, had evolved.

A maniac acts in front of us, the impulse is to make yourself smaller, and looking away is, in instinct, an act of self-preservation. But we have to come out of ourselves in that moment, throwing caution away, and engage.

And that may be the hardest lesson. We must engage - to thwart, to educate, to elucidate. With action, by teaching, by living thus.

I went to the drugstore yesterday, and the bookshop, near my office. I realized I was looking around, paranoid, going past a bank, a coffee shop - is there here, now, a Shooter, with an agenda?

Now I'm waiting for the next one. Tiller, Johns -- who's next?

Hopelessness is crafted.
Thank you so much for a great column.
Growing up in a town in which there were very few Jews, as a child I grew used to hearing things like "You're going to burn in hell" and "I wouldn't marry a Jew because I wouldn't marry anyone who isn't white."
My college years were a blessing because I went to a big university with a very diverse student population and although I'm sure there were anti-Semites around, I was lucky enough not to cross paths with them.
I once hoped that we would all learn to get along but despite (or because of) the fact that an African-American is the president and people who are Jewish are in many positions of power, the bigots are more active than ever and I realize that dream is never going to come true, there are just too many people looking for reasons to hate one another
Suicide by cop. 15 mins. of fame. Another martyr for righteous ideology. What's wrong with these white guys?
Thank you for the reminder that we cannot stop. This is hauntingly well-written. Thank you.
I'm not at all surprised that you encountered such ignorance and hate in academia. It seems counterintuitive, but many of my most shocking experiences also took place in college classrooms. The thing is, when I was a kid in a conservative area, it was reactionary hate. When I went to the big city college, that didn't go away, there are reactionaries there too, but add to that all kinds of fringe beliefs from the other side of the spectrum and it's twice as bad. In my experience, two of the more scary antisemitic mob moments I have beheld were in women's studies/gender studies classes. FTR I consider myself a feminist and am not trying to tar the Left or anything. But while on the far right it's "oh you Jews are going to hell/have horns/are trying to control the banks and hollywood" on the far left it's "Jews (or "Zionists") invented patriarchy/mutilate their babies/oppress African Americans." We are the scapegoat for whatever is considered the biggest problem to that group. I was in a college class discussion once where I was afraid people were actually going to become violent in their "debate" about whether, in light of Israel's mistakes, Jewish women should be allowed to speak about well, anything but being "sorry."
I feel both that my burden as a human being to fight this has been simultaneously increased and lightened. This is such a worthy, timely reminder and I feel it's a losing battle some days. But the very fact that it's posted and all the comments...I feel at least as though I am not alone. Bless you, diotima.
My friend of 35 years who is Jewish was recently telling me of an insulting comment from the child of an Evangelical family who told her, "The Jews killed Jesus..." and so on.

Organized religion has an incredible ability to turn humans into religious Fascists, meaning there's only one viewpoint, one interpretation, one "true" religion: theirs! And if others don't agree, then they're wrong, sinful, misled, or deserve to die.

As my very intelligent friend said, religious fundamentalism of all types is a major problem on this planet. Boy, is he right!
Reminds me of something too: during an office discussion on the unfairness of immigration policy, a young woman explained to me, "Cubans are poor because of Castro. Haitians are poor because they don't try."

Ignorance and hatred go hand in hand. No wonder it was a museum that this creature chose to attack. What better target than a record of the truth?
I've overwhelmed by this response . . . thanks to all. More specifically --

JeanetteD -- Yes, I think context matters. I wasn't directly in touch with this when I lived in Chicago, although I'm sure it was out there. Now I'm in a context where I'm likely to encounter it.

Cartouche -- oh, my very first Digg! thanks so much.

Bobbot -- I'm baffled, too, obviously. But it seems that some people are attracted to hate-filled, cosmic-war models of life because it gives them a sense of meaning. It's clear from current reports that the shooter was deeply steeped in this worldview, so his act of violence isn't random, nor it is crazy in the sense of "meaningless." It occurs as a bit of behavior that comes out of a whole meaning-laden (and reality-impaired) way of existing in the world.

Connie- "Hopelessness is crafted." There's a whole post for you to write on that aphorism.

lily -- Oh, I hear you on the leftist angle. I identify as feminist, too, and yet I can recall encountering the blame-Judaism-for-patriarchy thing. This meme has been actively critiqued by Jewish feminists.

Ash -- well, now I feel less alone with all this, thanks to you guys.
i am writing a similar post...... thanks
This is a powerful post about the pervasive bigotry and anti-semitism that is so woven into the warp and woof of our culture. Growing up in Texas, I am intimately familiar with its power. Thank you for the exhortation that we musn't give up fighting it. Rated and Reddited.
Each "reminded me" statement hurt physically to read. I winced at each one.

Thank you for writing this, and for writing it so well.