All suffering is not created equal

Many, many years ago, I read a wry, sarcastic book called I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional : The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help. As the book's title indicates, Wendy Kaminer, the author, was tackling the competitive dysfunctionality that the whole therapeutic culture promoted. The chapter in her book that struck me as most significant was when she talked about the self-help movement's emphasis on the fact that all suffering is created equal. Kaminer was too smart to denigrate the fact that we feel what we feel. Thus, she would acknowledge that, when I broke up with a boyfriend years ago, I was sad. However, she would point out — and I would agree — that my pain, no matter how I suffered, was not equal to that of an Ethiopian child starving to death at the same moment in time. Kaminer pointed out that the therapeutic movement erased this difference, holding that there is no value difference between suffering, regardless of the cause of that psychic or physical pain. Thus, under the therapeutic world view, someone with a hangnail deserves the same sympathetic response as someone who escaped the Killing Fields. Kaminer was appropriately disdainful.

As always, there's a point to my wandering along on an apparently random matter. Here's the point: the New York Times, my favorite paper to attack, has a review of a show at Ellis Island about the Soviet Gulag. The review notes that the show has images, essays and artificates illustrating the intense suffering wrought by this appalling penal system. The review, however, as does the show, then turns to larger philosophical issues about state initiated imprisonment and torture. On this topic, the writer, Edward Rothstein, notes that the last part of the exhibit is introduced with this sign:

"Brutal systems have played a prominent role in many countries, including the United States. Although slavery ended after the American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of the Holocaust in Europe and apartheid in South Africa reverberate even today. Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the gulag. How can citizens in these countries face up to the horrors of the past?"

It is at this moment in my reading that I brace myself for the obligatory New York Times Gitmo reference. After all, how can that august newspaper pass on the chance to compare the suffering of almost 20 million political prisoners to the discomforts experienced by several hundred prisoners of war, reading their specially wrapped Korans and dining on specially prepared food. But to my surprise, it doesn't come. Instead, Rothstein criticizes the current trend of equalizing the most mundane and the most heinous acts of human cruelty:

No doubt noble sentiments are at work in this roster, but as a result, all specificity and judgment disappears; conscience consumes everything and contains nothing. To make a grand rhetorical gesture, encompassing all human injustice when one particular example seems inconveniently egregious, has become a museum ritual, a political tic.

When I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam several years ago, the somber concreteness of the Annex and the dread fate of its inhabitants were nearly erased by a final multimedia display in which the Holocaust was calculatedly eclipsed by invocations of every contemporary example of racial and social injustice the museum could formulate. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati, did the same thing with American slavery, ending its account with a potpourri of international injustices, as if recruiting activists for a litany of causes.

In the gulag show, on a smaller scale, the approach is the same. The particulars of the past, so carefully presented, are suddenly tossed aside, and all differences in nature and scale are eliminated. Stalin really does get off easy. The coalition claims a higher moral vision. Actually, it cheapens injustice, leaving everyone equally guilty and equally innocent. Are 19th-century English workhouses and New York tenements comparable in any way to the gulag? Is the plight of women before receiving the vote similar to the starving of Kolyma prisoners, who scrambled in the ice to eat prehistoric amphibians?

Mr. Rothstein is absolutely right. Humans have never been kind to each other, but there are times when a culture has elevated that unkindness to scales beyond the norm. The last century alone brought us the Holocaust, the Gulags (and other Russian on Russian slaughters), the Killing Fields, and the Rape of Nanking. In this century, crazed dictators and complicit governments seem set on emulating and even surpassing these grim milestones. But Gitmo isn't at that level. Even Abu Ghraib and Haditha, the product of rogue soldiers, not of a concerted government effort, don't rise to this level.

In this vein, it's worthwhile considering the closing paragraph of Mr. Rothstein's surprisingly thoughtful review:

Harvard University's National Resource Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies is developing curriculum packets for this exhibition. (After July 4, it will go to Boston University, and then to Independence, Calif.; Atlanta; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and Washington.) The educational material I was sent is careful and informed, but here and there are whiffs of this homogenized conscience:

"Are there lessons to be learned from a study of the gulag that might apply to prison systems in countries like the United States?" the curriculum proposes asking students. "For example, should prisoners in this country be forced to work jobs such as picking up trash on the highway?"

Congratulations to Mr. Rothstein on his sense of decency and perspective. Perhaps he can slip a copy of this article under the editorial doors at the New York Times, where the insanity wrought by BDS still reigns supreme. Pinch might benefit from reading this.

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