It definitely sucks knowing that I’m descended from a slave owning rapist, and also that my grandfather was a Nazi POW who’d been working in a munitions factory. When your direct ancestors were atrocious people, you have to get your sense of identity from somewhere besides family tradition. Well, unless you want moral failure to be a defining feature of your identity. That’s the choice being made by “patriotic Americans,” for the most part. American ideals deserve credit where they’re on the side of freedom. American history deserves a lot less credit and a lot more shame than it normally gets. If your ancestors were reprehensible, it’s shameful to spit in their victims’ faces and insist they were great.
Ricardo Eichmann met his father’s kidnapper in a room at the Heathrow Hilton. “It was a very emotional meeting. People have asked if I feel anger towards him. I don’t. Adolf Eichmann deserved to be brought to justice for what he did. I don’t agree with the death penalty, but I can see why they did it at the time.”
Can you imagine either of the Bush twins ever saying something like this about their father? Or Obama’s children? Or Chelsea Clinton? Ricardo Eichmann showed the world 20 years ago that justice and decency are more important than blind family loyalty. We can care about higher principles.
I knew my father was dead, but I didn’t know how he had died. My mother kept all the newspaper cuttings about him under the sofa. I would creep under there and peek at them. I understood bits and pieces but not the whole picture. When I asked my mother, she would say, ‘Lass das’ – leave it. It was a taboo subject and stayed that way till my mother died two years ago.
That’s America’s approach to history education, in microcosm.
I am struck by Ricardo Eichmann’s apparent lack of anger. He wasn’t angry with his father’s kidnappers, he wasn’t angry with the Israelis for hanging him. Was he not even angry with his mother for not explaining things to him?
“Look,” he says. “I am bitter about the fact I had no father. I am furious about the horrors of the Holocaust. And it would have been better if she had talked to me. I wanted to challenge her, but I saw her inner turmoil. I loved her and she loved my father. What was I supposed to do?”
Professor Eichmann’s facial muscles begin to twitch. “I know now that pain comes from not knowing. That is why I am not afraid to confront the truth. I always wanted to know. I went to see the deportation orders, black on white, that my father had signed. I never wanted anyone saying that I didn’t believe what he had done.”
Since Ricardo Eichmann’s heritage has become public knowledge, he has received calls from neo-Nazis, expecting to find a sympathetic ear. “A few weeks ago, I got a call from Australia, from a man who said, ‘Eichmann was OK.’ I said he most certainly was not.”
White American defensiveness is not necessary. This is how he deals with the equivalent of “white guilt”:
On the other side of the coin are the Holocaust survivors who believe that Ricardo Eichmann “has it in his blood”, “it” being a genetically transmitted racism. I tell him that my grandmother, a German Jewish refugee, is angry and hurt that I am interviewing him. For the first time in three hours his face registers pain.
“I know there are people who feel like that about me. What can I do? Perhaps it is my fate. You know when the article came out about my meeting with Aharoni, they did a survey in Israel. For every three people who were positive towards me, there was one who thought I must be a Nazi. They were mostly old people who had been through the atrocities who felt that. I would like to go to Israel, but I don’t want to offend anyone by my presence.”
Ricardo Eichmann has said he doesn’t want a tear-jerker story written about him: “It is an affront to the six million who died to try and elicit sympathy for me.” But his life story is very much a case of the sins of the father being visited on the son. “It’s like a rocket. It shoots off into space, but it leaves its fallout behind it and it takes its toll.”
If American white people talked like this, it would be revolutionary. Imagine if American tourists had a reputation for being humble and apologetic:
Now compare this:
Up until a few weeks ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.
The site I worked at most frequently had more than 100 enslaved workers associated with it— 27 people serving the household alone, outnumbering the home’s three white residents by a factor of nine. Yet many guests who visited the house and took the tour reacted with hostility to hearing a presentation that focused more on the slaves than on the owners.
The first time it happened, I had just finished a tour of the home. People were filing out of their seats, and one man stayed behind to talk to me. He said, “Listen, I just wanted to say that dragging all this slavery stuff up again is bringing down America.”
I started to protest, but he interrupted me. “You didn’t know. You’re young. But America is the greatest country in the world, and these people out there, they’d do anything to make America less great.” He was loud and confusing, and I was 22 years old and he seemed like a million feet tall.
She lists the following as the most common misconceptions people have.
- People think slaveholders “took care” of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest.
- People know that field slavery was bad but think household slavery was pretty all right, if not an outright sweet deal.
- People think slavery and poverty are interchangeable.
- People don’t understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders’ actions beyond mere economic interest.
- People think “loyalty” is a fair term to apply to people held in bondage.
Regardless of why they were espoused, all the misconceptions discussed here lead to the same result: the assertion that slavery wasn’t really all that bad (“as long as you had a godly master,” as one guest put it). And if slavery itself was benign — slavery, a word which in most parlances is a shorthand for unjust hardship and suffering — if even slavery itself was all right, then how bad can the struggles faced by modern-day African Americans really be? Why feel bad for those who complain about racist systems today? The minimization of the unjustness and horror of slavery does more than simply keep the bad feelings of guilt, jealousy, or anger away: It liberates the denier from social responsibility to slaves’ descendants.
This is a fantastic example of why black peope go through life knowing that white people to this day have a slave owner mentality:
I was occasionally asked what motivation slaveholders would have had for beating, starving, or otherwise maltreating enslaved workers. This was often phrased as, “If you think about it economically, they don’t work as hard if you don’t feed ’em!” (The frequent use of the general “you” in this formulation is significant, because it assumes that the archetypal listener is a potential slaveholder —i.e., that the archetypal listener is white.)
It seems nitpicky, but “you” and “they” say it all. That’s what makes unexamined liberal racism harmful in itself. The dehumanization is just so casual. It’s why people feel the need to say “black lives matter” at all. The battle is against self-deception and bad faith internal to white people. There’s such a feeling of futility when you see people shoot back with “all lives matter.” What do you do when you’re suffering and desperate, and even your invisibility is invisible? To get any attention, and mostly negative attention, you have to do something extreme enough to momentarily overpower the denial. But all of the pressure build-up was invisible to the white person, who’s now overwhelmed at The Traumatic Real entering their life unexpectedly. This presents major tactical and strategic difficulties. The only way of getting attention has severe blowback. Somehow they have to do something constructive with the shame and horror. The emotion needs to be contained and put to good use.
What examples of sincere apology does our society provide? Insincere non-apologies issued through press releases are characteristic of public life. The VA system does a worse job of supporting veterans than the KKK, in some cases. Are children raised with the concept of a non-burdensome obligation? We starve the old, the young, the sick, and the poor, and call it “austerity,” as if it were something beautiful in its simplicity. Austere like a cathedral. It could give them all some much needed-moral discipline, I suppose. It has a sexually sadistic character. Tie up the poor. Fuck them in the ass. Give them a spanking, a slap in the face. Talk dirty to them. People love 50 Shades and don’t think even one time about what slavery has to do with slavery. Tough love.
We’ve confused violence with love on an epic scale, because our society is so abusive. We beat the poor for their own good. We say “I bet you like that, don’t you?” when we demean people at the welfare office.
There are other ways of loving people.