More sorrow, more pity

The International Herald Tribune published a long review by Bernard-Henri Lévy of newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign book Testimony, recently translated into English.

Lévy notes that one of the Sarkozy’s leitmotifs is a reassessment of twentieth century French history that dwells less on moments of national disaster and tragedy, enables the French people to once again feel proud of their nation, and enables France to play a prominent role as a leading Western power.

Frankly, I am not against the idea of political leaders and citizens speaking about the sadness, the pity, even the horror they feel when examining some of the blackest pages of their national history. In other words, I think that shame is quite useful in politics, and the idea of not feeling, as Emmanuel Levinas said, “accountable for” or even “hostage to” the crimes we did not commit, and even worse, not feeling accountable and responsible for those in which we or ours have had some part — I think this is exactly what Sartre (him again!) called a politics of “bastards.” Where would the United States be if it were not ashamed of its past of slavery, then of racism? Where would France be if — under the pretext that, as Sarkozy says, we have not “produced” a Hitler (true) or Stalin (unclear, given how much the French intelligentsia participated in the creation of the Stalinist vulgate) or Pol Pot (rather doubtful, given that Pol Pot and his men all trained in Paris, in the very cradle of human rights) — we were simply to sing together the sinister “proud to be French” refrain the new president keeps humming, which amounts to finessing, for example, the enormous anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus era, or the huge collaborationist enthusiasm of the cultural and administrative elite in the darkest Vichy years, or the practice of state-sanctioned torture in the last years of the war in Algeria?

I could not help but read this passage and think of a certain Japanese prime minister with a penchant for recasting Japanese history in a way that enables Japan to be proud again, to stand as a great power without having to fuss about with all that history.

To “modernizers” like Sarkozy and Abe (for Francophones, I find this article hints at a similarities between their domestic agendas), the past is an inconvenience, an obstacle standing in the way of their nations’ return to glory. And yet both France and Japan, at least in terms of their wartime pasts, could stand for more openness, more reflection on the “blackest pages of their national history.” France, arguably, has come along further, but in some way, the manner in which both have dealt with the war has been affected by a sense of victimhood that both countries took from the war, France from the experience of spending the war occupied and divided as part of Hitler’s New Order, Japan from its experience of its cities being leveled by conventional and nuclear bombs, followed by the trauma of surrender and occupation. (This may be one way to watch Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.)

I have no truck with those like Ampontan, this blogger’s favorite foil, who are convinced that Japan is plenty open as far as its past is concerned, that it has apologized and repented and reflected enough. The problem is not denial, but rather the revision and obfuscation of facts that others are struggling to make clear not just for the present, but for all time. We should not want future generations to be unburdened of what happened during the twentieth century — precisely the opposite. No generation henceforth should be allowed to “forget” the twentieth century. The twentieth century was perhaps the worst in human history. If it means that countries have to revisit their “dark pages” repeatedly, what of it?

How long before feelings of victimhood fade and the Japanese people can, to borrow from an anecdote including in the Ampontan post above, scratch beneath the blacked out ink of the wartime past look face to face with Imperial Japan’s crimes — without the litany of excuses that taint so many discussions of the war (the US victimized us too, the Tokyo tribunal was illegitimate, the European powers did it first, and so on)?

And so the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly is right to censure the Japanese government for instructing textbook publishers to play down the Imperial Army’s role in ordering mass civilian suicides in Okinawa. And so the US Congress is right to pass a mere “Sense of the Congress” resolution demanding that Japan acknowledge and apologize for its military’s sexual enslavement of civilians. No Ampontan, it is not “preening,” “ugly,” or “gutless.” It is a simple act, incumbent on all, to remember the twentieth century and to see that others do the same. It is for the same reason that I did not dismiss out of hand Ozawa Ichiro’s call for a US apology for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No country is free from having to reflect.

I will not break out the Santayana cliche about repeating history, because I do not think the doom of the twentieth century (the clash of technologically advanced nation-states) will be the doom of our century; the lesson of the twentieth century, rather, is that anyone is capable of barbarity against one’s fellow human beings, those inflamed by ideology doubly so. All peoples need to reflect upon that, and all governments ought to facilitate reflection by their peoples.

And so I too, like Lévy, am dubious about leaders who are in a hurry to fast forward through the brutal moments of their nations’ histories and skip straight to the good parts. This applies as much to events within nations as between them, as Lévy notes. Why did the twentieth century happen as it did? Scholars, schoolchildren, statesmen: all ought to spend the twenty-first century reflecting upon that.

3 thoughts on “More sorrow, more pity

  1. Anonymous

    Why do you even consider Ampontan\’s site a foil to your own?No, his site reflects certain sentiments I can glean off of 2ch. It is hardly nuanced, in-depth, and nearly no where as insightful as your work.


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