Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 September 2015

Repentance


[For a recent essay on Putin’s putrefaction, click here. For a recent essay on how the adversary system has hobbled our Yankee culture, click here. For an essay on which of the world’s top four economies is the best exemplar, click here. I plan to update the long-out-of-date Title and Subject Index and sidebar links this week.]

We don’t use words like “repentance” anymore. We don’t use words like “shame.” They’re still in the dictionary, but they’re not in our vocabulary.

We’re too “modern.” These words are too “religious,” too “fuzzy.” We’re too technological. We’re too busy Twittering and texting to have the faintest clue what really matters in human life anymore, what really constitutes “sin.”

And so we Yanks obsess over every word uttered by the most shameless and vulgar egotist ever to run for president. Not only that. He’s winning, at least among the GOP. He wouldn’t know a sin if it comprised his own murder. He would just think he’d made a bad deal.

Trump is not alone. Repentance is unusual in human history, especially among nations. It requires a degree of human understanding, humility and empathy that has escaped most of us and continues to do so.

Cato the Elder didn’t repent Rome’s annihilation of Carthage. After years of declaring “Cartago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed!) in the Roman Senate, he was satisfied when Carthage fell. He relished Roman troops burning the city, killing or enslaving its people, tearing down its stone walls, and sowing its fields with salt.

Likewise, Japan hasn’t repented its rape of Nanking, or of the rest of Asia. Its leader mouths the usual tepid apology, then visits the Yasukuni shrine—a monument to tribalism and blind tribal loyalty, the sources of so many wars.

There are many other unrepentant conquerors. Turkey has never acknowledged its attempted genocide of Armenias. Serbs have never acknowledge their massacre of Muslim boys in Srebrenica. Russians have never repented their jackboots stomping the face of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, not to mention East Germany. Putin has never acknowledged his role in turning Syria—a whole country!—into a modern Carthage. Instead, he appears to be doubling down on his use of modern weapons to support the butcher Assad.

As for us Yanks, we have never acknowledged our own sins: making senseless war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and poisoning Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with mines and Agent Orange. Whether our nuclear deal with Iran grows into a more general rapprochement—something resembling repentance for having subverted Iran’s democracy half a century ago and having incited Saddam’s brutal eight-year war on Iran—remains to be seen.

So when you think of what modern Germany has done since World War II and the Holocaust, it takes your breath away. Far from ignoring or denying its sins, Germany has taught them to its children. It has described them unflinchingly (and accurately!) in its textbooks and its history. And it has built durable monuments to them, so that no one will ever forget. Dachau is now a somber museum.

But repentance is not just recalling and regretting. Repentance also means trying to do better.

Germany is number one there, too. It has renounced nuclear weapons and attempts to influence international affairs by force. (Unlike Japan, it is not having second thoughts.) It has eschewed the radioactive risk of nuclear power in favor of renewable energy, which also reduces climate change. And having learned a lot about unification from knitting its own broken nation back together, it is now using its enviable financial stability and productivity to help keep Europe united, solvent, peaceful and free.

Just now, Germany is going the whole of Europe one better. Alone among all the nations of the Earth, it has agreed to take at least 800,000 refugees from Syria and the rest of the war-torn Middle East.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Didn’t Emma Lazarus’ poem of acceptance and empathy use to describe us Yanks? Now, apparently, it’s Germany. We Yanks won’t even take battered and homeless children from our relative neighbors in Central America, while Germany is takes refugees from a continent away.

In all, we Yanks have taken only about a thousand Syrians, although our population is almost four times Germany’s. For the mathematically inclined, that’s a ratio of about 3,200 in Germany’s favor.

Cynics might say that Germany killed six million in the Holocaust, so it’s still got a lot to atone for. But those six million are gone forever, notwithstanding efforts (including those in Germany itself) to keep their memory alive.

It will be a long time, if ever, before our technology gives us Resurrection. And even if it did, what would Holocaust victims make of our modern world? Would their moral sensibilities survive in it?

Most of them were observant Jews. They knew about guilt, shame and repentance. They even had a holiday for them: Yom Kippur (which, by the way, is coming up this month). They would be appalled at the utter absence of these moral constructs from modern life. They would see Trump much as they saw Hitler, and for much the same reasons. Without shame and guilt, there can be no repentance. And without empathy, there can be none of the above.

But the 800,000 that Germany has pledged to take are not memories, not symbols, not ghosts. They are real, live people, fleeing terror and absolute chaos and seeking a better life. They cry out to us from our TV screens, “Where is Lady Liberty when we most need her?” In Germany, apparently.

As it did at the dawn of the last century, before its Nazi psychosis, Germany today sits at the apex of human civilization. Among other things, it has the lowest ratio of CEO-to-average worker pay among developed nations. It lets labor participate in corporate decisions. And—perhaps as a consequence—it has a solid, growing and stable economy, with a boom in manufacturing despite all that China does or can do.

Germany is accepting penniless refugees into what today is perhaps the most modern, enviable and well-functioning society on Earth—a nation of Reason. It’s letting them in not because it has to, but because it can and it should. No wonder Syrian refugees see Germany as an earthly Paradise!

Germany’s generosity will not betray it. Although not all of them are well off, most of the Syrian refugees are middle-class and high achievers. They are well educated and relatively secular Muslims. They are fleeing because they want neither Assad’s barrel bombs descending on their children, not IS butchers beheading them for the slightest religious transgression or failure to follow orders. They want to live in a modern, sensible society based on compassion and reason, not medieval tribal brutality. Can you blame them?

At very worst, Germany will get some tasty baba ghanoush, as I did in an otherwise undistinguished Cleveland hotel restaurant. At best, aging Germany will get an infusion of young talent eager to live peaceful, productive lives to the fullest. The Arab immigrants will learn to put their verbs at the end of sentences and become useful members of German society. And they will be eternally grateful for their new starts, after the Hell they have escaped.

But Germany is not taking the Syrian refugees for what they can do for Germany. It’s taking them because it’s the right thing to do. It’s taking them because doing good is what a modern paragon of Reason does. It’s also the best kind of repentance for sins.

Would we Yanks could do as much. Maybe Pope Francis, who has taught us all a bit about humility, can teach us Yanks something about repentance, too.

Footnote: This should not be terribly surprising. During their Soviet period, many Russians regarded their nation with pride as a “third Rome,” after Rome and Constantinople. They were speaking, unfortunately, about military and political power, not moral advancement. They didn’t think much about how a two-thousand-year-old moral sensitivity, combined with modern weapons, might make our world a living Hell, or even extinguish our species. Today’s Syria illustrates the consequences of their moral neglect, especially Putin’s.

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