Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Mean Age


I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel acceptance speech, 
December 10, 1986

In countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph. 
Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (1987)

We are living in the midst of the Mean Age, a period in history marked by the unleashing and worshipping of the baser instincts of humanity, defined to a large degree by a slavish, unthinking and cultic devotion to policy, ideology and religion. The results are not good: selfishness, greed, pettiness and mean-spiritedness, which individually and collectively, conspire against the higher instincts present in man. For many reasons that will be enumerated below, it can also be called the Age of Indifference. To say that humanity has been lowered is to say the obvious, yet we continue to lower the bar to rip all humaneness from the human heart, to squeeze the last drop of human kindness from society.

Policies have been set to ensure persons are not helped; laws are in place to hinder human progress and happiness; and persons acting as bureaucrats and organizational persons have been locked in to decisions to help the few and harm the many; computer technology ensures that this is so. But as difficult as this is to bear, the greatest harm to our humanity lies in the increasing world acceptance of anti-Semitism, thinly disguised as legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism, but in reality a harsh and unreasonable critique of a nation, which is bad enough. No legitimate state has received more venom, more vitriol, more animus and more hate directed its way than Israel. The canary in the mine is Israel; my firm conviction is that how we view Israel says much about our moral condition. By now, you can guess how low is our collective moral goodness. Very low.

The world focuses all of its collective energies on one nation: Israel. As it does so, it ignores the gross human-rights violations in dozens of other nations, duly noted but given little importance; and, it shrugs its collective shoulders with a nod and a wink when doing so. Israel has become the chief problem for humanity; decades ago, it was the Jews. Same thing; different words. Israel and the Jewish People represent a morality that few want. Have people's consciences' been seared? That's a question that few want to ask, let alone address.

What would have happened if such persons as Raoul Wallenberg (Sweden), Chiune Sugihara (Japan), Fengshan Ho (China) and Hiram Bingham (U.S.) decided to not follow their conscience? In doing so, such men defied the orders of their superiors and the laws of the land, which were then unjust, despite the seal of authority. Their actions saved tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives—yes, Jewish lives. Were they exceptional persons? Were they risk takers? Were they acting morally? Compared to today, the answer is an unequivocal "yes."

Today, it's greatly about policy, shrouded in legal codes, laws, resolutions, regulations, forms, documents, official stamps & seals and policies. The idea is to remove the human from the decision-making process; after all this makes it more humane and fair. And legal. Do policy-makers see the irony in this statement? I doubt it—such persons lack the ability to laugh, except at the most crude and vulgar jokes. But that is a private matter that you wish kept locked away in the dark chambers of your heart.

Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, remarked that when open communication is impeded, all other liberties wither and imposed opinions becomes the norm; Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor, said that the opposite of love is indifference, and that neutrality in the face of immorality is not an option. Both men are right.

It all start with an individual. To the policy-makers of such inhumane thinking, I say this: You might feign surprise, even mock shock—after all, you are all fine, upstanding, hard-working and "good and moral" persons; you are kind to animals and your parents and your children; you dutifully recycle and show concern for the environment; you go to church, synagogue, temple or mosque; you are leaders in your community. You work by consensus and use the latest models and theories, even those that you don't particularly understand. But the experts, consultants and policy analysts have said these are the best. So, they must be. You think it shades of grey and that defines your moral views. When you do decide to take a position it is the safe and popular one, even if it's the wrong decision morally.

Yes, you have a good job and you draw a good salary, and you wine and dine around the world, but you deserve it; you have earned it by dint of who you are. Your favourite word is "no"—denying others makes you feel like a god—powerful, capricious and unloving. You say that if others are poor or in desperate situation, or suffering unfairly, let them go to the community or governmental organizations for aid; they are there to help.

But you and I know that is not always true, is it? Pushing aside those bothersome, nagging thoughts really does nothing to develop your morality. It's very simple you see. In the same way that Israel's existence—Givers of the Torah, People of the Book, Leaders in Arts, Culture & Science, etc.—irritates "the world" and prevents it from living the way it desires, free from any moral obligation, persons like me, individuals, by dint of his words, remind you of your moral obligations to humanity.

Now, to the policy-makers, please go back to your coffee or to whatever strong drink you inbibe to calm your nerves. And forget that unpleasant business. Repeat after me: "I am a good person."


  1. As always; Mr. Greenbaum.... Your thoughts and recollections of life and indifference (in particular) give me solace, comfort and hope, despite the cruel reality.

    1. Thank you-we have to first be honest about what faces and condemns us as human beings before we can work to change it. Such is not idealism or illusion but a general assessment.

  2. A cultic devotion to policy, ideology and religion is very different from indifference. If the world were indifferent to Israel, that would be much better.
    Blind faith, whether religious or political, is the source of most of the evil on earth.

    1. You raise a good point that needs further elucidation. Devotion to policy, ideology and religion feeds indifference, since this devotion trumps all else, and all energy is expended in such devotion instead of a human-centred morality. The indifference that Mr. Wiesel alludes to and what I discuss in my article is a moral indifference to do good; that involves taking sides, taking risks. World indifference to the Jews is what allowed Nazi Germany to go ahead with its evil plans. I hope that my point is more clear.

    2. Not anonymous, but Jan Machalek said:
      You quote Perry: " Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, remarked that when open communication is impeded, all other liberties wither and imposed opinions becomes the norm; Elie Wiesel, another Holocaust survivor, said that the opposite of love is indifference, and that neutrality in the face of immorality is not an option".

      Horrors of the 20th century caused Europe. If we want to avoid new tragedies, we (Christians and Jews) need to communicate. Why just Christians and Jews? Let me draw your attention to this document as a response: The lectures of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks under the title "Has Europe Lost its Soul?", on YouTube.

    3. Jan, I agree with you that we need open, honest and respectful communication, which is not the same as parroting a closed ideology or hatred. One of the problems facing us as humans is that we have, to a large degree, forgotten what it means to have that kind of communication. You, on the other hand, understand it very well.

  3. Frank Columbo

    Your point is well taken, Perry, and your voice is strong to rightly defend such a tiny nation with such a formidable array of enemies wielding inventive, insidious, and single, intent.

    When was the last time we heard anything in the international / political / or any other news categories – including ‘the weather’ - regarding El Salvador?

    El Salvador has a population of about 6.1 million, and a land area of about 20,720 square kilometres. Israel has a population of approximately 7.35 million and a land area of 21,640 square kilometres. Not an identical comparison, but close enough. (2009 – 2010;

    I imagine it would require, on a grand scale, some ‘spill’ of oil, or blood, or both in El Salvador, to merit even a moment of such pronounced international scrutiny and disdain as Israel has always had to bear.

    1. You're right, Frank, that a nation of comparable size like El Salvador hardly is worth a mention in the media—good or bad. Such should lead an intelligent and rational person to only one conclusion, which, alas, is the razor-sharp focus of my article: to wit, humanity's inability to be just or humane.


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