Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.
Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.
But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.
Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.
I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:
The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.
New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."
The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:
However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.
Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?
The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.
At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.
What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.
Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?
For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.
When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment. Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power. Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.
It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.
Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:
First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?
Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.
"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."
Hannah Arendt, On Violence
The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons. Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012: the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.
Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,
the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One. But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.
That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers. And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals how to use firearms.
Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.
Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power. Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.
American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All. And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.
In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.
In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.
In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence. And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.
The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.
Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.
Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally. Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.
Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.
While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.
In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.