Learning from Others (about racism in German and the American South)

Learning from Others: Germans and White Supremacists


Susan Neiman has written a remarkable book, Learning from Others: Race and the Problem of Evil (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). What makes it remarkable is the clarity, approach, and particular angles of interpretation taken toward racism, exploring with depth and originality the mystifying evil realities of prolonged lethal racist behavior, with a focus on its toxic longevity, and the importance of learning how its legacy in particular contexts might be best addressed. Neiman brings to bear her knowledge and craft as a professional philosopher, who at the same time philosophizes in an instructive manner that is far removed from the fixations on language and logic that is the mainstay of contemporary Western philosophy, whether Anglo-American or Continental. In this regard her stance toward philosophy is also a therapeutic undertaking that in its own way seems as vexing as is racism itself. In her own relevant words of lamentation, “(T)here was a time when American philosophers brought passion and clarity to the major social and political events of their day.” (261) She illustrates this observation by reference to Emerson and Thoreau, who in their time not only decried slavery, but supplemented their moral condemnation by engaging in acts of nonviolent and unlawful solidarity. Such is Neiman’s engagement with her challenging subject-matter.


Neiman insists that her preoccupation with evil is not so strange for a traditional philosopher. She is, as always, clear about her work being situated in what was once the philosophical mainstream: “How should we live in a world riven with evil? Is the question that has driven philosophy from its beginnings.” (18) Surely, this is one of the questions, but is it the question? I have my doubts. And certainly, the main philosophical work of the past century has dwelled on evil here and there. It is my impression that the most influential Anglo-American philosophers during my lifetime have made it almost dogma to avoid altogether the challenge of evil as a dimension of the human condition.  


A further feature of Nieman’s book, not often encountered in a self-consciously ‘philosophical’ book, is the insinuation of autobiographical details that express her personal connection with the argument being advanced. She informs readers at the very outset: “I began life as a white girl in the segregated South and I am likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin.” (3) And she finishes her book by describing the failure of her attempt to live with her children in Israel. She was put off by what she experience of Israel’s tribalism, and this discomfort occurred despite the rather strong sense of Jewishness and its traditions that informs her worldview. That she feels more at home in Berlin than in Tel Aviv is both significant and intriguing, and goes along with her obvious tough love engagement with the deep South, especially the state of Mississippi. I suppose part of an explanation is an obsession with the occurrence of evil, how it happens, how it can be overcome, and above all how might the evil genie be returned to its bottle, although without minimizing the risks of a future escape as part of a justification for the preoccupation. In this sense, Learning from Others, can be read as citizen engagement on behalf of avoiding the recurrence of racism and other evils, or put crudely, as a way of taking seriously the rather flip slogan, ‘Never Again!.’ Her sense of citizenship, it strike me, centers on working to sustain freedom and a democratic spirit, in essence, a neo-Jeffersonian commitment to the ‘eternal vigilance’ Jefferson believed vital if democracy was remain true to its values in the course of time.


One other feature of the way Neiman proceeds arises from her sense that reality needs to be approached by listening with great care to how others with relevant experience articulate their engagement with this blight of collective racism, whether the voice is that of victim, resister, or even perpetrator. Her words: “I just became aware that you need to see events from many different angles before you can get as close as possible to the truth about them.”(83) What I found most impressive about this willingness to listen attentively and at length to all sides is that these conversations that appear throughout the book build toward moral clarity rather than encourage a suspension of judgment or the adoption of a posture of moral neutrality. Neiman avoid any pretense of detachment or professional distance, refusing to copy the supposed objectivity of a natural scientist or mathematician. Neiman leaves even the most casual reader with little doubt as to where she stands with respect to refusals by a social order and its members to purge the present of the past (that is never entirely past) by redressing evil, although she empathetically acknowledges that in the face of military and political defeat, such a redemptive healing process is more likely to occur, but takes time, patience, persistence, and maybe a bit of luck.


The thematic unity of the book is achieved by a focus on one of those incredibly inflected German words, vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which Neiman renders in English as ‘working-off-the-past.’ (7). In effect, the taint of past evil, in this case the twelve years of Nazi rule or the stages of racist abuse, from slavery to Jim Crow to the resurgence of white supremacy in the American South, do not disappear on their own. It requires a deliberate often anguishing willingness to look the past in the eye, and to be sure in the present to rid the societal landscape of glorifying reminders of what needs to be rejected. In this regard she revisits in detail debates about the presence of monuments to Confederate heroes of the past and the ongoing attachment of most white southerners to the Confederate flag. She contrasts this American failure to get beyond its shameful racist past with the relative success of the German experience. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for a Nazi town or city to erect a statue of Hitler or fail to preserve the memory of a nearby death camp. The book acknowledges that maybe Germans were helped by not only losing the war, but by being occupied by foreign liberating forces for fifty years thereafter. The contrasting non-repentance of the American South is a major theme.


There are some surprising, well-reasoned, conclusions that give an interesting twist to German post-Nazi experience, living as a divided country from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I had never stopped to think why former Nazis seemed to have such an easy time in West Germany. Neiman sets forth two convincing explanations from her research and experience. Perhaps, most prominent, was the priority accorded in West Germany, especially by the United States, to anti-Communism, a credential that for a time virtually erased any blight from past Nazi affinities and activities so long as deactivated in the present. Of course, in East Germany under Soviet occupation and influence, the equation was somewhat reversed. Anti-Communism in any form was totally unacceptable, while anti-Fascism was the order of the day, infusing education and ideology. In effect, for this reason it took West Germans much longer to clear their body politic of the Nazi virus. Neiman is certainly not giving the East Germans a clean bill of health when it comes to addressing contextual evil, as she takes note of the failure of East Germany to acknowledge, much less repudiate, the crimes of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. At the same time, she believes that Nazism was a much more severe immersion in evil, and rejects the fashionable claim of their equivalence.


When it comes to American racism as still manifest in the South, Neiman convincingly notes the impact of conservative American presidents, including Nixon, Reagan, and most of all, Trump who has given racist dog whistles so loud as to be discernable by the most dimwitted. They signal that it is okay to revere the Confederate ethos and its heroes, that it is part of the American past, acceptable at the time, that need not be hidden or occasion shame. In her view, this tolerance of past racism unsurprisingly encourages extreme and pathological racists to translate their views into action in the present, and incidents such as the Charlottesville March and the Charleston massacre in a black denominational church are almost bound to occur.


A distinctive dimension of Neiman’s methodology is the presentation of extensive interview material from prominent historical figures, community leaders, and ordinary folk with stories to tell. Such an approach, according value to the voices of those with a relationship to memories and remnants draws on Neiman’s skill as an interviewer, or more accurately, a conversationalist. This includes the capacity to listen sympathetically, yet never foregoing her own unwavering and unconditional repudiation of racism whether in Germany or the Southland of America. I know of no philosopher of her distinction that dismounts from the elegant horses of philosophical abstraction to gather evidence from the trenches where the relevant realities of her inquiry are situated. The lucid prose style gives the book a clarity enlivened by a kind of storytelling quality. It is against this background of blending philosophical concerns with deep aspects of the human condition—in the spirit of Hannah Arendt—that a profound understanding of prolonged racism occurs. Neiman’s special type of empiricism blends philosophical inquire with social science. It makes this treatment of overcoming racism rather unique. Its special quality is also enriched by Nieman’s long personal experience in both Germany and the deep South. She does not write as an outsider, but in neither setting does she fully qualify an insider.


Perhaps, the most intriguing conclusion drawn from the comparative aspect of Learning from the Germans is that the Germans have done a better job of overcoming their past than have their American counterparts. Although Neiman discussed the rise of the far right AfD Party in considerable critical detail,  she seems to feel that although the AfD is a disturbing reminder that the Nazi virus is still present in the German body politic, it is a marginal phenomenon, drawing its strength not so much from the past as from the anti-migrant stance that has nudged the politics of all major European countries to the right. By way of disturbing contrast, the American people have elected as their president a person who actively encourages and embodies such a rightwards lurch, including a disparagement of the most basic institutions of constitutional democracy, as well as many signs of tolerance for if not sympathy with extreme racism as manifest in the majority racist politics of several southern states. I find Neiman’s insight here significant. In effect, Trump exhibits a pre-fascist potentiality in America, which is more fearsome than having a neo-fascist presence at the margins of mainstream politics as seems the case in Germany. Of course, if conditions change the margins can be erased or erode the mainstream in ways that should not be ignored as future possibilities. And in America, if Trump and Trumpism are repudiated in the 2020 elections, the country might again seem to resume the trajectory of creative democratic constitutionalism.   


With moral clarity Neiman supports the call for reparations to be paid to African-Americans. She considers the arguments opposed to reparations, but is unpersuaded, suggesting that it is an unpaid debt to the victims of slavery and Jim Crow that needs to be paid to survivors and descendants, if nothing else, . Neiman rejects the contention that those not victims are undeserving or those not perpetrators have no responsibility. She points to the wealth that slavery and racism brought to white society, and the impoverishment endured by African Americans, currently reflected in their differential wealth and income. In this instance, Neiman support a controversial argument, put forward most coherently Ta-Nehisi Coates, that even progressive political figures , such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have not adopted, which would strike the American mainstream as unacceptably ‘radical.’  In effect, Neiman insists that working off the past of white racism requires something more tangible and ongoing than an apology, and that given the past enrichment achieved by society due to racist forms of exploitation, a monetary form of redress is quite appropriate.


This brings me, finally, to the question of Palestine as it plays out in Germany. Although Neiman does not embrace conventional Zionist arguments that are now insisting that criticisms of Israel are the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ she fails to take note of the unlearned lessons by Germans and Germany with regard to Israeli anti-Palestinian racism as practiced over the course of several decades. As a result of several recent actions Germany had taken strong official steps to discredit the BDS Campaign and its supporters. Beyond this the German Government has refrained from any criticism of the unlawful and abusive policies and practices relied upon by the Israeli state in dealing with the Palestinian people. Overcoming the Nazi past would seem to involve a repudiation of racist patterns of behavior, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. For Germany to be inhibited from criticizing Israel because it proclaims itself the nation-state of the Jewish people is to confuse the behavior of a state with hatred of its people. To criticize Israel is not to attack the Jewish people, provided of course that the criticism rests on evidence and is proportionate to the wrong perceived. I find this oversight on Neiman’s part to be the only serious shortcoming of her book, and as serious in its way as she finds the failure of the United States to pay reparations to African Americans.


As indicated at the outset, Susan Neiman has contributed to an indispensable addition to the scholarship addressing links between past and present with respect to racism. Although the objects of her concern are limited to Nazism and the American South, the methodology of her inquiry and the insights that result can be derived from comparable studies of past evil and its legacies. Unfortunately, the histories of genocide and racism remain incomplete, with new

circumstances of moral outrage emergent in many distinct civilizational settings. In the end we are challenged by Neiman not to consider racism or evil as matters of destiny, but fully subject to the vagaries of human responsibility, which includes the domain of a free society.     

Richard Falk

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