Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Power of Imagination

When Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad (today's superstar guest on Channel 4, where he's delivering an 'alternative Christmas broadcast) or Mahmoud Abbas or David Irving or that vast body of soi-disant leftwing anti-Semites play down the Holocaust or deny that it took place or seek to replace it with the falsified narrative of a 'Palestinian Holocaust' or some such fiddle faddle, something is going on that bears strangely little relation to the ideologies to which they separately belong.

Ahmadinezhad and other members of the Iranian regime are all Shi'i Muslims. Abbas is a Sunni and a professed secularist in politics. Irving belongs to the far right, and leftists stand to the left, many to the far left (albeit it with a variety of philosophical, ethical and political takes on everything). Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism/anti-Israelism are great unifiers of the otherwise deeply divided. There are even self-hating Jews in there. Hitler and Stalin both treated their Jews as scarcely human rubbish, even when they were at one another's throats. The broad Islamic position is that, if Jews are not wholly subservient to Muslim rule, bowing beneath the weight of legislation designed to humiliate and control them, they must be dealt with more harshly, for they are the quintessential enemies of the prophets and of Islam. Neither Hitler nor Stalin would have keep a single member of al-Qa'ida or Hamas alive. They would have hunted down and summarily executed Osama bin Laden, and done the same to any Muslim calling for the building of an Islamic state.

Yet Hitler was happy to enter into an anti-Jewish deal with the deeply anti-Semitic Muslim cleric, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Al-Husayni was eventually listed as a war criminal, yet he cheated the condign punishment that lay in wait for him and was fĂȘted in the Arab world long after the end of World War Two. And today, a large swathe of the left, alongside groups of anarchists, postmodernists, the middle-class chatterati, and many others, thinking themselves champions of the oppressed and guardians of human rights and human dignity, willingly acquiesce in plans for the genocide of Israel. They don't think that's what they're doing, but when they cheer on Hamas or turn a blind eye to Hizbullah, when they cheer on anti-American, anti-Zionist Iran and close their eyes to the horrendous human rights abuses taking place under Mr Ahmadinezhad's nose, and when they forge and bolster lies about Israel, false narratives about the West Bank and Gaza, that is exactly what they endorse. They have lost their moral compass. Utterly.

I won't attempt to try to explain all this in the present blog. Whole volumes have been written in which writers more learned and percipient than myself have hurled themselves at the gates of explanation, often to fall back winded. One part of any explanation must lie here, that those who deny or play down the Holocaust suffer from a severe lack of imagination. Or perhaps it's more that a different kind of imagination is in play. When I was a little boy back in the 50s, somebody tried to persuade me that there was no Santa Claus, that our parents did it all. I, however, being a staunch believer, vigorously defended the beautiful dream, and at one point fancied I could hear the jingling of sleigh-bells in the sky. Later, I learned that one must muster logical arguments, backed by evidence in order to defend what one believes to be truth. And part of that is a willingness to discard what one believes when the evidence shows a different truth.

When I speak of 'a different kind of imagination', I'm not talking about the levels of fantasy used by novelists and film-makers. I mean something less elevated yet essential to any understanding of the human state. What I mean is an emotional insight into the lives and feelings of other people. This ability, which we all have in some measure, is the capacity to imagine another's person's thoughts and feelings. Most of us develop that insight through literature, film, ballet, painting, music, and the other arts. We learn it in childhood via fairy stories, in our teenage years through more adult fantasy, science fiction, horror, and, if we're lucky, good quality ghost stories. Better still, we have our first encounters with Shakespeare, our first ventures into Jane Austen and her perfectly-formed world. Above all, we learn empathy through our close ties to friends and family. As adults, the greatest empathy of all comes in the form of a lasting attachment to another adult — a wife, husband, or partner.

This is why novels, the stage, cinema, and television drama are such a large part of most people's lives: they provide well-imagined characters as props for our empathy. Who has not shed a tear for Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'Urbevilles as they go to their undeserved deaths? Or let fall a little tear of gladness when Colin Firth asks his Portuguese cleaner to marry him, and she says 'Yes' and tells him she'd like that very much? These are invented figures, but the skills of the novelist or the film-maker convey so much of their circumstances, their feelings, and their thoughts that we feel we know them better than all but the best of our friends.

But if that sense of empathy — let's call it the empathetic imagination — is absent or atrophied, we would see no point in fiction, we would never adopt the orphan or feed the hungry or visit the sick or think imaginatively about the lives of our ancestors. It's not optional. Its absence is responsible for all the murders, wars, massacres, pogroms, and genocides in history. On Christmas Eve, a man dressed in a Santa outfit shot an eight-year-old girl in the face when she opened the door to him, and proceeded to kill seven other people. In Israel some years ago, a Palestinian terrorist called Samir Kuntar smashed the skull of a little girl and shot her father. Today, rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel are timed to take advantage of the 15-minute period during which schoolchildren are walking from home to school in Sderot. We are programmed to protect little children. We don't have to be parents to experience this. I could no more hit or kill a child than I could hit or kill my wife. Yet some people do all that and worse. In many countries, mostly among Muslims, though sometimes in other communities, honour killings are carried out by fathers, brothers, cousins, even mothers in order to regain the family 'honour' by punishing women for 'crimes' as serious as having a boyfriend. That a father will slit his daughter's throat while her mother holds her down runs counter to all we hold sacred. It is an abomination, yet large communities consider the men who do these things to be heroes. Entire cultures have so far abolished empathy that they have carried its absence into the most intimate areas of the family. When a man beheads his wife and slaughters their children, and all because she would not wear a headscarf or wanted to wear jeans, he has breached what should never be breached. That such a man could not imagine the feelings of his own wife and children to the point where salvaging his honour over something trivial became more pressing than his natural instinct to protect them from harm must be the very epitome of an absence of real love and empathy.

The Nazis and those who collaborated with them also lacked love and empathy to an appalling degree. What's worse, they were able to slaughter and torture their fellow human beings, not in the heat of sudden rage, not from a commitment to a distorted sense of 'honour', but routinely, just as so many of us go to work in their offices and factories every day. Despatching someone to a gas chamber seems to have caused no more damage to the conscience than pulling a lever on a car assembly line. We know roughly how it works, of course. Everyone has heard of the probing experiments carried out in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. Milgram used volunteers to operate a simple switch that delivered increasingly severe electric shocks to unseen individuals. In fact, the shocks were fake and the 'victims' actors. An experimenter in a white coat would order the volunteer to increase the 'voltage', and every time it went up, there would be sounds of pain. A very high number of people were so willing to obey the authority figure that they took the voltage up so high they thought it was causing actual damage. Later replications and a meta-analysis showed that between 61% and 66% of volunteers took the 'voltage' up to its maximum level when ordered to do so by the authority figure, even when the actors banged on the wall or talked of their heart condition. Only one person in Milgram's experiment walked out at a point lower than 300 volts, well below the maximum.

Milgram's experiment explains a lot of things. Primarily, it shows that a high percentage of people anywhere (the replications were spread over several countries) are capable of harming others when under the influence of authority figures. But I think it also shows that, under these conditions, empathy for victims is made subservient to the priorities of whatever belief system the authority figures subscribe to (in Milgram's case, it was 'the advancement of science').

I can't imagine killing another human being under ordinary circumstances, and certainly not when the situation is under my control. If someone was wielding an axe, however, and was about to attack my wife, and if I had a gun, shooting him would be
simple, if my attempts at persuasion had fallen on deaf ears. I've even found it difficult at times to kill off a beloved character in my novels. But in real life to kill a stranger who posed no actual threat to me would be impossible.

To herd frightened, naked children into a gas chamber and then press the button or pull the lever to release the gas is, surely, not simply bestial, cruel and sub-human, actually untermensch. It finally represents a total failure of the imagination, a dee-seated incapacity to put oneself in someone else's shoes, to realize their fear, to share it, or to grasp the ultimate consequences of one's actions both for the victims and for oneself.

Most of us, I am certain, come away from the contemplation of such undiluted inhumanity with a sense of shock and disbelief. When we hear of an unrepentent Nazi (and there have been so many of them), we wonder how they can live with themselves, in the full knowledge of what they have been, of what they have done. I have never met anyone like that, never known someone who would ever commit that sort of evil. But if Milgram's experiment is to be believed, we must be surrounded by such people. We all know how common it is, when someone (our Santa killer, say) has just killed a large number of people, has massacred his fellow students, or been captured and exposed as a serial killer, or has immolated himself on the London tube or elsewhere — we all know that we will very soon hear his friends, room-mates and family tell us what a lovely person he was and how shocked they have been to learn what he has just done. '"He was just the nicest guy," said Jan Detanna, who worked with Pardo [the murderous Santa] as an usher at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church.' The chances are they are telling the truth. Anyone who has watched the video of Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, saying farewell to his baby daughter, sees, not a crazed suicide bomber, but a gentle, loving father expressing genuine love for this tiny person he is about to leave behind. Read all accounts of the four bombers, and you'll see, again and again, that they are described as 'nice boys', popular, keen sportsmen, contributers to the community, and so on. It was not, in a sense, goodness that they lacked, but a proper awareness of what goodness is about. Goodness cannot really be about loving your baby girl yet not giving a damn about the babies who may be on that train when you set out to murder at random. Real goodness is closely linked to real perception, to an insight into our common humanity.

Hannah Arendt set out for us the concept that evil can be banal, that even the masters of genocide were not visibly 'monsters'. I happen to think that that makes the horror much greater than it might be where it otherwise. Someone who is deeply mentally disturbed may be frightening, but my next-door neighbour with a chainsaw in his hand makes me lose hope. I can make some sense of the paranoid schizophrenic, but my neighbour on a rampage has no place at all in my moral universe. Once we humanize our monsters, we no longer know where they get that monstrosity from.

I won't attempt to psychoanalyze Hitler or Himmler or Saddam Husayn: I'm not a psychologist, and it's been done before anyway. But if I had to opt for one thing, I'd say again it all stemmed from an absence of imagination. None of them could internalize their victims to the point where it would have hurt them more to kill than to save. But I think they may also have had an excess of imagination. That faculty worked well for Hitler when it came to picturing the Thousand-Year Reich in his mind's eye. All those plans and diagrams and models by Albert Speer that Hitler so much admired were part of his inner landscape, in the same way that Paris came alive for him once he had conquered it. He could not empathize with a Jew in striped pyjamas, but he could see a new Berlin take shape on paper, beneath the shadow of the swastika.

I seem to have come a long way from Israel here, but Israel is really at the heart of this piece. Israel is not just a living reality, but a land of the imagination, a country two thousand years in contemplation. Theodor Herzl and all the early Zionists imagined a city of Zion in the heart of desert, the first and later yishuvs populated that land in their imaginations, built Tel Aviv in their minds, created the Knesset and the IDF and a united Jerusalem in their hearts. Without those early visions, Palestine would still be desert and marshland. Those dreams have, in one way or another, become reality. It's not important that the Knesset is divided between warring factions or that the IDF didn't defeat Hizbullah or that Ehud Olmert was a bad prime minister. What matters is that there is a Knesset, that Israelis all have the vote, that the IDF won so many wars and will win again, and that Olmert will soon step down and will be succeeded, not be his son or another appointee or an army general, but by a democratically elected Israeli citizen.

Imagination and reality have achieved something amazing in Israel. No other country has been envisioned or moulded in this way. And no other country has been born (nor should any more be born) out of so much suffering. Two thousand years of persecution crowned by the Nazi Holocaust. How dare anyone sneer at this? How dare anyone proclaim there was no Holocaust, or invent a fake Holocaust to replace it, or call Israel's sons and daughters murderers and terrorists? How do terrorists and their fellow travellers denounce Israel as a Nazi state or an apartheid state or a racist state? It's clear to me that they lack all imagination. Not once have I heard from a Palestinian or Arab or Iranian source a dream of Palestine, a vision of prosperity and tolerance and progress. I have heard and read dreams of violence, dreams of genocide, dreams of a God grown so crazed with a lust for blood that he has exiled all other divinities and replaced love and mutual respect as the bases on which human society is to be erected. The G-d of Israel faces a God of the suicide belt, a God with hands lifted, smeared with blood, a God who smiles on child martyrs and gunmen and rockets, and whose face is reflected in the martyr's smile. This Arab God is a false God, even to those who worship him, for he brings them only greater suffering. He is a God without imagination, for he shows no signs of love and understanding for the Jews and Christians.

The world is filled with people who hate Israel. I have to ask, what is their problem? Don't they admire human rights, don't they care for free speech, democracy, the rule of law, a stable culture? Can't they imagine what it was like in the death camps? I was never in one, but the very thought chills me. I know what it is to be cold or hungry or frightened or anxious, because I'm human, and we all experience those things from time to time. However little our suffering when compared to that endured in the camps, it's enough to let us get a glimpse and to construct a more complete image on the strength of it. Can't they use their imaginations to picture what it's like to be a woman or a homosexual or a member of a religious minority or, above all, to be a Jew in modern Israel, and then to shift that imagination to grasp what it is to be any of those things anywhere else in the Middle East? It needs to work the other way around, of course. But, contrary to myth, not that many Israelis want to see the end of any Palestinian state, or a genocide of the Palestinian people. It is more urgent than ever that the Palestinians and other Arabs start to use their imaginations so they can picture what it is like to be threatened with extinction, and not for the first or second time. And there is no excuse for Westerners opposed to Israel not to access the vast imaginative resources of their own culture. Their only imaginative endeavours, like those of the Palestinians, have been focussed on a mythic vision of Israel, in which everything is topsy turvy: a rights-based society becomes an apartheid entity, the survivors and children of survivors of the Nazi genocide are given Totenkopf badges to wear and jackboots to strut in and are told they are the thing they most detest, the most liberal of Middle Eastern countries undergoes a dark change to become the most repressive. All in their imagination. They tell stories about Muhammad Dura and uranium weapons and dead children in Lebanon, and such are their skills at narrative that the world believes them without evidence, or in spite of the evidence. This is imagination on a grand scale, yet it achieves nothing because it tells a false narrative. That is a great fault, for the imagination thrives best on truths. However much they may be fiction, no great stories are untrue. Not a word of Shakespeare is untrue, however fanciful his stories may be, because they are faithful to a level of truth that begins where fantasy ends.

The proper use of the Arab imagination today is to create in minds and hearts a true vision of a Palestine in which all citizens participate in a culture that is far removed from today's culture of death as possible. The Palestinians and their aiders and abettors here in the West must start picturing happy, smiling children to whom they can entrust their futures. No mother should have to imagine handing round sweets to celebrate when her daughter or her son has killed herself or himself. She should instead do what mothers all round the world do, and picture her children being educated, going out to play, making friends, reading, painting and playing music, laughing, growing up, becoming useful and happy citizens of a stable state. Israel has not prevented such a vision from coming into being. The opportunity is permanently there. When will the Palestinian imagination seize it?