Genocide-Lite: The Massacre of Meaning

genocide IIA young Frenchman whom I know had just returned from a year in Australia. For many young French people a year in Australia has become almost a rite de passage, their favoured destination for such a rite. And the young Frenchman did not regret his choice before he knuckled down to the serious business of having a career that he did not really want and would not really enjoy. Such is the fate, perhaps, of most of mankind, or at least of educated mankind.

Naturally I asked him how he had liked Australia. He had liked it very much. What he missed about France, though, was the sense of history, missing in Australia. I said that Australia had a very interesting history, though of course not a long one by European or Asian standards.

“You mean the genocide?” he said.

He was an intelligent young man, but not the kind to devote much attention to the details of history as against a general feeling of its presence or absence. And he knew that there had been a genocide in Australia, a fact that he had absorbed by a process of cultural osmosis rather than by more scholarly means.

The Astringencies column appears in every edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

I said that I thought there had been no genocide in Australia, that the claim that there had been such a genocide was misleading. It was true that the fate of the Aboriginal population had been in many respects an awful one, and no doubt very bad things had been done by settlers, but there was a tragic dimension to the encounter which required no genocidal intent to produce its results.

It turned out that we were talking at cross-purposes. He did not mean by genocide the attempt to kill an entire race of people, such as occurred in Rwanda. He meant something more along the lines of the effective destruction of a culture or extinction of a way of life by, for example, removal of children from their parents and bringing them up in a completely different culture, speaking a different language.

Even on this rather loose definition of genocide, of course, you would have to demonstrate that all the children of a certain group had been severed from their parents, not with the intention of protecting them from harms, but with that of extinguishing the language and culture into which they were born. I doubt that this could be done.

But in any case, such a use of the word genocide debased it, and this (for me) was not without importance: for when you have used up the word genocide in describing a much lesser event, what word do you use when genocide, in the sense of the deliberate physical extinction of a whole ethnic group, occurs? The emotional force or charge of the word genocide will have been dissipated by its overuse, and familiarity breeds indifference.

I remember when the odious regime of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu was overthrown and they were accused of genocide. It was shortly after I had visited the country, entering it as a tourist and visiting dissidents. At the British embassy I spoke to the first secretary, having first descended into a deep cellar that had been supposedly cleared of all bugging devices. Every Romanian whose home I visited immediately covered the telephone with a cushion or two on the assumption that it contained a listening device. If you heard a footstep behind you, you assumed that you were being followed. The streets were largely empty. Romania was a Balkan North Korea, spared somewhat by its corruption, inefficiency and disorganisation. (Ceausescu was a great admirer and would-be imitator of Kim Il-Sung. I cannot recommend highly enough the film of the Danube of Thought’s visit to Pyongyang, available on YouTube. It is both terrible and hilarious, especially the dancing.)

I am ashamed to say that when I heard that the Ceausescus had been tried and shot, my heart leapt with joy. It took a little while for a reaction to set in. Their trial was perfunctory, to say the least, and grossly unfair. There was no semblance of due process. No one should be taken out into a courtyard and shot like stray dogs, as they were, least of all by people who, until only a few days before, would have fawned upon the condemned and obeyed their every order. As is so often the way with very bad people, the Ceausescus achieved some slight dignity in the face of death. My initial reaction taught me that I was not immune from the evil of political passion.

The charge of genocide against the Ceausescus did, however, appal me straight away. They were quite bad enough without having to accuse them of the most abominable of crimes. Romanian behaviour in Transnistria and Odessa during the war, after all, had been incomparably worse than anything done by the Ceausescu regime, awful though it was. True, the Ceausescus were guilty of genocide in the narrowly juridical sense that they sold practically all the country’s remaining Jews to Israel and the Saxons to Germany, in the latter case ending a six-century-old cultural tradition: but the juridical sense makes no moral sense (and is therefore immoral), because selling people for money, not even into slavery, is a far cry from exterminating them, however repellent as a policy it might be. One might as well draw no distinction between robbery and murder.

The easy resort to the most extreme possible descriptions of people and actions that one detests seems to be a characteristic of our times. Oddly enough, this combination of moral imprecision and verbal inflation occurred in the West with the large expansion of tertiary education in the Western world—or so it seems to me. The word fascist came to be used lightly, almost joyously, to describe anybody or any policy which conflicted with the moral orthodoxy of the moment. Its employment obviated the need to examine and refute arguments, just as no one needs (or is able) to refute a paranoid delusion. The label by itself was enough to stifle discussion, a word without definite meaning but with a connotation like the grin of the Cheshire Cat that remained when all else of that creature had melted away.

The murder of the Ceausescus was more like getting rid of the evidence than an act of justice. Ceausescu was the kind of man whose greatest intellectual asset was probably a filing-cabinet memory for all that his associates had done. A real trial in which he had been allowed a defence would have been a festival of tu quoque pronounced against his accusers. It is the terrible achievement of totalitarian regimes such as that of the Ceausescus that no one emerges both alive and innocent, which is one of the reasons why the effects of such regimes last at least a generation or two. It will take three generations to overcome the legacy, the Romanian historian Andre Pippidi told me in Bucharest three months after the overthrow.

Vehemence is often the tribute that egotism pays to guilt. I ought to feel the wrongs of the world deeply because that is how good people feel them: therefore if I express myself strongly enough I will at least appear to be good. The stronger the words the deeper the feeling I appear to feel.

This is not the first time in history that an intelligentsia has felt the need for vehemence. In criticising Chernyshevsky, the Russian radical of the mid-nineteenth century who wrote the atrocious novel What Is to Be Done that exerted so powerful an influence on Lenin (if we want to believe that literature can do good, we must also believe that it can do harm), Tolstoy, not entirely alien himself to the siren-call of bad ideas, wrote:

One only hears his fractious disagreeable voice which ceaselessly mouths spite. It gets excited because it does not know how to speak and its voice sounds false. All this kind of thing comes from Belinsky. However, he spoke like that because he really had been hurt whereas this writer [Chernyshevsky] thinks that in order to speak well one must speak insolently and in order to speak insolently one must get angry … it has come to be thought among us … that it is the thing to show oneself indignant, bitter, testy.

Is this not somewhat reminiscent of our own times, when a possible future Prime Minister of Great Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, compares the Israeli government to the Nazi, appears to mean it and is applauded by many for doing so?

2 thoughts on “Genocide-Lite: The Massacre of Meaning

  • lloveday says:

    “I am ashamed to say that when I heard that the Ceausescus had been tried and shot, my heart leapt with joy.”.

    Ok, I’m not ashamed of a similar feeling, but what did your heart do when you heard bin Laden had been shot without trial, contingent on an arguably illegal incursion into the sovereign nation of a non-belligerent, arguably an ally, along with his unarmed, or at least non-combatant, driver who was just a simple driver, not a “soldier”? I said “Yes!”

  • Jody says:

    Just reminding everybody; the misuse of language and the blitzkrieg of propaganda can be exploited by BOTH SIDES of the political divide. I wonder when conservatives are going to wake up to the fact that irony and imitation are both powerful tools?

Leave a Reply