Skip to content

Complicity Through Passivity

by Editor on February 12th, 2011

If it takes two to tango, it takes at least as many to collaborate, in every sense of that word. Coming on the heels of my column last week about Israeli intransigence on peacemaking with Palestinians—while embracing the Germans in the years after the holocaust and every year since—I was stuck by the parallels in two reviews in the current New York Review of Books. First is Ian Buruma’s review of Alan Riding’s new book “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris”; Buruma focuses his review around those writers and artists who collaborated with the Nazis, those who didn’t, and the large swath of gray in between. He writes:

“Some French artists and intellectuals such as Jean Paulhan were active in the resistance, but for the most part the cultural elite made no special contribution. Should more have been expected of them? This is the question running through Riding’s book. The fact that writers were more harshly treated after the war than collaborating businessmen or bureaucrats suggests that it was certainly seen that way by many people in France. Sartre, for one, believed that intellectuals had a higher calling than other people. De Gaulle seemed to agree. He refused to save Robert Brasillach from execution (even as real killers, like René Bousquet, went on to enjoy successful careers in government), because, as he put it, ‘in literature, as in everything, talent carries with it responsibility.’ Unlike Americans, the French have traditionally treated their writers and thinkers with reverence. Was this trust betrayed?”

Decades after the war, this may feel like a question that is largely academic (so to speak). Where the issue has relevance is for contemporary situations that are, if not precisely analogous, then at least comparable in raising questions about how intellectual elites (or even mere mortals) respond under pressure. A few pages after Buruma comes David Shulman’s review of “What Is a Palestinian State Worth?,” the new book by Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. Describing Nusseibeh and the environment in which he and other Palestinians and Israelis coexist, Shulman writes:

“Last July I heard Sari Nusseibeh speak at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities at an evening honoring its retiring president, Menahem Yaari. … Nusseibeh used the occasion of the academy lecture to deliver a damning indictment of the Israeli academic establishment for its truly astonishing passivity over the past forty-three years of occupation. Although, in general, the government is probably right in seeing the Israeli universities as a natural breeding ground for leftist—that is, liberal and peace-oriented—opinion, Nusseibeh is also right. Like everyone else, Israeli academic intellectuals as a group have failed to mount a sustained and politically effective protest against the occupation and the accompanying colonial project of settling Israelis in the territories. Like most other Israelis, with some notable exceptions, they live within the system and tolerate its misdeeds. The large audience at the academy listened to Nusseibeh’s scathing critique that evening with what seemed to me, for the most part, a stony and impassive silence.”

That observation speaks for itself. And while the Israelis are not engaged in systematic murder in the mode of the Nazis, it is difficult to deny the reality of the oppressive occupation of the West Bank and, previously, Gaza—raising questions of complicity through passivity.

Likewise the interview on NPR last night with Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. Shoukry was by turns direct (e.g., in response to a question about who is in charge and what has been communicated about it, Shoukry says “…as of yet, we have not received any definitive information related to the process of governing.”) and slightly evasive. He concluded by noting that the future looks bright for Egypt and its children—but, of course, Ambassador Shoukry was appointed by now deposed President Hosni Mubarak, which surely raises questions about his own role in government, past and future.

Complicity through passivity. It is an interesting concept, challenging as much for its lack of nuance as for its wide applicability. Are we, Americans, complicity in the loss of our own civil rights, through Big Brother-esque laws like the Patriot Act, by not protesting more loudly? Yes. (And kudos to the new members of Congress who, in the midst of other, less positive tendencies, have also tried to put the brakes on the renewal of this terrifying piece of legislation.) Are we complicit in the ethically problematic (if questionably legal) tactics—from torture to targeted assassination—practiced by our government? Slavery. Segregation and oppression of minorities, from Native Americans to African-Americans to the GLBT community. Support for dictators, from Marcos to Mubarak.

With Egyptians now optimistically looking to a freer future, after the fall of a regime the United States supported for three decades, we must ask ourselves these questions again. We may not agree on the answers; indeed, we may not come up with much of an answer at all. But the world would—will—be a better place if we confront these issues, ask the right questions about our own actions, and seek to achieve the higher values we espouse rather than the realpolitik that is more easily reached.

Comments are closed.