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Writer criticizes post-genocide actions

Madeline Buckley | Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Renowned novelist and essayist Thane Rosenbaum criticized America’s numb response to atrocity and the movie industry’s tendency to fictionalize the horrors of genocide in a lecture entitled “After Auschwitz and the Twin Towers: Trauma and Memory,” Monday at McKenna Hall.

Rosenbaum condemned “forgetting” and the “pretense of knowledge” as methods of coping with atrocity, and cited them as prolific in our culture.

“It is much better for our sanity to forget it, and pretend it didn’t happen,” he said.

Rosenbaum credited the need to ignore suffering as a product of American society. Americans are not good at mourning loss.

“Our impulse is to move on and not look back,” he said.

The immediate flow of information enabled by new technologies that Americans have grown used to have desensitized them to the proper shock and awe that the dead require, Rosenbaum said.

The “shockless” American society is exemplified in Giuliani’s reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, which “has the framework of atrocity,” Rosenbaum said.

He said he was one of the only writers to criticize Giuliani’s response to the attacks, and he took issue with Giuliani’s request for New Yorkers to go about their day in a normal fashion.

“There is something about the notion of spending the day as if nothing had happened that is a desecration to the dead,” Rosenbaum said.

This numbness of American society is an obstacle to remembering the victims of genocide in a respectful and appropriate manner, Rosenbaum said.

In light of a genocide or similar atrocity, “the highest priority is memory, remembrance, and memorialization,” he said.

However, according to Rosenbaum, many Americans are too desensitized to do so. Instead, the proper awe and humility are replaced with forgetfulness and even worse, false memory, he said.

Rosenbaum said false memory is the pretense of knowledge – it is the attempt to understand and share in the suffering of victims, when this is actually impossible to grasp.

“In America, we have a very smug idea of what it is to know. We are satisfied with empty knowledge,” he said.

Rosenbaum claimed popular films contribute to the proliferation of false knowledge.

“Unfortunately, most Americans learn from seeing movies. They don’t read books or newspapers,” he said.

According to Rosenbaum, these films dishonor the dead because they perpetuate a pretense that one can know the plight of genocide victims – a pretense that, he believes, dishonors the dead.

“The truth is that the atrocities these movies describe are unimaginable and unknowable,” Rosenbaum said.

People want to see films that are life affirming, so most filmmakers include these themes, Rosenbaum said. Films should teach about the failures of humans, not their successes, he said.

“The vast majority of the people in the Holocaust died because there were no Oskar Schindlers [of Schindler’s List],” Rosenbaum said. “This is not how the dead want to be remembered,” he said.

These are misleading stories that make people feel better about themselves, and about humanity, Rosenbaum said.

“It is very selfish to engage in artistic representations that make you feel good. Its not about you,” he said. This impulse to universalize the stories of the victims is “ultimately narcissistic.”

Ultimately, the tragedy of genocide is owned by the dead and the survivors, not the filmmakers, Rosenbaum said.

“They have the right to have their stories told faithfully,” he said.

Given the outsiders inability to comprehend genocide, the impulse to forget and transform it is great, but this is “selfish and narcissistic,” Rosenbaum said.

“If we are going to remember, why not remember [genocide] in a way that doesn’t force the dead to roll over and be revolted in the way that their suffering has been trivialized?” Rosenbaum said.

The outcome of false knowledge resulting from the movies and popular media has not helped anyway, he said. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we have had four more genocides.

“We haven’t learned anything,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum’s lecture concluded the two-day conference on genocide, “Witnessing Genocide: Truth, Reconciliation and the Media.”