Monday, November 18, 2002

Lies, Damned Lies and Doubly Damned Lies

Monday, 18 November 2002

I think an advisory warning is appropriate for this post: there's not much satire in it and what there is is satire of the blackest kind. Those who think satire is a synonym for fairly benign humour on political topics may prefer to stop reading now. This post also employs an argument by analogy, and the analogy will be quite offensive to some.

One of the nastier little half-truths circulating in some parts of the blogging world is that the African slaves of the 18th and 19th century were responsible, at least in part, for their own slavery. This plea of mitigation for the slave shippers and slave owners argues that whites only bought the slaves: it was Africans who sold them, so they must be held accountable too.

When I was in high school, there was a brief fad for horror fiction and for a short while there was a brisk underground trade in horror anthologies, such as the Pan Book of Horror Stories. One of the books that circulated during this fad for the macabre was a personal memoir of Auschwitz written by a survivor, whose name (once again) I have forgotten. Although it was satisfactorily gruesome and horrific its entertainment value was compromised by the knowledge that the author was describing real events which happened to real people. Imaginary horrors are much more satisfactory as entertainment.

One of the ugly facts of Auschwitz and the other death camps, is that much of the day to day work in the camp was done, not by the SS Officers and Guards, but by the prisoners themselves. Those who were "fortunate" enough to be pressed into service sorting the clothing and personal effects of the dead, removing the gold fillings from their corpses and transferring them to the crematoria and performing all the other mundane tasks associated with industrialised pillage and murder received a short stay of execution. But I think very few - even those who are prepared to split hairs over whether English anti-semitism is somehow more benign than other varieties - would dare to suggest that we should realise that the SS were merely managers and supervisors of the enterprise, and that the real work was done by a selected cadre of camp inmates.

Of course, like all arguments by analogy, this one will probably fail. No doubt, there are significant moral differences between buying slaves and working them to death on the one hand, and gassing millions to death then extracting every possible economic benefit from their corpses on the other. I suspect that there are plenty of people who will be only too happy to point out those differences. These people have much more insight into moral subtleties than I can lay claim to.

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