Saturday, November 19, 2011

Advent conspiracy

I haven't written anything here for a while because I've been too busy. I spent nearly a week in California at two separate academic conferences. My wife and I got some valuable time together, which we spent sightseeing in San Francisco. Then I returned and spent most of the last week trying to clear up the backlog of work (mostly paper grading) that had been piling up since my surgery back in September. I'm almost feeling back to normal now, but I'm exhausted and more than ready for Thanksgiving break and what will follow. This has been a grueling week.

I team-teach an interdisciplinary humanities course, and every year we dedicate some class time to 20th-century atrocities, focusing on the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Japan. That's the week we just finished. For the sixth year in a row, I led my students through a discussion of Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. We chose Levi's book because almost everyone has read Elie Wiesel's Night by the time they finish high school. Levi was almost ten years older than Wiesel when he was deported to Auschwitz, and he looked at the experience with as much detachment as he could muster. He saw that the camp was a kind of experiment in bringing out the worst in human nature, and he understood that those who survived were the ones who pursued naked self-interest with a single-minded intensity that would brand them as criminals or lunatics in any normal society.

We also read and discuss multiple first-hand accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima, and examine historical writings that make the case both for and against its necessity. I mention having grown up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where many of the parents of people I knew went to work each day at the "gaseous diffusion plant:" a facility for electromagnetic isotope separation that turned out fissionable uranium in amounts large enough to produce nuclear weapons. I describe my lingering memories of the emotional nightmare caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and tell them frankly that when I was their age, I never expected to live as long as I have. With all those nuclear missiles my friends' parents were helping to make pointed at Russia, and a similar contingent of Russian bombs targeted at us, it was nearly inconceivable to me that someone, someday, would not decide to use them. When, along with our undergraduates, I read the accounts of victims of the Hiroshima bomb losing their skin and slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning, I am reminded that this is the way I long expected to die.

It is perhaps too much to expect 19- and 20-year olds to come to terms with the naked evil that the 20th century brought back into the foreground of human self-awareness. Having swallowed their obligatory Wiesel in mid-adolescence, many of them are understandably not eager to tread that ground again. The answers come a bit too easily. Freedom is God's gift to humanity. Even though Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor (we read that one just before the California trip) thought people weren't up to the challenge, the gift remains. Of course some mistakes are going to be made.

Next week we celebrate Thanksgiving, and the Christmas carols are already jingling in the background. The season of forced cheerfulness is upon us. I have been following with some bemusement the concern expressed in the media that Christmas, not satisfied with having taken over December, has now nearly devoured November as well. Christmas lights were already up in San Francisco, and large red Nutcrackers suddenly appeared in the hotel lobby the day before we left.

So it's worth remembering that Christmas actually doesn't start until - December 25th. The time before it, which begins next Sunday, is Advent, and it is a time for penitence, not celebration. I think this matters whether you're religious or not. Our lives need punctuation, and holidays—which we will all be celebrating soon regardless of our faith or lack of it—need to be balanced by introspection and soul-searching. No new seed can be sown without first making the ground ready, and heaven knows the ground has been poisoned this year by demonstrations of our increasingly impoverished vision of ourselves.

I speak as an American, and one who has always thought that being an American was a source of pride. In no other country in the world would a descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants have been as likely to marry a Protestant turned Catholic turned agnostic and produce someone with the mixture of spiritual deficits and advantages that have defined my life. At the moment, though, the magic that made America is not working, and the tent city that was stretched out right next to the tourist vendors in front of that San Francisco hotel was a reminder of what Americans can all too easily forget: that blessings come to us not in the middle of prosperity and chest-thumping pride, but through the back door of want, deprivation and yearning. They are defined by our very human need for what is unseen and, as yet, unimagined.

Unfortunately, that back door can also let in the demons we fear the most. Inhospitality, distrust of others and demonization of those who think and act differently are lurking there as well. Rarely have those traits of human nature been on such blatant display as in what has passed for our national conversation this past year. The blessings may be there too, but here's the thing; they're going to try to sneak in where and when we least expect it, and in all likelihood there will be no room for them at the proverbial inn. That's why the holiday season requires repentance as well as celebration. This doesn't mean we need to flagellate ourselves with guilt and regret. All we need is to open ourselves up to new possibilities and remember to look for hope in the face of the lowliest and most despised among us. We must exercise our freedom to be human, which means being broken, weak, inadequate and desperately in need of a helping hand.

So in preparation for the inevitable commercial and emotional onslaught that's sure to come, I would like to share my favorite Christmas song that I encountered last year. Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter Paul and Mary, packs more wisdom and understanding into these lines than we're likely to encounter anywhere in the commercialized Christmas season that's about to begin. All I can say in response is "May It Be So."


  1. A minor scientific/historical quibble: Gaseous diffusion (the mechanism of isotopic fractionation done at the K-25 plant) is not "electromagnetic isotope separation." It was initially an alternative to the calutrons, which worked on the principle of electromagnetic isotope separation (essentially mass spectrometry) and which was done at the Y-12 plant. According to wikipedia (with appropriate caveats), the uranium that was fractionated by the gaseous diffusion process was then fed to the calutrons.