By Gaither Stewart
20 December, 2007
(Rome) Yesterday I ran into a poem I had read as a student in Germany written by the Luthern Pastor, Martin Niemöller, who broke with the Nazis in 1933 and became a symbol of the German resistance. His words prompted me to look more closely at the complex subject of indifference he speaks of. Niemöller wrote the following at war’s end in 1945:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.
In my mind the subject of indifference is not a closed end affair. You don’t even need a password to enter this site. Most certainly I cannot relegate the matter to “oh, that, well, we’re all indifferent to many things in life.” If so it would imply “indifference to indifference,” which in my mind is located still another ring deeper in the Dantesque Inferno. In that respect; I hope that here, as Baudrillard writes, words will prove to be carriers of ideas and not the reverse.
Life Is Oh So Beautiful
Recently one-third of Italian TV viewers watched a 100-minute tour de force of a literary-political interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy delivered by comic philosopher Roberto Benigni (Remember the film, Life Is Beautiful!). At the point Benigni referred to the “indifference” of Dante’s characters in his Inferno, I ran for pen and paper.
Making notes on indifference, I have continued thinking about that grassroots activist in Asheville, North Carolina who warns that voting is just not enough to change things. As a growing number of others like her, she feels frustrated because of the widespread indifference to Power’s deviations. I have in mind the polls showing that over half of Americans oppose the war in Iraq, oppose how it is conducted and its costs to America, and some are even horrified by the slaughter of Iraqi people.
The other side of the coin is that, amazingly, nearly half the public either favors the war against Iraq or they just don’t care one way or the other. Those many millions of people display an inexplicable indifference to the reality of the suffering, indifference to war’s uselessness and to its criminal-terroristic nature.
Some writers have long dealt with that one aspect of indifference, the indifference that the strong feel toward the weak. In the end most concord that such indifference is frivolity and knavery and cowardice.
Categories of Indifference
It’s true that there are many kinds of indifference and many things to which we can be indifferent. Animals can be loving and attentive one moment and totally indifferent the next. Just watch a cat, after a few caresses it marches away triumphantly. Nature in general is indifferent. Medieval Europe was incredibly indifferent to the great Alpine chain—the magnificent geographical mountain divide of the continent. Especially the Papal State was indifferent to nature in general and to its former territories around Rome in particular.
Researching the word indifference I re-encountered Albert Camus’ notation of the universe’s “benign indifference” toward creation. Also my former professor Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz was fascinated by “the contradiction between man’s longing for good and the cold universe absolutely indifferent to any values. “If we put aside our humanity,” Milosz writes, “we realize that the world is neither good nor bad—it just is.”
The spark of human life in us differentiates us from nature, which, though neither good nor evil, doesn’t always seem neutral. But in human beings the battle between good and evil is eternal. From that point of view humanity is also in battle with nature, against its apparent meaninglessness. We humans instead search for meaning.
Therefore man is an alien creature in the universe because he cannot be genuinely indifferent to what is good and what is bad.
In that sense, the indifference of reasonable people to war seems inconceivable. In the same western generation that was obsessed enough with the Vietnam War to help bring it to an end, the indifference to the Middle East wars today seems impossible.
Back To Earth
This year Italy is marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alberto Moravia, a major novelist of the 20th century. Born to a family of the Rome bourgeoisie in 1907, Moravia published his most famous novel, The Age of Indifference, at age 22. That story shows the apathy of Rome bourgeois society during the same time that Fascism was taking root in the nation.
“All these people,” Moravia’s protagonist, Michele, thinks, “have something to live for, whereas I have nothing. If I don’t walk, I sit; it makes no difference.” Michele knows he should act but never succeeds in shaking off his inertia. All actions and situations are alike for him. He is indifferent to emerging Fascism as were the masses of Germans during the rise of Nazism.
Here one might shrug and say indifference today is so general that it is not worth reflection. What difference does it make? Nonetheless here are some examples.
Indifference means “no difference.” On a basic human level, the indifference of one person to the other in a dwindling love affair is emblematic of the terrible impact of indifference in any field at all. As French chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg sang of his love for Brigit Bardot: What does the weather matter, What matters the wind! Better your absence than your indifference. Or Gilbert Becaud’s words: Indifference kills with small blows.
For Indifference, as Martin Niemöller and most people of the murderous 20th century know, is the destroyer of whole societies. I have excerpted some lines from a speech on Indifference by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, delivered in the White House on April 12, 1999:
A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between … good and evil. Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue?
Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims….In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.
Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.…Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor.
What Is the Alternative?
For me the opposite of indifference is involvement. It’s the search that leads to fulfillment, the extraordinary event we wait and hope for that interrupts the everyday flow of time. It is a kind of transcendence that points toward answers to questions like, ‘What am I as an individual?’ ‘What is my life all about?’ ‘Do I count?’
The answers to such questions however are forever misty and cloudy. We are aware—just barely aware—of that something hovering in the beyond, which at some rare times, for brief moments, seems within reach. It is something like longing for an impossible Utopia that we aspire to, most certainly the conviction that we are not neutral in the world.
However, that devil and prison of Indifference—and the indifference to indifference—excludes a priori the possibility of those high moments of existence that make life worth living.
Three Steps Back
So what, all these quotes and reflections about indifference! What does it mean today? What does it mean to me personally? Am I involved and committed just because I am aware of indifference? Does it even matter?
At this point I want to retrace my steps toward the heart of the subject at hand: indifference toward evil.
Late in life, the great Argentinean writer, Jorge Borges, denied he wrote for either an elite or the masses; he wrote for a circle of friends. This claim is familiar but suspect. His thesis that “there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition” is dangerous banter. Nobel Prize winner this year, Doris Lessing, said in an interview last October that she wrote for herself, for what interested her at the time. But her case is different from that of Borges, for she always dealt in ideas—anti-war for example.
Indifference toward evil! In 2002, I “covered” the G-8 conference in Genoa, a phony show, which ended with the murder of a real little man dressed in black. An Italian, from the suburbs of this port city, he called himself an Anarchist. The Big 8 labeled him an enemy of globalization, of the free market, an enemy of progress. While representatives of the rich world were barricaded inside the safe zone and served sumptuous meals by hordes of servants, they exchanged expensive gifts that were/are slaps in the face of the poverty they had gathered to combat.
Leaders of the world’s eight richest nations nonchalantly discussed poverty in Africa, issued casual sentences about the economies they do not control, imparted lessons they themselves do not observe, and finally budgeted the indifferent sum of 1.3 billion dollars to combat epidemics in Africa, a few pennies for each African dying of AIDS, a sum reportedly equal to one-eighth of the annual cost of only the tests for the US space shield project.
As inhuman as it is, indifference to suffering is bearable as long as it is invisible. We all experience that each day watching newscasts. Indifference to war is something else; were it not for the enthusiastic way humans participate in war we could call it inhuman.
Most people know of someone whose loved one died in US foreign wars for absurd reasons. But then time passes. Wounds heal. Indifference takes over.
Ignorant and deaf indifference is bad enough. But today, in Europe and the United States where information abounds, we have to call conscious indifference to war and injustice, and also its brother “indifference to indifference,” criminal and evil.
Here is an example of active indifference: the Chávez referendum in Venezuela. A former journalist acquaintance in Rome when he was the correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, today an editor and columnist of the New York Times, in his articles about Chávez on the eve of the referendum, was remarkably indifferent to what is really happening in Venezuela. A talented but overly ambitious journalist, he, like the newspaper he works for, is aware of but indifferent to the reasons that Venezuela and most of Latin America are striving for independence from the USA, whether its struggle is called “Socialism of the 21st Century” as in Venezuela, or “Agrarian Revolution” as in Bolivia.
Indifference! It doesn’t matter! Indifference appears in all places and at all times about every subject that has no direct, personal bearing on one’s own little life.
Indifference about global warming.
Indifference about national health care.
Indifference about poverty and the abyss between rich and poor.
Indifference to the value of labor and the working man.
Indifference about a society based on euphemisms and slogans.
Indifference about public corruption and crime.
Indifference about violence against women.
Indifference about arms controls.
Indifference about the government defrauding its citizens.
Indifference about the indifference granting the government license to defraud citizens.
Indifference about capital punishment.
Indifference about bombing civilians from the stratosphere.
Indifference about facts.
Indifference about a free press.
Indifference about indifference.
I made this list, sat back and examined it again and again, added one more indifference, deleted another, and turned a few words until I came to realize I had omitted the principle indifference: the indifference to evil itself that creates the things about which we are indifferent.
This rings complex but in fact it is not.
And I realized too that indifference is in fact often active indifference. It encourages indifference in others.
In a speech in 1908 Eugene Debs, the great Socialist trade unionist-activist, said more or less what Pastor Niemöller said in his poem a half century later: the indifferent ones do not see others. Theirs is a life of emptiness, devoid of any future. Debs recalled that thousands of years ago the question was asked: ''Am I my brother's keeper?''
Our society refuses to answer that question.