January 08

Justice in a Time of Madness - Righteousness Ain’t as Easy as it Looks

Roger S. Gottlieb

To call for justice is at the same time to rail against its opposite. From Jewish prophets to contemporary public interest groups, from democracy seeking citizens of Greek city-states to national liberation movements, those who pursue the creation of a more just way of life necessarily seek to remove injustice. In their call for better treatment of themselves or others, in their fearless critique of (in Marx’s bold phrase) “everything existing,” they align themselves with good and oppose the bad; they support a change for the better while resisting forces that make things go from bad to worse.

Since the concept of “justice” requires us to think in such stark alternatives, how can we proceed if we ourselves are afflicted by a kind of sweeping madness? How, to be specific, can we seek environmental justice for all of life when even the best of the prophets among us are unable or, more often, unwilling to only be on the side of justice?

How Justice is Pursued

The conceptual structure of “justice” involves, at least, the following: identifying an action or type of action, whether of a person, a group, or an institution; and describing the action in terms of its moral characteristics—i.e., in terms of familiar moral concepts like right/wrong, fair/unfair, just/unjust, proper/improper, decent/indecent, honest/dishonest and the like. Also, while the variety of contexts in which injustice arise will make the assignment of responsibility more or less easy, it is also necessary to decide who is responsible for these actions.

Finally, along with identifying, describing, and ascribing responsibility, we need to be able to distinguish the reciprocal positions of profit and loss. Who benefits from injustice and who suffers from it? And what is gained and what taken away?

This conceptual structure is clearly as present in ancient biblical criticisms of a self-satisfied and corrupt elite as it is in Marx’s classic economic theory. In both accounts there are the unfair and the fair, the unjust and the just. In Leviticus we are told that the laborer must be paid at the end of the workday. If you hold his wages, he will suffer (19:13). We are also cautioned against favoring any class of people in law courts (19:15). The prophet Isaiah denounced the McMansions of his day: “Those who join house to house, until there is room for no one but you” (5:18). In a remarkable reversal, the Jews are instructed not to to be “ruthless” to the poor (Leviticus: 25:43), with the same word being used to describe how the Jews were treated when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 1:13). Thus anyone can act justly, and anyone unjustly. It depends on how you live, and not who you are.

As the many authors of this book make clear, the Jewish tradition is filled with such clarion calls for justice. They echo in all our sacred texts, and have been equally present in secular Jews’ abundant presence in a very wide variety of progressive political movements.

What is perhaps less clear, not only to the Jewish tradition but to all of us, is how to understand justice in the face of madness.

Illogical Injustice

We will come to the environment. First, however, a detour is required to the foundational experience of modern Jewish life, the Holocaust. Now it is certainly true that if ever there was a paradigm case of injustice, the Shoah is it. The actions involved? Legal and social degradation, theft of property, consignment to slave labor, and mass murder. The injustice involved? That the Jews were innocent. The victims? The Jews. The perpetrators? The Nazis and the collaborators. The benefits to the perpetrators? Among other things, billions of dollars of Jewish property and political power from scapegoating.

The Holocaust, in other words, can be properly seen as a context in which one group unjustly (to say the least) benefits from what it does to another.

But what about that aspect of the Holocaust in which the perpetrators did not benefit? What about actions which, while devastating to the Jews, were also damaging to the Nazis? What happens when injustice is bad for those committing it?

To take two cases in point : The death camp complex Auschwitz-Birkenau was not only a site of mass murder, but also a number of factories, some which made essential war material such as ammunition. The factory workers were Jews, condemned to produce the weapons for their own killers. The situation of these workers approached the ideal of capitalism—it cost virtually nothing to keep them alive; and if they died, no one would be held responsible. The cost of producing their labor was virtually nil and there were plenty more where they came from. Yet even in this context some workers were better than others, and it would be more efficient—and thus better for the German war effort—to have experienced workers who knew what needed to be done rather than have to train an endless supply of new ones because the old ones had dropped dead from starvation or been killed.

That is why a number of times the commandant of Birkenau protested the extreme starvation and frequent random selections and killing of his workers. It simply did not make economic or military sense. Yet it went on. The goal of genocide, that is, had become an end in itself. It was no longer solely about killing Jews to get their property, or their slave labor; or even to scapegoat the Jews in the pursuit of political power. Death of the Jews had become its own reward.

If this is not madness, what is?

Another case: by 1944 the German Army was struggling in a two-front war. To the east, the Russians had proved surprisingly resistant to a final collapse. In the West the American entry to the continent placed extreme demands on German resources. It was necessary, in the face of this extremity, to be able to move German troops and material as quickly and efficiently as possible. Yet several times trains were not available—they were occupied carrying Jews to the gas chambers. Complaints, demands, and beseeching by army commanders accomplished nothing. From the highest circles of the Party, from Hitler himself, a stark and simple directive appeared: nothing, nothing, was to take precedence over the Final Solution. Nothing—not even the attempt to win the war.

To sacrifice one’s most needed goal—military victory—in order to kill: is this not madness?

When madness sweeps a social setting, at least one of the typical structures of claims of injustice are removed. We can no longer say “You are oppressing us in order to get….” for in this bizarre setting oppression is its own reward. Injustice is swept aside, and what is called justice remains—but it is a justice without logic or sense.

So, in Nazi Germany, the Nazi party put forth the belief that eliminating Jews was in itself a good: a moral imperative, a goal worth sacrificing for. That is to say, from the perspective of the Nazi leadership it made sense. Clearly, however, from the standpoint of military commanders and munitions makers, it did not. Moreover, to the crazy person, his or her madness always seems reasonable. That is part of the very definition of madness. In this case madness is precisely that distortion of decency and empathy, in which millions of human beings can be murdered with impunity. Within the realm of such madness, no claim of injustice will be heard or understood.

A World Gone Mad

In the environmental crisis the world now faces, we are swept up in a madness that encompasses killer and victim, polluter and pollutee. In the Holocaust, the distinction between perpetrators and victims remained all too clear. Mad or not, all the Nazis were killers, and all the Jews, victims. Now, as in Elie Wiesel’s prophetic observation that “The whole world has become Jewish,” even that distinction is at time strained to the breaking point.

Of course, some people pollute more than others. Some people benefit from the environmental crisis more than others. Clearly there is a great deal of money to be gotten from selling pesticides, even if they are carcinogens and degrade the soil. Building weapons may lead to enormous pollution, from waste products of building nuclear weapons to the toxic chemicals used to protect tanks and airplanes from rust; but weapons provide power. On a more individual level, non-organic produce is cheaper, non-hybrid cars have more storage space, and some people really do like their thermostats set to toasty in the winter and chilling in the summer. There are a lot of short-term, self-interested reasons to contribute to our non-sustainable form of life.

This is also not to say that everyone’s responsibility for the environmental crisis is equal. The peasants who deforest hillsides to cook dinner do not share the same moral culpability as executives of oil companies who obstruct governmental action on global warming. The woman who has to commute many miles to work to support her children is not as complicit in our energy crisis as the lobbyists who convince legislators to keep car fuel efficiency standards pathetically low. The migrant workers who die from pesticide poisons are not the same as their manufacturers. There are some who are more clearly victims than victimizers, some who benefit more than others.

And yet, there is also an element of madness in all this as well.

When we learn, for instance, that of ten randomly selected newborns the average number of toxic chemicals in their placental blood was one hundred and ninety, might we not wonder if the manufacturers of those chemicals, or the people who sell them, or the lobbyists who seek to keep them legal, or those of us who buy them—do all these people, ourselves included, not want to have children born with bloodstreams free of chemicals which cause cancer, neurological defects, and lowered immune systems? Why would we poison our own children if we were not a least a little crazy?

When the government of China refuses to cap its global warming emissions until the average income of their country reaches $10,500, and this despite the fact that with its generally low technological resources and lengthy coastline it is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming, might we not wonder why these powerful men think that more cars, tvs, and meat-based diets will make up for floods, droughts, and searing temperatures?

When all of us, the author of this essay no less than any of its readers, continue our lives more or less as usual, turning our minds to all the other Very Important Things we have to do, and allow governments, schools, businesses, tv weathermen, universities, churches and synagogues and mosques, the PTA, and the Knights of Columbus to act as if this a global environmental crisis isn’t happening, or as if enough is being done about, or as if some mystical “They” (the EPA, the U.N., clever engineers, brilliant scientists, or—God help us—“the market”) will take care of it—might we not reflect and see that we, no less than any junkie on the corner, have been led by addiction to our “way of life” into a kind of madness?

The Problem is Partly us, Including Me

And so we must ask: What is justice in an age of madness? How are we to call for justice when, along with a fully authentic moral critique of the powerful, we must turn an accusing finger at our own selves? If Isaiah also oppressed the worker, if Marx had been a rich capitalist, what then?

As difficult as our moral situation is, I belief that our tradition has some resources that can empower us to face both the crisis—and our complicity in it.

We find, as we look to the Jewish tradition, the resources of t’shuvah, renewal, and, oddly enough, self-righteousness.

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