One of the worst things about our awful political moment is its historical forgetfulness. Many Europeans seem to have forgotten where chauvinistic nationalism and the demonization of minorities can lead. Many Americans seem to have forgotten that a foreign policy of “America First” allowed international malignancies to grow that made war inevitable and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. And many in Western countries seem to have forgotten the difficult, desperate project of building a moral and legal structure around the principle of human dignity in the aftermath of World War II.
Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the United States are both atrocities and reminders. They ring with distant but unmistakable echoes of the nightmarish events of the 1930s and 1940s: the racial-purity laws, the economic indignities, the despairing suicides, the liquidation of the disabled, the digging up of Jewish graves in cemeteries, the deportations, the ghettos, the shootings in batch after batch, the pits of corpses, the emptied orphanages, the terrified walk to the gas chamber.
It is worth trying to recall how shocking these events were to the conscience of the world. The institutions of the modern state — bureaucracy, propaganda, military power — had been harnessed to the purposes of sadism and mass murder. This indicted a highly sophisticated and educated European society — along with the very idea of sophistication and education as brakes on evil. It indicted other nations that did little, even after the crimes became obvious. It indicted many German Christians who were indifferent or complicit. For some, it even indicted God, who seemed uncaring on a distant throne.
But the response was ultimately an idealistic one. The Allies would institute a new order of justice and human rights. The Tokyo tribunals and the Nuremberg trials were both legal and moral enterprises. The chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, said he would not seek convictions for “mere technical or incidental transgression of international conventions. We charge guilt . . . that involves moral as well as legal wrong. . . . It is their abnormal and inhuman conduct which brings them to this bar.”
The moral response to World War II-era crimes found expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which speaks of “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights.” There were many influences on this document, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms to the Declaration of Independence. But the theory was simple: The Axis powers not only lost, they also were wrong. Their vision of nation, race and culture would be replaced by an assertion of universal human rights and dignity.
It was, however, more of an assertion than an argument. French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was involved in the debates surrounding the Universal Declaration, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”
Some of the challenge to this vision of inherent dignity has come from arguments associated with academic liberalism. It has become common to deny that human beings have natures that can be separated from their cultural circumstances. And without a human nature, it is hard to define a set of human rights. Without some standard from outside the culture — some statement by God or reason that every human life is sacred — we are left with only the current consensus of our culture. And we are left with no good reason to tell our children why they should hold to that consensus rather than abandon it.
But the most urgent, comprehensive attack on the universality of human rights now comes from the nativist right. In places such as Hungary, Romania, Germany, Poland and the United States, politicians are attempting to define nationality based on the dehumanization of cultural outsiders — Muslims, migrants and refugees. This type of politics is dangerous wherever it is practiced. In the United States, it also requires the renunciation of responsibilities rooted in the postwar acceptance of human dignity as the basis of global order and peace.
This is the cost of historical amnesia — the cost of electing an American president who is both ignorant of and indifferent toward the lessons of the last century, or any century. A president who always turns, by feral instinct, to an organizing message of bigotry and exclusion. A president who is throwing away an inheritance he does not value and unleashing forces that can easily move beyond control.