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Time to stop wallowing in self-pity

What Jews and Afrikaners have in common, a son of a leading anti-apartheid activist once said to me, is that they will never let you forget about their past suffering. He could say this, being himself part Jewish and part Afrikaans. In reality, though, it is true of virtually everyone. Whereas contrition and self-criticism do not come easily, nursing grievances and feeling outraged generally do.

Perhaps more than any other modern-day upheaval, the Middle East conflict has epitomised the tendency of nations to focus exclusively on their own grievances while shovelling great dollops of blame on others. How crucial it is to achieve some kind of balanced understanding of what took place in the past, and how elusive this has proven to be amid all the fevered finger-pointing and mutual howls of outrage (coming primarily from the Palestinian camp, although Jews have hardly been blameless).

The title of Benny Morris’s latest book on the conflict, Righteous Victims, well encapsulates how suffering is equated with moral rectitude. If you lose a war, then the other side must have done something wrong. The inability of the Palestinians to look beyond their historic grievances — both real and perceived — is perhaps the single-most greatest hindrance in their failure to date to establish a functional society.

Even when a nation has clearly inflicted more harm on others than it has received, the tendency has been to retreat into resentful self-pity. To date, the Japanese have yet to properly face up to their many appalling deeds in World War II. For them, Hiroshima is the image that still dominates. The sheer magnitude of Nazi war crimes largely robbed the Germans of the cold comfort of taking refuge in a collective sense of victimhood, at least publicly. Despite this, post-war attitudes even there have been split, with public expressions of contrition over Auschwitz having to co-exist uneasily with feelings of outrage over what was done to Germans — the firebombing of Dresden is most frequently invoked.

Most nations have had periods where they have come off second best in their conflicts with their neighbours, which provide plenty of opportunities for retreating into a “righteous victim” comfort zone. Indeed, so deep-seated is the need to feel victimised once in a while that even those who don’t have any real grievances to brood about sometimes find it necessary to invent them.

Australians are a case in point. The closest they (aside, obviously, from the Aborigines) have come to being a persecuted race was when a few over-zealous English bowlers gave their star batsmen some unsportsmanlike bruises during the controversial “Bodyline” series of 1933. Incredibly, as late as the 1980s the Aussies were still seething about this. It is also still widely believed by Australians that their soldiers were wantonly sacrificed en masse during the disastrous Gallipoli venture in World War I by an arrogant and unfeeling British supreme command; in reality, two-thirds of the casualties during the campaign were sustained by home-country troops.

Even the British, who were last successfully invaded as far back as 1066 and have come out on top in nearly all their wars since then, evidently need their martyrs. The vehement attacks one sees on Robert Mugabe in the more conservative UK journals like the Spectator seem primarily to have been motivated by the fact that Mugabe is oppressing white farmers of British origin. Without playing down what Mugabe is doing, there is something a little disproportionate about the outrage it is generating in these quarters.

The constant itemising of the misdeeds of the other is itself wearisome, and what is worse, within the Western democracies there has been a disastrous over-correction of this phenomenon whereby all that disproportionate outrage has become inner-directed. Whites and their civilisation have come to epitomise rapacious evil, while the non-white cultures that have fallen under their sway are imbued with an aura of pristine martyrdom. The latter frequently invoke images of an imaginary “golden age” that purportedly existed prior to the European arrival, but for which there is little, if any, real evidence.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Andrew Klavan lashed out against this hijacking of history for ideological purposes. “It is not enough for some minorities and feminist theorists to seek a fair deal in a changing world. They must build themselves hallucinations of ancient glories that simply never were and condemn the civilisation that has nurtured even their complaints as a centuries-long conspiracy against their poor victimised hides. The past has become a thing to be won, or divvied among them” he writes.

The enormous popularity of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels suggests that many people are fed up with unbalanced finger-pointing. Flashman, for those who have not read the books, is a Victorian anti-hero who becomes an unwilling participant in some of the most tumultuous events of the 19th century, particularly concerning Britain’s imperialist ventures. By his own admission, he is cowardly, cynical, selfish and amoral, epitomising political non-correctness. He is, however, no hypocrite. Through him, Fraser is able to make many trenchant observations about human nature and how unsound playing the blame game is when analysing fraught historical events.

Klavan, a Flashman fan, calls Fraser’s books a “much-deserved slap in the kisser to both the patriotic white-wash of the jingoist and the ethnocentric lie of evil imperialists tromping lovable natives under heel”. There were no “noble savages” in Flashman’s survey of the 19th century, he says, no “idealised ancient cultures mercilessly overrun by the cynical warlords of the West”. However, neither were there any “GA Henty public school heroes using luck and pluck to lift the inferior races toward godly civilisation”.

Post-colonial resentment is understandable, but it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that whereas, without exception, every single former West European colonial power is today a liberal democracy, most formerly colonised African states are repressive dictatorships, and have been for most of their history.

If you have opportunity, it is worthwhile checking out the annual Freedom in the World reports issued by Freedom House, a respected and genuinely non-partisan human rights NGO. Freedom House bases its conclusions on the state of political rights and civil liberties (including freedom of expression, judicial independence and religious equality) in 192 countries, grading each country accordingly.

What the latest report shows is that of Africa’s 52 countries, only 10 achieved a “free” ranking. Twenty-three were considered “partly free” and 18 “not free” (with the worst offenders being Sudan, Libya and Somalia, closely followed by Zimbabwe).

The lesson, surely, is that the experience of past oppression should not be allowed to paralyse a nation’s collective will. The past, naturally, must be remembered, but its influence can be a baleful one if it gives people the impression that the world somehow owes them a living and that they don’t have to engage in any soul-searching and effort of their own. It is something many South Africans would do well to think about.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.