Tuesday, 9 November 2010

All the little shoes

**Again my apologies in advance for the layout; blame the iPhoniness...*

I'm going to admit to something I shouldn't in a public forum: I ADORE
one of my profs. Far more than I should. I could try to justify this
in some semblance of a rational manner, but what's the point? It is
simply one of those cases of my meeting someone to whom I cannot help
saying: "You. Yes, YOU. We need to be friends." Even if I can only
ever say it in my head.

Being friends with a prof is tough though because there's always that
underlying sense of 'you are determining a fraction of my GPA' and
that blurs the lines of friendliness. Or it should. [What can I do
when someone gives me better marks than I feel I deserve? (Even if I
go back and re-read that essay question on which I was given full
marks and I am forced to grudgingly admit that it's actually kind of
'Excellent!' like the single red comment at its conclusion claims...)]

I really like this prof. Not because he's young. Not because he gave
me a wicked mark on my midterm. Not because he's one of the most
passionate profs I've ever had. Not because his class may be in the
running for the second-best course I've taken in university. (No one
will ever top HIST151 with Bill Cleveland; it's impossible, the man
was simply inimitable.)

No. The reason I like him so much is because he cares. He gives a
shit. And so many people (forget the prof distinction for a moment,
because really it's irrelevant), SO MANY PEOPLE JUST DON'T CARE. I'm
not taking about him caring about ME. God, no. I'm talking about him
caring about the world, and his students, and their education, and the
fact that he manages to convey more hope for the world than anyone
else I've known who's spent a couple of decades steeped in IR.

I'm sure part of the reason I like his class so much is because it's
about a topic I am irrationally passionate about. But part of it is
also how he's teaching it, what readings he's assigned, and how he
lets us get WILDLY off-topic in seminar now and then. And then a
whole other category of why I adore him is because of all of the
things I've spoken to him about when I've gone to see him on his
office hours. (Yes, I am one of those unforgivable brown-nosers. You
should try it, it's amazing how human YOUR profs may prove to be...)

Somehow, a couple of weeks ago, we got on the topic of vacations and
how one year his brother went to Vegas and he went ... to Auschwitz.
When he told me this, he seemed to be waiting for me to react. If I
was supposed to be shocked, I expect I disappointed him a little. I
was a little envious, but that's it. He went on to tell me about the
museum there and how he'd been okay with everything, the empty
canisters of gas and the rooms full of luggage and jewellery --

"And shoes!" I interrupted. "And eyeglasses, and..."
He stared at me, a little shocked, and nodded.
"They have a section of the Holocaust Museum in Washington that is
recreated to be like that part of Auschwitz," I explained.
"The shoes were what got me." He said it quietly. "All the little

It's all the really little shoes. The little, tiny shoes. And they
were what got me too, one day nearly two years ago as I wandered
through the Holocaust Museum in DC. Because, as he pointed out, you
can imagine being at war and being threatened by another adult;
perhaps you can even imagine killing an adult. But how do you conceive
of a small child --or an infant-- as a threat? How do you kill
someone whose shoes fit so easily in the palm of your hand?

I got sick the other day and today with no TV the only way to keep
myself in one place long enough to recover was to start reading (and,
I'm sorry, but I need to be at full strength to tackle Karl Polanyi,
let alone write a paper on the 'double movement'...) so I grabbed this
350-page book I'm supposed to have read by this coming Friday and
started reading.

The book in question is by a journalist named Philip Gourevitch and
it's entitled "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed
with our families" and it is about the Rwandan genocide. It is an
excellent book if you can stomach it. It's brutally honest,
relatively unforgiving of the international community's absolutely
shameful apathy, and an interesting commentary on both the problems
that led to and followed the genocide in 1994. But the one line that
got me more than any other (and a LOT of lines got me) was 198 pages
in, when one of the author's acquaintances says, "They were like all
the luggage."

And suddenly I found my chest closing in on itself and wishing I could
know if that one line triggered the same reaction in my prof when he
first read it. Because the line took me back: first, to his office and
that conversation; then, to DC and standing in the one other part of
the Holocaust Museum that left me short of breath -- this long, bright
solarium corridor, where, etched in glass, are all the names of all
the towns and villages in Europe whose Jewish populations were
eliminated and how I half-hoped I wouldn't find my maternal
grandmother's home town on the list; and finally, to the feeling of
standing in silence holding my friend Ali's hand like we'd been
friends all our lives even though we'd only met face-to-face for the
first time an hour and a half earlier. And I was choking back tears.

Why is it that our humanity is so defined in moments like that? In
those moments when we find that common ground --often such DEEP common
ground-- with someone we barely know? And what makes it so impossible
to imagine that shared common ground the other 99.99% of the time?

Perhaps it is because people can be total jerks. Like that bus driver
who speeds by you when it's pouring rain and you're already running
late... Or that person who slams into you, spilling that 6$ latte you
really can't afford all over you, and doesn't even apologize for
ruining your white wool coat that you JUST spent 30$ getting dry-
cleaned... Or that guy you meet who never calls after that great
conversation you had at the pub that night... People are jerks. But
people are also incredible. It's knowing how to differetiate them
that takes some time to learn. And sadly, there are more people who
end up not being worth my time than there are people who trigger the
"You. Yes, YOU. We need to be friends." instinct.

But jerks or not, does anyone deserve to be slaughtered? And even if
some people do kind of have it coming, is it pssible for anyone with
little, tiny shoes ever deserve to die? Can that kind of insanely
thourough slaughter ever be justified? Can anyone sane look at the
Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide and argue that maybe the Nazis and
Hutu Power were JUSTIFIED in killing todlers and infants and unborn
babies? Sure, people have tried. But mostly they're biased. Or
crackpots. Or criminally insane.

How can you look at all the little shoes and think "That's
threatening!" -- How?

Perhaps that is simply something I will never understand. Perhaps my
own bias --towards individual agency and free will-- makes me unable
to conceive of a manner in which a parent's crime could ever reflect
negatively upon their child, or how any racial prejudice could be wide
enough to include a human who can barely speak or walk, let alone
read, write, or kill. Perhaps it is a testament to the limits of my
own creativity that I cannot fathom the psychological conditioning
that would be required to induce me (or anyone) to kill a child, any
child, especially one with shoes the size of a doll's. Perhaps that
is precisely why I study this, why I cannot seem to even read enough
about genocide: because I have not yet been able to wrap my head
around it; because there does not seem to be an adequate answer;
because none of the answers ever provided ever make sense to me.

I simply cannot comprehend what could ever compel a person to kill
someone with such little shoes. And neither can my prof. And that is
at the core of why I adore him the way I do.