23 May, 2022


‘Racial’ Experience: Universal & Unique?

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

“On June 17, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, posted an Instagram live video discussing the detention camps along the southern US border as “concentration camps” in which she used the phrase “Never Again.” This drew sharp criticism the following day from Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, and others for allegedly misappropriating a slogan associated with the Holocaust. After several days of heated media and political debate, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement on June 24 condemning the use of Holocaust analogies.” 

I was sent a message indicating that certain “scholars” have reacted to the Museum’s stance. I have no pretension of being a “scholar” and merely share my – somewhat random – layman’s thoughts. (End of Preface).

It must be admitted (and deplored) that certain words are used carelessly and inappropriately. Exaggeration damages rather than bolsters a case, and to make totally inappropriate comparisons – “holocaust”, “Nazism”, “Hitler”, “Pol Pot”, “Gulag”, “concentration camp”, “slavery” etc. – displays either carelessness or a most unfortunate  ignorance of the real nature of these historical persona and phenomena. By “slavery” here I mean the African slave trade which, I have argued elsewhere, is the worst blot ever on human history, taking into consideration its duration (over centuries, numbers (running into many millions) and nature (appallingly cruel). Collective denial and willed amnesia mean that (to the best of my knowledge) there are no monuments or day of public mourning in the USA for the crime on which that country was built. On the other hand, power and influence make sure that the Nazi holocaust is constantly kept in view and mind: see my article, ‘Remember the Holocaust. Remember. Remember!’ in the Sunday Island, Colombo. 27 March 2011.

We human beings have two contrary impulses: one the one hand, to belong and, on the other, to be different. Regarding the former, Durkheim in his classic study of Suicide (1897) writes of “the need that drives us to harmonise ourselves” with society. Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ makes a powerful case for the recognition and respect of our common, shared, humanity:  “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (Act 3, Scene 1).

The other impulse leads to the attempt to be different, to be distinguished from others. In certain individuals, this is manifested in the importance they give to the clothes they wear and to fashion in general. As with individuals, so it is with a people: to be different, special, even unique. For example, some Sinhalese Buddhists believe (in merely verbal protestation if not seriously) that they are unique because the Lord Buddha chose them out of all the peoples of Planet Earth to be the guardians of his preaching in its purest form. (To what degree this “purity” has found expression in private and public or political life, is irrelevant here.) Before the advent of Nazism, Jews in Germany were integrated, seeing themselves as different but going to form one totality. Many Jews fought for Germany during the World War One. Ironically, Hugo Gutnam, Hitler’s direct superior in 1918 and the one who recommended that Hitler be awarded the Iron Cross, was a Jew. Hitler wore the Iron Cross for the rest of his life while Gutnam, together with other Jews, lost his citizenship; fled Germany and wandered a while as a refugee in Belgium and France before finding a home in the USA. There are similarities with the Igbo experience.

I arrived in Nigeria to teach at a university shortly after the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, ended. The Biafrans, though a minority, had been in the forefront of the struggle against British rule, and had believed in a united Nigeria. While the North was Moslem, the Biafrans were Christian. What’s more, they had taken to Western education, largely introduced by Christian missionaries. Enterprising and industrious, they moved out of traditional Igbo territory and could be found all over Nigeria, including the Moslem dominated north. A “riot” is usually understood to be a spontaneous, even accidental, outburst of violence, while a “pogrom” means a planned and prepared onslaught on a helpless and hapless minority: the attacks on pockets of Igbo which preceded the outbreak of war in 1967 were a pogrom, and not to be “passed off” as riots. These attacks forced the Igbo to see themselves as not belonging to the nation, and to think that safety depended on separation. (Chinua Achebe, world-famous author of Things Fall Apart, was an Igbo and published his recollections in There was A Country. I suspect Achebe got this title from a poem by William Wordsworth which begins “There was a boy, you knew him well…”. It ends with the poet standing in silent grief by the boy’s grave. The dream of Biafra too, though passionately loved and sacrificed for, died very young.)

Shifting in time and place, there are similarities with Sri Lanka. I cite from my review of H.A.J. Hulugalle (1899-1981): Selected Journalism, published in the Sunday Island, 24 January 2010, under the title ‘Hulugalle: Ceylon to Sri Lanka:  the failure of parliamentary. Hulugalle writes that when he became a journalist in 1918, Sri Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, was “the leading politician in the Island.” Ramanathan fought untiringly for “the Sinhalese Buddhists who were badly treated by the Government over the religious [Buddhist-Muslim] riots of 1915.” Standing up for justice, he took their appeal to England, despite the danger posed by German submarines (Hulugalle, p. 135). Those Sinhalese Buddhists leaders who were “flung into jail had no more sincere and eloquent pleader of their cause than Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan” (Hulugalle, p. 151). “On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free Sinhalese but as a Ceylonese helping fellow Ceylonese. It will also be startling for many to find Hulugalle saying that (Tamil) Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam is “the father of the nationalist movement” (p. 149).

Returning to my Preface and the insistence reported there that certain words be used only in connection with the Jewish experience, I remind readers of Ludwik Zamenhof (1859-1917) who invented the artificial language, Esperanto, as a step towards the dispelling of linguistic misunderstanding, and thereby hoping for the creation of greater harmony within humankind. By and large, the attempt failed but today (whether we like it or not) we have a natural, a living, Esperanto in the English language, commonly shared and freely used. Whatever its origins, no one people can now claim exclusive ownership of the English language. That being the present reality, for a group of Jews to attempt to place prohibitions where the use of the English language is concerned seems, at the best, strange. I conclude by quoting from an article of mine already cited: ‘Remember the Holocaust. Remember. Remember!’, the Sunday Island, Colombo. 27 March 2011.

“But it is pointless to enter into a competition in suffering. There are few – if any – countries which can look back at their history without some surprise, embarrassment and shame. Walter Benjamin who committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis described, in his ‘The Concept of History’, a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. “An

angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at […]. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment [but] a storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” An answer to “How should the Shoah be remembered?” would be “In a wide, historical, context”. Not only the Shoah but various other expulsions, occupations, pogroms and massacres should be analysed in an effort to understand. Each such historical event is specific and different

but, as several writers have shown, there are commonalities. For example: state orchestration, incitement and facilitation of assault and robbery, expulsion and mass murder; the triggering of ancient and irrational fear and suspicion; the mistaking of myth for history, and taking the former to be objective truth (myth outlives fact because a people choose what beliefs they’ll subscribe to); the unscientific belief in “race” and that one’s own “race” is superior – even enjoying divine injunction, authorisation and license.

To throw up one’s hands in disgust and horror at the Shoah may point to our piety but, other than that, is not useful. The holocaust has ‘generated’ thousands and thousands of articles and books by brilliant, scholarly, minds. It has been examined from many aspects, and in great detail; held under the most searching of microscopes. But a minute study of the specific, if it is to be useful, must be related finally to the general. We must remember the holocaust in order to learn from it for the betterment of all (emphasised) humanity. In this respect, I think that to particularise and emphasise that it was done by Germans to the Jews is not helpful, for it enables and encourages all non-Germans to distance and exculpate themselves. I would suggest that the approach should be from a point of identification: We, human beings, did these things to some of our fellow human beings. As John Donne wrote, each and every one of us is involved (and implicated) in humankind. Finally, the Shoah is significant not because the victims were Jews but because it was perpetrated by a part of our humanity on another. One studies and remembers the past in order to avoid similar tragic calamity in the present – and to build a more rational and sane, decent and just, future” (End of quote). 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Second world War II killed more people and brought more devastation than the Holocaust. I think, lot and lot of revenge was taken for the holocaust. Why people are still running behind the holocaust. Is it because Prominent media is owned by one group. English is full of terms to help christianity and is enriched with termps supporting what they want. for example, Buddha dharma cannot be explained with English. Nowadays, english is more of a business language which has so many technical and business terms but even an English Philospher has told that English is not a complete language for Scholars. Sri lankan Ethnic problem is completely and totally because of the West want it that way. WEST TRAINED sinhala politicians (even for Sri Lankan MPs the west conduct training classes both overseas and locally, they provide training to every group including Supreme Court Judges; University professors are completely trained in the western everything) prioritize the ethnic divisions and that their ethnicity and religion must be dominant among Sinhala Buddhists.

  • 2

    Secession of Biafra was more about oil than nationalism or religion as the roles of different imperialist powers during the civil war would show.
    The Muslim Christian equation is not quite valid as Biafra is only a small part of a large Christian south. (Also the head of state during the war, Gowan was not a Muslim.)
    Tribal factors were strong in Nigeria and there have been tribal conflicts but no nationalism of the kind that we in Europe and Asia tend to imagine.
    Much of the tragedy, deaths by starvation especially, could have been spared if there was no foreign meddling in the civil war.

  • 1

    Thanks, Prof. Sarvan.
    Yes, in this sad area of man’s inhumanity to man, analogies are useful, but each holocaust will be different, and it’s been useful to have been told so. I didn’t know that the Jewish word for it is “Shoah”.
    Let us hope that there are fewer such happenings and that we see none again in Sri Lanka. You’ve driven home well the irony of the relative non-recognition of slavery in America; I guess it is true that the now greater prosperity of Jews has something to do with it.
    the Presidential elections are going to be crucial for us. It is sad that the two major groupings of Sinhalese political parties don’t allow the people a say over who the candidates will be. We need to end up with a leader who is firm but not brutal. And honest.
    To me it seems important to use the three Preferences that we have to ensure that we send a clear message that we value honesty and humaneness, even if we have to settle to live with an already discredited politician as President.
    As for the subject under discussion, we have now to protect the Muslims of Sri Lanka, and hope that they, themselves, need to make adjustments – voluntarily.

  • 2

    The unfortunate thing about Prof. Sarvan’s piece is that those who have the most to learn from it – our fellow-countrymen who are are communalists, racists and bigoted – are most unlikely to read it and, therefore, change their pattern of conduct which is leading ALL Sri Lankans down the path to destruction .

  • 2

    Prof. Saravan must read about books available about Buddhism in Asia, Militant buddhism, Terrorist or militant monks, American strategy for the Asia. It began even before 1948 when British were preparing to go. american politics for the Asia and Indian OCean changed many things. 1978, JRJ constitution, NEw Neo-liberal Economic model, hindrance of buddhist thought on that, particularly the Bhikkus of each country – Myanmar, thailand and Sri lanka – are nationalistic – hindered the taking over of those countries. In Thailand, they became partially successful because, the govt took control of the religion. In Sri lanka is also that is happening. Mahinda Rajapkse tried to appoint Mahanayake Theros by himself. That failed. Ranil was trying to do a similar thing.
    Besides, They spend money on Sinhala christian PhD candidates studying in North America and Britain to write books about buddhism. all those books are political and write the christian thought on buddhism or buddhists are analyzed by Christians.
    ANYWAY, PROF SARVan must remember, they are not helping christianity instead they are helping the expansion of the american neo-liberal hyperstate. Yet they are contradicting now as they are against the globalization.

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