Oct 13, 2020
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Want to buy the books mentioned on this ep, including Dan's book?
Go to my booklist for AEWCH 128 on bookshop.org.
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Albert Speer - who was a close conspirator of Hitler’s said of the process of Nazi-fication that, “Each man should only think about his task and not be concerned with that of his neighbor." This was right down to the most menial functions - that each person would carry out their own labor without creating a networked understanding of what was going on.
In other words fragmentation and compartmentalization are key for mass atrocity. This is, potentially, bad news for us, as we seem to live more and more fragmented and compartmentalized lives. Fragmentation and compartmentalization is a kind of swaddling that keeps us safe from understanding what we’re doing to others. It shelters us from the harm our lives are doing, and also keeps us from seeing what others are going through. And this sense of safety can breed a sort of calm apathy
“Wherever people feel safe (...) they will be indifferent.” - Susan Sontag
Another way of saying this is that we feel safe because we lack compassion. Compassion means, literally, to suffer with. If we were to really enact compassion, if we were to allow our lives to intersect with the suffering of others, could we ever feel safe? How could we bear it?
Instead of ignoring the suffering of others, we need to look directly into it. I invited author of I You We Them: Walking Into The World Of The Desk Killer, and cofounder of the artist activist group, Platform, Dan Gretton onto AEWCH.
Dan’s book is all about people who murder by policy - people whose participation in compartmentalized and fragmented work have permitted them to engage in murder while feeling safe. And through that safety being permitted a luxurious indifference.
You may be one of these people. Or you may become one if you’re not now.
How do we commit ourselves to atrocity? Could you do it? Could I?
Here are 10 points Dan identifies - a list of factors is an inverse of spiritual development, a sort of path of black magic:
Have you engaged in any of these? Has your company? Your family? Your loved ones? How easy would it be to absorb you into a structure that required any of these and would you even know if it were happening?
Furthermore, is your activism, your attachment to your own suffering, occluding the suffering of others?
If you want an intervention, I suggest you read Dan’s book. It is one of the only books of which I have ever said, everyone should read it. Everyone.
It is a voluminous book detailing genocides and murders - in Nazi camps, but also via the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni men by the then Nigerian military government through their entanglement with Shell oil, in colonial Ireland and at Kenyan airports. Dan talks to the relatives of Nazis and people who work for corporations who kill. He seeks out the truth behind the desk killers - people who kill from their desks, whose murder weapon is not a gun or a knife, but a pen or a computer.
These are the killers that are most abundant.
At the end of the episode, Dan reads an unpublished letter to the future - it’s a beautiful moment, full of sorrow and hope.
ON THIS EPISODE
- Why we focus on serial killers but not desk killer
- How we pay attention to certain forms of activism to avoid bigger atrocities
- Where some people who we think are progressive draw the line at human rights
- Voting and not voting based on purity politics
- The failure to reckon with national pasts of genocide and colonialism in America and the UK
- Can we kill without reservation? Are we capable of killing? What stops us (and when will it stop stopping us?)
- How do we allow such pain and suffering of the world in and then breathe
- Who keeps their humanity in the midst of atrocity
• For more on Dan, here's a great interview with him on the BBC with Nihal Arthanayake. And here's the art and activism group Dan founded, Platform. Here's the link to a review article of I You We Them, "The desk killer and the spider" in Race & Class. (It's behind a paywall!)
• Here's the trailer for the serial killer series Dan mentions at the top, Des.
• There's still not enough information on the Herero and Nama genocide, but here's a very short article to get you started.
• Here's a short video of Jan Karski talking about what he witnessed when Jewish people were being herded into trains like animals.
• My essay on anti-sex worker feminists, "If You're Against Sex Work, You're A Bigot."
• I mention the Democracy in Europe Movement or DiEM25. They're doing good work, check them out.
• Below is a great photo from Joseph Beuys's exhibit, "I Like America and America Likes Me". If you'd like to learn more about Beuys and his work, go to the booklist at the top of this page.
• If you don't know about human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution at the hands of the Nigerian military government, spurred into action by Shell Oil's policies, you should learn more. Here's a documentary (in parts) on YouTube.
Friends, one last push here: Buy and read Dan's book, I You We Them. It is absolutely essential and it will make you a better person.