Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Carolyn J. Dean's "The Moral Witness"

Carolyn J. Dean is Charles J. Stille Professor of History and French at Yale University. She is the author of several books, including The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust, Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust, and The Frail Social Body: Pornography, Homosexuality, and Other Fantasies in Interwar France.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Moral Witness: Trials and Testimony after Genocide, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Moral Witness marks a central moment in the book’s narrative arc. The subtitle of a section that begins on that page, “Styles of Dying,” captures dramatically how Western perceptions of mass murders and their victims have changed over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. “Styles of dying” refers to gas chambers, diseases, and senseless tortures that ended the lives of Jewish victims of Nazism. Because they could rarely fight back, victims’ deaths were sources of pity and even shame. The book asks how Western publics came to value the voices of anonymous victims of mass murder targeted for no reason other their race, religion, or ethnicity. It traces the symbol of the “moral witness” that emerged in court trials about the Armenian genocide in 1921, Jewish pogroms in 1927, the Soviet Gulag in 1951, the Holocaust of European Jewry in 1961, up to current discussions of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. It shows how the moral witness represented the meaning mass of murder and gave rise to new definitions of victimhood and survival. The legal definition of genocide, a word coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1942, owes its moral and cultural power to the new role accorded to survivors of physical and psychological traumas. We now imagine those victims as a source of an inconceivable experience from whom we should learn. They speak as moral witnesses, even if some victims’ voices are valued more than others.

How did this “moral witness” emerge, and how did its image change over time? How do we imagine victims of genocide now? Why was the murder of European Jewry recognized as a genocide before the colonial crimes that we now call by that name, in Namibia and elsewhere? The Moral Witness asks these historical questions about how “the witness to genocide” and “bearing witness” became important cultural tropes.
Learn more about The Moral Witness at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue