Monday, March 12, 2012

Making Monsters: A Guest Blog by UK Crime Writer Danuta Reah

Grendel. Source

Bieganski the Blog is honored to host the guest blog, below, by the prize-winning UK crime writer, Danuta Reah.

Reah lives in Sheffield, England. She is familiar with the dark side, a familiarity that, as you see below, helps her to plumb the darker aspects of the
Bieganski the Brute stereotype.

Reah reports, "Every child needs a skill in the playground … my skill was telling ghost stories. I got thrown out of the needlework class when I was nine because the needlework teacher couldn't cope with the ghoulish tales I used to entertain the class with … My first novel was based on a rather creepy encounter I had on an empty station platform one evening - it's a story I often tell when I do author events, but beware: it needs bright lights and a crowd."

Reah's father, Jan Kot, was an officer in the Polish cavalry. His poem appears
here. Reah's murder mystery "Forest of Souls" addresses the tangled histories and moral ambiguities of Eastern Europe.

Making Monsters by Danuta Reah

In 2010, in Northumbria, a gunman, Raoul Moat, went on a killing spree. He killed one man and seriously injured two other people: his ex-girlfriend, and a police officer selected at random and shot in the face at point blank range because Moat "didn't like" the police. Moat later turned his gun on himself.

The police officer, David Rathband, recovered from his very serious injuries, but the attack left him permanently blinded. He was determined to return to work as a traffic policeman – a job he did well and a job he loved. His employers were keen to have him back. He was determined to live a normal life. He was finding it hard to adjust to life without sight.

He said he felt no bitterness or anger towards Moat, who had injured him so badly, and he founded a charity, the Blue Lamp, to support emergency staff injured in the line of duty. He was, our newspapers told us, a hero.

In August of last year, police were called to his house to investigate a "domestic incident." Shortly after that, his wife left him. On the 29th of February 2012, David Rathband was found dead at his home. He had taken his own life.

This is a tragic story of a man trying hard to cope with a terrible event in his life. Was he also trying to cope with the burden of being a publicly proclaimed "hero"? Let's look at this concept of "hero." I am not talking about someone behaving heroically in particular circumstances: the person who runs into a burning building to rescue people who are trapped; the journalist who deliberately places him or herself in danger to get a story out to the world. I am talking about the "Hero," the concept found running through myth and folklore, the Jungian archetype epitomized by beings such as Arthur, Galahad, Achilles, Beowulf.

The universal hero is something recognized across cultures, but this hero is not real. The hero is a social construct, a metaphoric expression of human need. Heroes do not exist. What does exist is people behaving bravely. Was David Rathband a hero in this sense? He behaved bravely when he was shot, playing dead so that Moat would leave. He made brave attempts to cope with the aftermath of the attack, so, yes, he was a brave man but he was not a hero. The status of hero was imposed upon him, and must have added to the stress of his existence. By turning people into heroes we are denying them their humanity. No one can live up to the image of the mythic hero.

But it seems we need out heroes. And as we need our heroes, so we need our monsters.

UK newspapers (and, I am sure, USA newspapers) love monsters. They must, because they constantly create them. The monster, like the hero, is a social construct, a mythic figure, a metaphor, an archetype.

The monster is a familiar figure from our earliest literature. In the poem Beowulf, the monster, Grendel, presents all the characteristics of the mythic monster. Grendel comes from the mist-shrouded moors. He attacks the king's warriors as they sleep, tears one of them open, rips his joints – his "bone-locks" – apart and drinks the blood from his veins.

Grendel is an outsider, he is not human, he is unnatural, an aberration of nature, he is hostile to people, he inspires fear and he carries out unspeakable acts. These are the characteristics of the mythic monster.

How does this relate to the everyday world? We are familiar with modern examples of human evil that our culture has identified as monsters: Hitler, Mengele, the Moors Murderers from the 60s England, Brady and Hindley, the famous serial killers from the US, Bundy, Dahmer, Gein.

The issue here is not what these people have done. They have committed heinous crimes. Is it useful, helpful or right, however, to depict them as monsters?

Less well-known examples can be instructive. In 1997, a British woman, Louise Woodward, was convicted of shaking Matthew Eappen, a baby in her care, to death. During her trial, most newspapers in the UK depicted Woodward as an unjustly persecuted hero. Two of the newspapers ran campaigns for her release.

In the USA, Woodward, as an au pair nanny, was an outsider. Newspaper reports in the US described her as sullen and hostile. The au pair nanny is an object of fear – a figure almost like the wicked step-mother of folk tales, or the witch in the woods who wishes your child harm. Wooward had carried out an unspeakable act – she killed a baby. In 2007, she topped a list of the ten most notorious criminals in Massachusetts. Woodward was, and remains, a monster.

In the UK, Deborah Eappen became the unknown outsider. Newspaper reports showed her as cold and uncaring (she had let a young stranger look after her children), she showed no grief about her dead child, it was claimed. She carried out an "unspeakable act": she, as a doctor, examined the eyes of her injured child with an ophthalmoscope rather than performing more traditionally motherly acts of grief and concern. 'Debroh (sic) Eappen is in my eyes more guilty than anyone,' claimed a post on a London news web site. Deborah Eappen was a monster.

It seems that, murderer or victim, the status of monster – or hero – is arbitrarily ascribed. The parents of Madeleine McCann, a three-year-old child who went missing in 2007 in the Algarve, held the status of hero in the British press as they desperately sought for their lost daughter. Later, when the local police accused them of being complicit in their daughter's disappearance, the press reports changed. Their continued sojourn in Praia de Luz turned them into outsiders, the unemotional demeanor of Kate McCann became hostility, the parents' leaving of their children in the apartment while they went out was aberrant, the murder of their daughter was an unspeakable act. They were monsters. Madeleine remains lost. Her parents are no longer under suspicion of complicity in her disappearance. They have sunk into (relative) obscurity, neither hero nor monster any longer.

Does it matter that we turn people involved in news events into heroes or monsters (or sometimes both)? Most people depicted as heroes have behaved admirably on at least one occasion, most people depicted as monsters have done terrible things. As long as the press stops hounding the innocent, is there any cause for concern?

I think there is. Heroes and monsters are not reality. They are metaphors and archetypes. If we turn positive acts and evil acts into aspects of the archetype, we are denying their humanity. How do "heroes" behave in everyday life? They behave like human beings, and, doing so, possibly feel they have betrayed their own heroic image. People with cancer must always "fight" they must always be "positive." People like David Rathband must feel no anger towards the person who attacked and damaged them. What's wrong with being afraid? What's wrong with feeling negative? What's wrong with being blazingly, incandescently angry with the person who took your sight? Being a hero is a dreadful burden.

But what about the Ian Bradys, the Myra Hindleys, the Ted Bundys, the Ed Geins, the abusive soldiers at Abu Ghraib? Why shouldn't we see them as monsters? Surely, by their acts, they have relinquished their status as human beings. And this is where the problem lies. They are human, and it is their status as humans that enabled them to do what they did. They were human when they committed their unspeakable acts, as were and are the Nazi war criminals, the genocidal Hutus in Rwanda and the people who led them on, as were and are the armies of Milosevic when they carried out their genocides, as were and are Milosevic, Mladik and Karadzic themselves. These are humans, doing what humans do.

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the Lucifer effect in relation to human evil. He claims that people, put in contexts of evil, will often commit acts they would not have done, had the context not occurred. This is not to excuse the evil; it is to recognize an important aspect of humanity. We are all capable of evil. Recognizing that capacity in ourselves is the best protection we have against it. If we don't recognize it, there will continue to be Auschwitz, Abu Ghraib, My Lai. There will continue to be murders, massacres and genocides.

Look at this picture: This is a human being, and sometimes, this is what human beings do.
US Soldier Lynndie England with an Iraqi Prisoner. Source.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ethnicity, Ideology, Academic Hiring, and Bieganski

Sometimes blog readers respond to blog posts like "A Bohunk in the Ivory Tower" and "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision" to say, "I'm shocked, shocked, to read your post implying that academic employers consider ethnicity and ideology in their hiring decisions! How dare you allege such a thing! Everyone knows that the Ivory Tower is interested only in objective truth, not ideology, interested only in merit, not ethnicity!"

These posts reveal a profound lack of awareness in those who post them. They also reveal a failure in Polonian leadership, organization, and vision. Where there is failure, there is opportunity to correct it. Suggestions can be found in the blog post entitled "There's Hope: What You Can Do about the Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."

Until we start strategizing about and having an impact on academic hiring, academic funding, and academic syllabi, we have not yet begun the serious work of addressing the Bieganski the Brute stereotype.

I just came across a bracingly blunt and utterly unvarnished video clip of Dr. Thomas Sowell, a scholar with whom every serious Polonian will be familiar, a scholar quoted in "Bieganski." In this brief and pointed video clip, Dr. Sowell speaks with unparalleled frankness and courage about ethnicity, ideology, and academic hiring. You can view the video clip here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stop Blaming the Jews (Again): Bieganski in a Surprising Location

An essential tool in Polonia's battle with Bieganski the Brute  Stereotype

I recently enjoyed the pleasure and the privilege of reading the pre-publication manuscript of a new book addressing Polish-Jewish relations.

I was allowed to read this pre-publication manuscript thanks to the publisher's generous favor to me, no more no less.

I was not invited to serve as editor, advisor or fact checker.

The author of the book in question is a very big name, the kind of name that occupies page one of the New York Times. The topic of the book is a very big topic, the kind of topic that commands prime-time specials and university courses and international diplomacy at the highest level.

The book includes an endorsement by another big name in Christian-Jewish relations.

I would love to tell you the name of the book, author, and publisher, but I never will – for reasons that will become obvious.

I sat down with this book in a state of eager excitement and cozy pleasure. I could not wait to read it.

It wasn't long before I found what struck me as an isolated typo. Odd, I thought; this book is meant to be ready for publication – I was reading page proofs as they would appear in the finished text. I reported the isolated typo to the publisher. He thanked me and expressed relief that I had stumbled across this typo in time for him to correct it before the book went to press.

And then I went on to finish the book.

Isolated typo shmypo.

That wasn't no isolated typo.

Ooooo no it wasn't.

I lost count of how many errors I found.

There were misspellings. Misspellings of common, everyday vocabulary words. Misspellings of place names. Misspellings of the names of political leaders, misspellings of the names of archetypal mythic and fictional characters, misspellings of the names of geographic locations where historic events transpired.

There were errors of fact on cultural material so great honking huge that my jaw hit the floor.

Errors in the dates of world historical events.

Errors in the grammar of foreign language phrases.

Heck, they even managed to get the food wrong.

These objective errors were not the end, of course.

Of course this book addressing Polish-Jewish relations relied unquestioningly on the Bieganski the Brute stereotype. This book will serve to perpetuate Bieganski, that false, revisionist, misunderstanding of Christian-Jewish relations, immigration history, World War II and the Holocaust.

This next part won't surprise you.

The factual errors in this text all concerned Poland, Poles, and Polish culture.

A publisher who couldn't recognize key errors in fact about Polish history – who couldn't spell the names of Polish kings correctly, or even recognizably, or accurately date the Warsaw uprising – who didn't even know what Poles eat – will be publishing a book that perpetuates the Bieganski the brute stereotype.

At moments like this, all too many in Polonia point the finger.

They blame the Jews.

There are Jews out there, they insist, who say bad things about Poland in books, movies, newspapers, museums, TV shows, on university campuses. According to this theory, if it were not for these bad Jews, Poland's history would be well and accurately known.

I'd like to extend a little wake up call to those Polonians – the press publishing this upcoming, deeply flawed book on Polish-Jewish relations is Catholic.

That's right, all you dedicated conspiracy theorists who insist that some diabolic outside force controls Polonia and is solely responsible for the Bieganski image. A significant, influential, and historic CATHOLIC publisher was ready to send to press a book addressing Polish-Jewish relations that didn't even spell the names of Poland's political leaders in a recognizable fashion.

I was able to correct factual errors in the book, but I cannot sway it away from its central promulgation of the Bieganski stereotype.

I live in academia and among writers, editors, activists and politicians. I live in New Jersey, a wildly diverse state. When I encounter scholars discussing who gets hired and why, when I huddle with activists to plan political actions, when I chat with editors, publishers and writers and discuss the content of upcoming publications, when I confer with school administrators about what books get put on syllabi and on library shelves, I hear the same concerns addressed with utmost seriousness, and handled with priority and urgency:

"How will the

African Americans







Italian Americans

React to this?

Maybe we better factor in their sensitivities and change our plans accordingly.

Maybe we better call in an expert from that community.

Maybe we better hire a consultant.'

Poles? Polish Americans? I have never, not once, heard anyone but me express concern about how Poles or Polish Americans will react to anything.

Why? Because Polish Americans are not players. If they don't like what this Catholic publisher publishes about them, so what? What consequence will there be for the publisher? Has any Pole or Polish American had an impact on this publisher's work? Never, almost certainly.

Remember: this publisher is CATHOLIC. Poland has been called "Rome's most faithful daughter." Poland gave the church one of its most significant recent leaders: John Paul II.

And yet we Polonians exercise so little power, we have so little juice, that a publisher that represents the church Poles have been so loyal to for so long displays a stunning, almost certainly unconscious disregard for Poles and Poland.

A Catholic publisher did not deem it necessary to bring in a Polish fact checker to vet a book about Polish-Jewish relations. A Catholic publisher will contribute to the Bieganski the Brute stereotype.

It took me eight years to find a publisher for "Bieganski." Again and again publishers, including the publisher at a Catholic university, demanded that "Bieganski" be vetted by Jews. I pointed out that Jewish authors had supported "Bieganski." I was actually told – on the campus of a Catholic university – that "Bieganski"'s Jewish supporters were not Jewish enough, that their names didn't sound Jewish enough and that they didn't appear Jewish enough. Mind, in this one instance, it was not a Jew saying this to me, but a non-Jew speaking for a Catholic university.

Do you think for one second that any North American publisher has ever been kept awake by similar worries about how a book will affect Polish or Polish-American readers? Not a chance.

Don't blame others, Polonia. Look at yourselves. Look at how you've failed to become players who can have an impact on publishers, and look at how you can change so that you can become players. Start here: read "The Crisis in Polonian Leadership, Organization, and Vision."