ROME -- Yesterday, I ran into a poem I had read as a student
in Germany, written by Luthern Pastor Martin Niem�ller, who broke with the
Nazis in 1933 and became a symbol of the German resistance. His words prompted
me to take a closer look at the complex subject of indifference he speaks
Niem�ller wrote the following at war�s end in 1945:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn�t speak up,
because I wasn�t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn�t speak up,
because I wasn�t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn�t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
eft to speak up for me.
In my mind the subject of indifference is not a closed end
affair. You don�t even need a password to enter this site. Most certainly I
cannot relegate the matter to �oh, that, well, we�re all indifferent to many things
in life.� If so it would imply �indifference to indifference,� which in my mind
is located still another ring deeper in the Dantesque Inferno. In that respect;
I hope that here, as Baudrillard writes, words will prove to be carriers of
ideas and not the reverse.
Life is oh so beautiful
Recently one-third of Italian TV viewers watched a
100-minute tour de force of a literary-political interpretation of Dante�s Divine
Comedy delivered by comic philosopher Roberto Benigni (Remember the film, Life
Is Beautiful!). At the point Benigni referred to the �indifference� of
Dante�s characters in his Inferno, I ran for pen and paper.
Making notes on indifference, I have continued thinking
about that grassroots activist in Asheville, North Carolina, who warns that
voting is just not enough to change things. As a growing number of others like
her, she feels frustrated because of the widespread indifference to Power�s
deviations. I have in mind the polls showing that over half of Americans oppose
the war in Iraq, oppose how it is conducted and its costs to America, and some
are even horrified by the slaughter of Iraqi people.
The other side of the coin is that, amazingly, nearly half
the public either favors the war against Iraq or they just don�t care
one way or the other. Those many millions of people display an inexplicable
indifference to the reality of the suffering, indifference to war�s uselessness
and to its criminal-terroristic nature.
Some writers have long dealt with that one aspect of
indifference, the indifference that the strong feel toward the weak. In the end
most concord that such indifference is frivolity and knavery and cowardice.
Categories of indifference
It�s true that there are many kinds of indifference and many
things to which we can be indifferent. Animals can be loving and attentive one
moment and totally indifferent the next. Just watch a cat, after a few caresses
it marches away triumphantly. Nature in general is indifferent. Medieval Europe
was incredibly indifferent to the great Alpine chain -- the magnificent
geographical mountain divide of the continent. Especially the Papal State was
indifferent to nature in general and to its former territories around Rome in
Researching the word indifference I reencountered
Albert Camus� notation of the universe�s �benign indifference� toward creation.
Also my former professor, Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz, was fascinated by �the
contradiction between man�s longing for good and the cold universe's absolutely
indifferent to any values. �If we put aside our humanity,� Milosz writes, �we
realize that the world is neither good nor bad -- it just is.�
The spark of human life in us differentiates us from nature,
which, though neither good nor evil, doesn�t always seem neutral. But in human
beings the battle between good and evil is eternal. From that point of view
humanity is also in battle with nature, against its apparent meaninglessness.
We humans instead search for meaning.
Therefore, man is an alien creature in the universe because
he cannot be genuinely indifferent to what is good and what is bad.
In that sense, the indifference of reasonable people to war
seems inconceivable. In the same Western generation that was obsessed enough
with the Vietnam War to help bring it to an end, the indifference to the Middle
East wars today seems impossible.
Back to earth
This year Italy is marking the 100th anniversary of the
birth of Alberto Moravia, a major novelist of the 20th century. Born to a
family of the Rome bourgeoisie in 1907, Moravia published his most famous
novel, The Age of Indifference,
at age 22. That story shows the apathy of Rome bourgeois society during the
same time that Fascism was taking root in the nation.
�All these people,� Moravia�s protagonist, Michele, thinks,
�have something to live for, whereas I have nothing. If I don�t walk, I sit; it
makes no difference.� Michele knows he should act but never succeeds in shaking
off his inertia. All actions and situations are alike for him. He is
indifferent to emerging Fascism as were the masses of Germans during the rise
Here one might shrug and say indifference today is so
general that it is not worth reflection. What difference does it make?
Nonetheless here are some examples.
Indifference means �no difference.� On a basic human level,
the indifference of one person to the other in a dwindling love affair is
emblematic of the terrible impact of indifference in any field at all. As
French chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg sang of his love for Brigit Bardot: "What
does the weather matter, What matters the wind! Better your absence than your
indifference." Or Gilbert Becaud�s words:"Indifference kills
with small blows."
For Indifference, as Martin Niem�ller and most people of the
murderous 20th century know, is the destroyer of whole societies.
What Is the alternative?
For me the opposite of indifference is involvement. It�s the
search that leads to fulfillment, the extraordinary event we wait and hope for
that interrupts the everyday flow of time. It is a kind of transcendence that
points toward answers to questions like, �What am I as an individual?� �What is
my life all about?� �Do I count?�
The answers to such questions, however, are forever misty
and cloudy. We are aware -- just barely aware -- of that something hovering in
the beyond, which at some rare times, for brief moments, seems within reach. It
is something like longing for an impossible Utopia that we aspire to, most
certainly the conviction that we are not neutral in the world.
However, that devil and prison of Indifference -- and the
indifference to indifference -- excludes a priori the possibility of those high
moments of existence that make life worth living.
Three steps back
So what, all these quotes and reflections about
indifference! What does it mean today? What does it mean to me personally? Am I
involved and committed just because I am aware of indifference? Does it even
At this point I want to retrace my steps toward the heart of
the subject at hand: indifference toward evil.
Late in life, the great
Argentinean writer, Jorge Borges, denied he wrote for either an elite or the
masses; he wrote for a circle of friends. This claim is familiar but suspect.
His thesis that �there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way
erudition� is dangerous banter. Nobel Prize winner this year, Doris Lessing,
said in an interview last October that she wrote for herself, for what
interested her at the time. But her case is different from that of Borges, for
she always dealt in ideas -- anti-war for example.
Indifference toward evil! In 2002, I �covered� the G-8
conference in Genoa, a phony show, which ended with the murder of a real little man dressed in black. An
Italian, from the suburbs of this port city, he called himself an Anarchist.
The Big 8 labeled him an enemy of globalization, of the free market, an enemy
of progress. While representatives of the rich world were barricaded inside the
safe zone and served sumptuous meals by hordes of servants, they exchanged
expensive gifts that were/are slaps in the face of the poverty they had
gathered to combat.
the world�s eight richest nations nonchalantly discussed poverty in Africa,
issued casual sentences about the economies they do not control, imparted
lessons they themselves do not observe, and finally budgeted the indifferent
sum of $1.3 billion to combat epidemics in Africa, a few pennies for each
African dying of AIDS, a sum reportedly equal to one-eighth of the annual cost
of only the tests for the US space shield project.
As inhuman as it is, indifference to suffering is bearable
as long as it is invisible. We all experience that each day watching newscasts.
Indifference to war is something else; were it not for the enthusiastic way
humans participate in war we could call it inhuman.
Most people know of someone whose loved one died in US
foreign wars for absurd reasons. But then time passes. Wounds heal.
Indifference takes over.
Ignorant and deaf indifference is bad enough. But today, in
Europe and the United States where information abounds, we have to call
conscious indifference to war and injustice, and also its brother �indifference
to indifference,� criminal and evil.
Here is an example of active indifference: the Ch�vez
referendum in Venezuela. A former journalist acquaintance in Rome when he was
the correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, today an editor and columnist of the New York Times, in his articles about Ch�vez on the
eve of the referendum, was remarkably indifferent to what is really happening
in Venezuela. A talented but overly ambitious journalist, he, like the
newspaper he works for, is aware of but indifferent to the reasons that
Venezuela and most of Latin America are striving for independence from the USA,
whether its struggle is called �Socialism of the 21st Century� as in Venezuela,
or �Agrarian Revolution� as in Bolivia.
Indifference! It doesn�t matter! Indifference appears in all
places and at all times about every subject that has no direct, personal
bearing on one�s own little life.
Indifference about global warming.
Indifference about national health care.
Indifference about poverty and the abyss between rich and
Indifference to the value of labor and the working man.
Indifference about a society based on euphemisms and
Indifference about public corruption and crime.
Indifference about violence against women.
Indifference about arms controls.
Indifference about the government defrauding its citizens.
Indifference about the indifference granting the government
license to defraud citizens.
Indifference about capital punishment.
Indifference about bombing civilians from the stratosphere.
Indifference about facts.
Indifference about a free press.
Indifference about indifference.
I made this list, sat back and examined it again and again,
added one more indifference, deleted another, and turned a few words until I
came to realize I had omitted the principle indifference: the indifference to
evil itself that creates the things about which we are indifferent.
This rings complex but in fact it is not.
And I realized, too, that indifference is in fact often active
indifference. It encourages
indifference in others.
In a speech in 1908, Eugene Debs, the great Socialist trade
unionist-activist, said more or less what Pastor Niem�ller said in his poem a
half century later: the indifferent ones do not see others. Theirs is a life of
emptiness, devoid of any future. Debs recalled that thousands of years ago the
question was asked: ''Am I my brother's keeper?''
Our society refuses to answer that question.
Stewart is originally from Asheville, NC. He has lived his adult life in
Germany and Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France,
Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as a
correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, he began writing
fiction. His collections of short stories, "Icy Current Compulsive Course,
To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind
River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by www.Wastelandrunes.com He lives with
his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail: email@example.com.