Carolyn J. Dean


On her book Aversion and Erasure: The Fate of the Victim after the Holocaust

Cover Interview of February 01, 2011

The wide angle

I was interested in all the talk in the media and in scholarly journals about how the Holocaust received “too much” attention and led us to ignore the plight of others, such as Palestinians, Rwandans, and even those victimized by Stalin.

During the 1980s and 90s lots of books appeared in the US and Europe that declared that Jews had stolen the spotlight from other groups who had suffered or were suffering.

I thought this was very peculiar, but you couldn’t just attribute it to anti-Semitism—it was true that a museum had been erected on the mall in Washington, D.C. to teach us about the Holocaust before any memorial had been erected to ask us to remember slavery.

Moreover, the State of Israel had used the Holocaust for political purposes, which, while not surprising, for all states use history to political ends, gave some credence to the view that the status of the Holocaust as radical evil might short-circuit other discussions about discrimination within Israel itself.

In short, I wanted to use the constantly invoked role of the Holocaust as the image of radical evil to understand this widespread interpretation of Jews as having taken pride of place in a pantheon of victims.  How should we understand these discussions, which, after all, are absolutely central not only to the way we think about which victims to remember and memorialize, but to our image of ourselves as protectors of global human rights?

Can any of these discussions be attributed to anti-Semitism?  If so, I thought, we can demonstrate how anti-Semitism is still with us in a new guise.  And more, by understanding the landscape in which some victims are remembered and others ignored, we can understand how we envision some victims as more credible than others, and even more admirable than others.

This seems to be a crucial set of questions to seek to answer, however tentatively, given the increasingly bloody history of the new century, new debates about war, the rise of Islamophobia, the use of suicide bombers, and so on.  A focus on victims helps us to discuss things that are uncomfortable and yet central to our self-image: how do we really feel about those who suffer?  Do they always evoke our sympathy?  Why or why not?  How do those attitudes translate into political and cultural views and policies?

I had already written a book about understanding the ways in which our empathy fails when confronted with images and narratives about suffering.  Focusing on the Holocaust and on how many critics claimed that depicting the suffering of victims was “pornographic,” among other themes, I had sought to understand the use of the word pornography to describe suffering.  The word was always used but had never been examined.  For example, the late Susan Sontag used it to discuss the photographs of Abu Ghraib in an article in the New York Times Magazine on that subject in 2004.

I had alluded to the way in which many writers and journalists hated the way they claimed our society focused on victims, but that wasn’t my focus in the book.  In Aversion and Erasure, I go back to this question—not how to understand debates about images and stories of political violence, but to understand why Western culture is denounced as one that celebrates victims.