The Contract Of Mutual Indifference explores the phenomenon of the Passive Bystander with reference to the Holocaust and atrocities like those in Bosnia. Geras discusses a phenomenon that reveals mankind's remarkable ability to enjoy life while ignoring the suffering of others. He observes that the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference.
The book becomes an investigation of the moral consequences of ignoring oppression and persecution. But it's not all abstract theory. What makes the work so readable is its compelling blend of historical analysis, human nature and philosophy. The author argues convincingly that the tragedy of the Shoa has not yet been adequately dealt with in the field of political theory.
There is no denying the reality of the contract in the title of the book. In the past 15 years the world has witnessed atrocities of genocidal intent in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur, for example. In addition, there are ongoing crimes like the modern version of slavery, the practice of torture and child labour. There does seem to be reluctance to face up to evils like these, in political philosophy and in society as a whole.
The picture that Geras gives us of the relation between perpetrator, victim and bystander is not a pretty one. He considers many angles of the phenomenon, including the human survival mechanism of blocking out unbearable thoughts. And its opposite also exists: the concept of a universal duty to help others beyond one's immediate friends and family. C S Lewis touches on this aspect of human nature in his classic Mere Christianity.
The book does not fall into the trap of arguing for collectivism as a remedy for the contract of indifference. Very appropriately too, since the atomistic lifestyle is found as much in European welfare states as in capitalist economies. A case might indeed be made that the welfare state encourages atomism since it relieves the individual of personal responsibility towards others. Paying tax as substitute for charity.
On the negative side, Geras assumes that everybody is burdened with unrestricted moral liability and if we indulge in the pleasures of life whilst ignoring brutality, we are all as morally culpable as the Europeans who ignored the plight of the Jews. The idea has merit, but there are different degrees of responsibility and culpability that are not properly identified or distinguished in the text.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a widespread move towards nihilism globally (read André Glucksmann), and hedonism & narcissism, especially in the West. The lack of real compassion for the suffering of others is often disguised with political correctness and blaming the scapegoats America and Israel for all the world's woes. This moral inversion is particularly prevalent amongst the entertainment and media elites.
A thorough historical study is needed to compare the Left and isolationst Right's shrill reaction to the liberation of Iraq with their silence to e.g. the genocidal second Russian invasion of Chechnya, the madness of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Kim in North Korea, and the horror in Darfur. Or their eerie denial of human rights abuses in many other third world countries.
In his short essay on Leon Trotsky, the author claims that the revolutionary had an intuitive grasp of those emotions that are transformed into evil actions under certain social conditions and could thus predict the Shoa. But I get a different impression from Paul Johnson's great work A History of the Jews.
It was Trotsky who expelled the Jewish Bundists from the 1903 Russian Social Democrat Congress in London, with a zeal "close to hatred." This was a direct cause of the Bolshevik triumph. He called Herzl "repulsive", ignored Jewish suffering and refused to see Jewish delegations when in power. Sounds like a bit of a Chomsky or a Finkelstein to me.
Geras believes that certain obligations to help those who suffer ought to be enforced by law, but recognizes that such legal duties could only partly meet the requirements. He rules out any coercion that involves danger or self-sacrifice and points out that there are limits to the law. Of greater importance are pervasive norms of care that to the author seem to include the encouragement of such mutual support via taxation. But how can compassion be legislated?
Mmm ... I think this has been tried in Western Europe. The result is a Post Christian continent where the Welfare State has replaced religion with its emphasis on personal responsibility. Not only has this rendered the culture defenceless against a growing threat in its midst but also had a disastrous influence on birth rates. European cultural elites have taken the concepts of The Other and multiculturalism to an extreme where Judeo-Christian roots are despised whilst oppressive and frankly disgusting elements of other cultures are ignored.
There is indeed a minority of people who care deeply, but even these will go insane if they focus on worldwide atrocities all the time. Balance is needed, for any individual that concerns her- or himself with the suffering of others to the exclusion of all else, will soon be mentally exhausted and thus of no practical use to those in need of help. I think ultimately the only solution can be a spiritual one, when the heart of stone is turned into a heart of flesh.
This most valuable and thought-provoking work draws on a deep well of Holocaust literature and encompasses reflections on psychology, literature and politics. I think to understand the problem addressed here in its wider context, one ought also to read (it is irrelevant that these 2 authors are found on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Geras) the following books: Our Culture, What's Left Of It by Theodore Dalrymple and The Dragons Of Expectation: Reality And Delusion In The Course Of History by Robert Conquest. And of course A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman, to which Geras is a contributor.