Benjamin Ferencz was the chief prosecutor at a special Nuremberg trial for Nazi’s who murdered one million Jews outside the gas chambers, mainly women and children on the beaches. A Romanian Jew, refugee, who with his parents travelled in fourth class, “because there was no lower class” on an open crowded deck. In a documentary aired last night on the Documentary channel, we learned of his biography. Raised by his grandmother, following the divorce of his parents, he was rejected from elementary school because he could not speak English, and then he failed to pass French and Algebra so he frequented French movies to learn the language only to mock his “Parisien, romantic accent” in this bio, When the teacher’s observed to him and his parents that he was “gifted,” they knew nothing about the meaning of that word… “There were no gifts!”. His acceptance at Harvard following his graduation from City College in New York put him among a totally foreign culture of “aristocrats wearing loafers without socks and canoeing on the Charles River.”
His monumental intellect nevertheless attracted others who immediately following the Second War, were engaged in the trials of Nazi war prisoners at Nuremberg. Assigned to dig up evidence, Ferencz found a trove of documentation that implicated many officers in the recorded deaths of a million Jews, for which no trial had been planned or organized. When he approached his superior about the evidence, he was told that the twelve cases that had been planned, along with their assigned legal counsel, left no resources, or Pentagon approval for another trial. “Would he take it on, in addition to his other duties?” Of course!
And so, at twenty-seven, he began serving as the principal prosecutor in a trial held in a court room in the same building in which the indicted men were housed, in the basement. Wandering through the fields outside Auschwitz, he found bone fragments which he picked up and put in his pocket, perhaps as a reminder of the history in which he was now deeply engaged. When the question of who was going to pay for the maintenance of the many Jewish cemeteries in Germany, following the war, and German lawyers objected to having their government cover the costs, Ferencz pulled out the bones from his pocket and retorted, “Ask them why you should pay? It was you who killed them!
A fierce and undaunted, as well as undauntable beacon of the highest of human hope and endurance and the light of the human spirit, Firencz proudly corrected an early hiring American military officer who commented, “It appears that you are sometimes insubordinate!”
“No Sir, you say that I am sometimes insubordinate. I am always insubordinate!”
Following the trials at Nuremberg, Ferencz advocates for and champions, as he continues to do today, the establishment and the endorsement of all nations to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Signing onto the charter on behalf of the United States, as the last act of his presidency in December 1999, Bill Clinton’s bold decision was set aside by his Republican successor, George W. Bush. Consequently, the United States is no longer an active, committed signatory to the court’s charter. Ferencz held firm to his belief throughout his ninety-plus years that only through submitting human conflict, on all of its many levels, to the process of the law, would/could the world rid itself of war, a commitment to which he has dedicated his life. So his work continues so long as his adopted country and others remain outside the orbit, purview and judicial review of the court.
For these last many pages, the words found here have been focused on the nature of masculinity, given the many challenges, stereotypes, expectations, and even shackles into which masculinity has been framed, in all of the multiple meanings of that word, both in the contemporary culture, and, however, briefly and superficially, in history.
Ben Ferencz, as an individual human being so profoundly engaged in righting the evil exposed by the Third Reich, whose leaders pleaded that the Russians were going to take over Germany, thereby justifying both their following the Fuhrer’s orders, and his interpretation of the Russian bear, represents what might be feasible, even able to be envisioned in the imagination of the least altruistic among the men on the planet. An International Criminal Court, supported, sanctioned and funded by the world community, implies a degree of surrender of the power of each of the signatories.
Submitting raw evidence of the most heinous of human behaviour, performed as part of the actions of a state actor, and then having that evidence judged by a tribunal of impartial judges from various nations, literally and metaphorically shines a bead of light into the darkness that currently envelops geopolitical conflicts, threats of conflict, failures of negotiations, accords and treaties, not to mention the growing storm of oligarchy in too many capitals.
Of course, withdrawing into the confines of a nation’s shell, like the proverbial turtles in nature, as the United States, and several European and Asian nations seem to be doing, exhibits the obverse of everything the International Criminal Court represents.
nationalism (of a highly narcissistic nature),
measuring human “value” in terms of wealth, productivity, military might and corporate/executive profit and billionaires,
zero-sum “games” (that provide existential threats to all of humanity)
the death of truth and responsibility as well as the shame that accompanies those burials
these are just some of the winds that swirl across all the continents on the planet.
And underlying all of these forces, it says here, are anxiety, fear, hubris, competition, power-tripping, and the conventional acceptance of what have come to be called norms. Let’s take a closer look at what the world considers normal, in terms of human history and behaviour.
The ambition to amass personal, familial, communal, regional and national power holds a prominent place in the history of our species.
The curiosity to investigate how to find the “achilles heel” in each of our opponents is considered an astute, imaginative, even brilliant piece of strategy in the pursuit of power.
The development of high degrees of competency, skill, even virtuosity in the exercise of those skills that will provide dominance, equated with survival, in the pursuit of personal satisfaction.
The categorizing of all species, and all intellectual disciplines, including the many divergent sub-classes in all disciplines, as a foundational principle for all academic pursuits in the west.
The categorizing of God, god, deity, as one or more of king, healer, prophet, shaman, or hero as a human way to anthropologize this entity reduces the human stretch, search, reflection on a possibility of all ‘archetypes.’
The categorizing of the deity as male is another restricting, confining and indeed insulting reductionism of any and all deities.
The perspective of invincibility, even verging on the immortal, linked with a denial of death and the reflection of its meaning and purpose in human life.
The resistance to seeking help, collaboration, and to sharing vulnerabilities.
The prioritizing of order above chaos, as a guiding principle, while imitating some of what we call ‘nature’ excludes much more of ‘nature.’
The prioritizing of ‘making a living’ and all things pragmatic, responsible and mature above pursuits of imagination, art, thought, reflection and relationship.
The calculations of accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers and priests as “expert” when most are inevitably and indisputable “works in progress” and “highly speculative and evolving.
The perspective of short-term transactional thinking, imagining, planning and the strategies and tactics to deliver on stated goals and objectives, at the expense of “connecting the dots” between and among the various human needs.
The pursuit of instant gratification, as opposed to delayed gratification.
Doe the proposition that perhaps the normal and the abnormal would/could well change places in order to provide a more humane, more healthy, and more sustainable cultural ethos?
For the cynic, do not these various “symptoms” of our western culture not approximate, too closely for comfort, the stereotypical notion of what it means, has meant, and in too many situations continues, to define masculinity?
And the exhibition of what has come to be called “hard” power, (even hard wiring is now embedded in our culture, as opposed to software) is so endemically and inextricably embedded in our culture as to be reasonably and legitimately considered counter-intuitive, counter-productive, and self-sabotaging, not only of millions of individuals in their private lives, but also in the wider, broader and deeper implications for the survival of the planet.
It can be argued that many men are “hardwired” as solo flyers. Firencz, while a firebrand prosecutor, investigator, seeker of justice, both for the Jewish people, and ultimately for all of mankind, is also both mirror and lamp for the people on the planet. Found as a valuable resource in the middle of an epic and heinous human catasprophe, Firencz found his “place” as one of the more significant symbols of human pain and its profound and transformational impact on a human life.
This is not a hymn only to the Jewish people, and to Firencz as their prosecutor. It is also a challenge to each and every male currently within reach of these words, including the scribe, to examine critically how we reflect on our gender, how we exemplify our anxieties as power-over others, how we eliminate those unique dreams and aspirations which others find “unacceptable” for whatever fears and anxieties they are projecting onto us. We can also reflect on how we have especially neglected to acknowledge, identify, and address those simple and often superficial personal fears of embarrassment, rejection, alienation, and even abandonment by our peers, should we express our truth.
It is the manner of owning and expressing our insubordination that merits much more scrutiny, reflection and incorporation into our thinking, our habits of thought and especially our habits of “fitting” into the prevailing culture.
Currently, several nations are busily engaged in evacuating national from Wuhan in China, given the jet-stream of infections, deaths and fears that have overtaken millions. Canada, on the other hand, at this writing, is still deeply engaged, from the public evidence, in the bafflegab of circumlocution between and among its various political leaders, including the Prime Minister. For me, thinking from the perspective of one Canadian father, husband, living in Wuhan, with a wife who is three-months pregnant, and unable even to get to the local hospital for care, whether in an emergency or not, I am both embarrassed and ashamed of our country’s impotence.
In fact, evidence of masculine impotence, and its many faces, varieties, expressions and implications, holds much of the planet in its grip. However, to rush into any form of instant dominance, as an attempt to disprove and to disavow, and to dispel any notion of impotence, is both dangerous and potentially suicidal. We need to drink deeply from stories like that Firencz, not merely to find the strength, energy and nuclear power to combat our enemies in the flesh. We need to begin to consider how many of the real enemies are “within” our selves.
And while slaying the dragon has been a protypical archetype of masculine history and culture, is it not past time for men to let go of our tight-fisted clinging to the reins (and the reigns) of all forms of power, not mere to let others grow into their own fullness, but to release us from the enslavement to our own hubris?
The fire of conviction that burned in the belly of Firencz can also be found in the bellies of most men, given the appropriate, challenging, supportive and affirming ethos. And such conviction can be focused not only on a world criminal court, but on the many challenges facing men, in our relationships, in our vocations, in our conduct of leadership and in our pursuit of our most creative, and insubordinate selves.
Slavery, that noxious, heinous legacy of blacks in America, has many faces. And the millions of blacks who have been leading, and suffering in pursuit of the full freedom and uncoupling the links of their enslaving traps, many of them still ensnaring too many communities like Baltimore, because of the neurosis of too many people (mostly men) currently and historically holding positions of power, are beacons of hope, if we can see them in that light, for the millions of both men and women of all colours, races, religions and ethnicities, still struggling to be free.
As holders of the positions of power, and as manipulators of the levers of power in many cultures, and still in most sectors, as well as in most nations, men have to take off our blinders to our own complicity in a culture that prefers to strangle and to limit and to control and to profit from its voiceless.