Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”
“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”
“And I’m ashamed.”
I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.
“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”
“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”
“What started? What never stopped?”
“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”
I had no words.
At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”
“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”
In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.
My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing.
Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence. Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?
My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.
Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him.
The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?
The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.
Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.” How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?
These observations might anger the reader, or alarm her. Possibly they’ll gratify someone. I’ll be sorry if I upset you.
At some quiet moment recently Australia reached peak white, reached it and left it behind. That’s the observation that I make. The notion dawned on me late. I might have been asleep.
The Australia I was born to was pretty uniformly white. Although I grew up in the country of the Wiradjuri people, I saw few black faces. In my home town in the Riverina, two black boys turned up at my school a couple of times. They owned no shoes. After two days they crept away and I never saw them again. By contrast, when my ancestors arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, white and black populations were more evenly balanced. Over the following one hundred years, by means more or less shameful, white largely erased black.
Around 1970 I started working in a green village of white people on Melbourne’s edge. Here I became the family doctor of a small girl with caramel skin. She grew up to be a beauty. I had known her for nearly twenty years before she spoke to me of her lineage. The child was Australian royalty incognita, descended from one of the first great indigenous footballers. But I was not to tell anyone. During that same decade, in the United States, Black was becoming Beautiful. And after a while Australia’s indigenous people too began to declare their origins. From the start of the sixties we’d been going to school and university with students from Asia. Successive governments relaxed the White Australia Policy and finally dismantled it. Government and Opposition agreed to agree: Australia would open up. And the world entered, first Asia, later Africa. Australia entered the world and the world entered Australia. So Australia, a black country that became a white settler country, developed into a variegated society.
Over that wider world white has always been a minority. Anomalous then for white to exercise hegemony in so many places and for so long. It’s over now and white should have no complaint. Of course white will fight to protect its advantages. History tells us that struggle will be rough and rude.
What will follow – now the wide world is past peak white? It would be naïve to expect power to practise charity. And why expect peoples, long oppressed by white, to respect the rights of their oppressors? We’ve seen the experiment of democracy take root – sometimes deep, often shallow – in many countries. Few of those non-white countries enshrine human rights after the recent Western example. India comes nearest perhaps. Why expect a dominant China or some ascendant Asian Tiger to be more merciful to us once they overtake and possibly colonise us, than the white West was in the times of its dominance – before the peak? (Of course, here in Australia, we’ve been an economic colony ever since Kellogg made our breakfast, Kraft made our foods, Nestle fed our infants, Xerox made or photocopies, Kodak took our photos.
When change comes people feel threatened. Anxiety begets aggression, aggression begets retaliation. At the level of local communities, neighbours begin to distrust each other. Community suffers. And we can feel confident that the hatemongers in public life, refreshed and encouraged, will monger away at their rodent work. Meanwhile we’ve developed the sweet tooth of America; eating the whirlwind, we achieve American obesity and diabetes, which we treat with medications from Big Pharma. Now the Pentagon directs our defences, while Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the whole gang exercise hegemony in the tax haven they create in Australia. Who can suggest we are not colonized already? With their mass and their electronic power and expertise, who would be surprised when we become a colony of Asia?
If this makes you feel gloomy I can offer one striking example of hope trumping fear. That example occurred in the Republic of South Africa where, under Mandela, the black majority gained power. White had long resisted black rights; there’d be chaos, a bloodbath was inevitable. Black assumed power through the ballot, not by bullets. Although plenty of disorder followed, the feared bloodbath never took place. The explanation? I think Nelson Mandela was the explanation.
Humanity will need more Mandelas.
I think maybe we are done; humans I mean.
I am a baby boomer. My generation is used to the success of antibiotics. We contracted tonsillitis, we saw the doctor and he – it was almost always a he – prescribed penicillin and we recovered quickly. We didn’t develop a strep pneumonia, we seldom developed a post-strep kidney disease or heart disease.
Same story with ear infections: penicillin cured them.
We had an ear abscess, we had antibiotics and we won.
That might have been our first mistake.
We used them so often and so promiscuously they stopped working. How long is it since penicillin – plain, old fashioned, shot-in-the-bum , narrow spectrum penicillin – worked for an ear infection?
Because we killed off the susceptible ear infecting germs and bred resistant ones.
Those days of successful antibiosis are going. In fact they have probably gone.
My generation never saw siblings dying from whooping cough or double pneumonia. Parents gave birth to a litter and raised the full complement to adulthood.
That might have been a second mistake: we enjoyed the survival of the second-fittest.
My grandparents’ generation – growing up in the nineteenth century – lost numerous siblings to infections. It was natural. It was not unexpected.
That was the way in the battle between germs and humans through all history. All too often, the germs won. It must have been unbearably sad.
In the ‘seventies we were visited by herpes. For a while herpes won: we said herpes is forever . Then came acyclovir, also known as Zovirax. Herpes skulked off with its tail between its legs – our legs, actually.
In the ‘eighties we were visited by AIDS: incurable by definition. But bugger me (and that might have been how some of us contracted it), anti-retrovirals slowed the virus, survival lengthened and now the disease is a disease, but not universally a death sentence.
Horrible horrible hep-C is in retreat too.
So much (and so little) for the immortal killer viruses.
Meanwhile bacteria are doing better. Go to hospital nowadays for surgery and there is a good chance you’ll emerge with a multi-resistant resistant staph. All the perfumes of Arabia, all the antibiotics of Big Pharma won’t touch those staph.
Go to Asia for traditional sex tourism and there’s a good chance the gonorrhoea you bring back will resist all my antibiotics.
We have had our successes. We have seen off smallpox. The only copies of this germ live in research and germ warfare labs. Humans have it in our power to extinguish the smallpox germ utterly. The germ that killed many many more Australian Aborigines than shooting and starving blackfellas is abolishable. And replaceable. Whenever we change one population we affect another. Take antibiotics for your sore sinuses today and your vagina catches fire with thrush tomorrow.
I happen to be a human. I am on the side of humans in this epochal struggle. But nature does not seem to take sides: she seems to love the earthworm, the spider and the king brown snake precisely as much as she loves the species that gave rise to Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King and the Beatles.
Nature, unlike the writer, is not sentimental. She wishes species to survive. She loves us all equally. So fondly does nature love the plasmodium (I refer to the parasite responsible for malaria, still the greatest killer of humans), that she raises the temperature of the infected human to a maximum in the evening, at just the time that mosquitoes take their evening meal. The anopheles aegyptii drink the infected blood that superheats the human skin. Frequently the infected person expires, but such is the grace of nature, the plasmodium species survives such deaths and is transmitted by the mozzie into the next human it stings.
(If you read any of the works of plasmodial theology, you will understand that their god created humans and mosquitos alike as expendable vectors for the plasmodium, which was created in the image of that god.)
It is possible that nature – implacably fair, resolutely unsentimental, big picture regarding nature – having observed the humans that have bred so successfully that we overrun the earth, has decided that she must reduce our numbers.
Perhaps we humans, like the boy in Jude the Obscure, are done because we are too menny.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 30 January, 2013.
(Of course, if I truly anticipated the imminent eclipse of my species, would I claim copyright?)
The title is a quote from Jude the Obscure, a deeply depressing book by Thomas Hardy. Only go to Hardy if my little article has failed to spoil your life or your day. My piece is cheerful in comparison.