Watching Ken Burns’s, Lynn Novick’s, and Sarah Botstein’s brilliant 2022 documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, is difficult. The viewer’s heart is wrenched by photos and home movies of innocent people who would shortly be murdered simply because of their identity. Also distressing is encountering evidence of two other ugly realities: American antisemitism of the era, and the extent to which this bigotry affected American officials’ cold political calculations. These calculations led U.S. officials, up to the highest level of government, to refuse refuge to many Jews seeking to escape Nazi terror. (I cannot here avoid noting that the Burns, et al. film makes clear that, for all of her faults, America in the 1930s and 1940s was a relative paradise to which Jews zealously and with good reason, if not with excellent prospects of success, sought refuge from the hell that then engulfed much of continental Europe.)
In 2022 America, it’s tempting to conclude that we in western Europe and America are now, fortunately, past the stage of our social development that permitted this barbarism. After all, so very many of us, including nearly all of our elites, not only refrain from expressing racial, religious, or other irrational prejudices, we actively encourage “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” We even have legislation and government agencies explicitly aimed at preventing invidious discrimination.
While a few ignorant retrogrades dissent from today’s widespread commitment to stamp out bigotry and hatred, perhaps we have by now forever escaped that benighted past in which mindless and mad collective cruelty wasn’t just accepted, but was also actively encouraged.
Perhaps. But I have my doubts.
In addition to displaying the bigotry and brutality of the 1930s and 1940s, the Burns film displayed an additional trait that featured prominently in the people of those decades, namely ignorant certainty. Hitler, Himmler, and other Nazi monsters were, of course, certain that Germany’s problems were largely caused by Jews and would, thus, certainly be easily solved by eliminating those Jews. There’s no doubt that ordinary Germans who were entranced by Hitler and his propaganda machine were equally certain of those same ludicrous propositions.
Many Americans, for much of Hitler’s reign, were certain that reports of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated and likely the result of scurrilous Jewish propaganda. These same Americans were largely also certain that admission into the U.S. of more Jews would harm Americans.
The certainty in the people revealed by the Burns film isn’t as attention-grabbing as the physical and psychological cruelty. But this certainty is of a piece with this cruelty. Indeed, it’s arguable that this certainty was every bit as much to blame for the cruelty as was the bigotry. Doubts that the ‘other’ human beings whom you are instructed to demonize, imprison, torture, enslave, and murder are really your inferiors dampen your willingness act cruelly toward those ‘other’ human beings.
Our passions are inflamed by certainty and dampened by doubts. Only when we feel certain that members of that ‘other’ group are dangerous to us do we not hesitate to imprison or kill them. Only when we feel certain that imperiled ‘others’ are not deserving of our assistance do we, without qualms, withhold help. Feelings of certainty suppress sympathy or fellow-feeling for anyone or anything not fully on board with whatever tasks we are certain must be carried out.
Nazi certainty about the inferiority and dangerousness of Jews was, of course, not only utterly unfounded, but also especially deplorably placed. Fortunately, this particular species of racism has largely been eliminated. Yet other instances of destructive certainties still abound, and they threaten to unleash much damage if they become more widespread.
Some examples. People who are certain that global warming will soon destroy humanity unless we radically restructure our way of life by abandoning fossil fuels have no sympathy for anyone who disagrees, nor who merely points to downsides of restricting fossil-fuel use. Those who were certain that COVID was destined to kill tens of millions of people annually across the globe, until and unless governments instituted draconian lockdowns, had only contempt and scorn for those who questioned this claim or who pointed to the downsides of lockdowns. Those who are certain that today’s income inequality reflects nothing but the pure happy chance lucked into by, or the predations committed by, the rich have no patience for arguments about how the rich might have earned their wealth honestly, nor how confiscatory taxation might destroy our economy.
Those who are certain that Americans’ prosperity today is rooted in the chattel slavery of the past, and that a great majority of today’s non-Black Americans continue to be incurably if subconsciously racist, self-righteously close their ears to pleas for policies that are colorblind. The reason is that these people are certain that colorblind policies will only further cement in place the unjust privileges and wealth enjoyed by white Americans. And these people are further certain that those individuals who advocate colorblind policies are really cunning knaves who wish to use colorblind policies as a tool to keep people of color poor and oppressed.
Certainty shuts the case on whatever matters the certainty enfolds. Certainty closes off further thought, conversation, and debate. Certainty demands unquestioning loyalty and the enthusiastic performance of whatever actions are prescribed by those who are certain. Certainty tolerates no dissent.
Perhaps liberalism’s greatest gift to the world is its rejection of certainty. By rejecting certainty, liberalism opens doors to tolerance, discussion, debate, learning, and, as a result, true intellectual and spiritual growth. The liberal rejection of certainty is the liberal recognition that no human being is a god, and that no human being can be trusted to have a unique pipeline to god.
Skepticism and uncertainty about reality, modesty and humility about what can be known, radically equalize human beings in intellectual and moral dimensions. Insofar as humanity embraces this liberal commitment to epistemic unpretentiousness, humanity is protected against the fevers and passions of persons who are enflamed by their sense of certainty.
Liberalism, in short, is certain about one matter only, which is this: we humans are, and will forever be, denied access to certain knowledge. Relative to all that can be known, our minds are weak and our stock of knowledge meager. This truth means that we will never experience heaven on earth. But accepting this truth does make life on this earth as good as it can practically be, for it naturally encourages toleration, open-mindedness, and, above all, peace.