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Prof Adam Muller



by Dr. Adam Muller, April13, 2011

Editor's Note: Dr. Adam Muller an Associate Professor in the University of Manitoba's Department of English, Film, and Theatre. He is an interdisciplinary scholar who specializes in the representation of war and atrocity, with particular emphasis on the aesthetic, historical and moral-philosophical dimensions of the Holocaust.

Much has been made recently of a survey undertaken by Nanos Research on behalf of the Canadians for Genocide Education and the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The UCCLA's opposition to the planned content for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is well known, if somewhat poorly factually grounded. The Nanos survey, which finally involved a mere 1,216 people, revolved around a question the construction of which was designed to elicit a particular outcome.

The question was "Would you prefer that there be one exhibit which covers all genocides equally or that there be one gallery that highlights a particular genocide permanently while all others are grouped together in a separate exhibit?" This construction implies a degradation of those exhibits lumped together in a single room and a diminishment of significance assigned to the suffering of each individual atrocity. No clarification of what might be meant by the term "coverage" is offered; and the juxtaposition of "highlighting" with "grouping" suggests that the specific character of each atrocity "grouped" together will be neglected. No reference whatsoever is made of the CMHR’s mandate “to enhance the public's understanding of human rights”; nor does the question acknowledge the different historical roles played by various atrocities and genocides in constituting and organizing rights consciousness both in law and in the public at large.

Questions such as the one used by Nanos Research yield what are known as "push polls," surveys intended to move people towards a specific response.  Such polls are useful in mobilizing various forms of political consensus, but they do little to reflect empirical reality. The very small sample size of the poll is equally problematic, as is the poll's failure to distinguish between respondents who might feel more or less strongly about their preference.

More generally, news coverage of this issue has failed to make plain the UCCLA's constituency. For whom, exactly, are they and the CGE speaking? What should we make of their broader and carefully modulated antipathy towards Jews and Jewish experience? Reports have also neglected to foreground the UCCLA’s status as a special interest group dedicated not to the equality of genocide representations, whatever this might mean, but rather (as per their mission statement) "to the articulation and promotion of the Ukrainian Canadian community's interests," at least as they understand them. Cogent criticisms of the UCCLA’s position on the Holocaust as well as the Ukrainian Holodomor have been marshalled from a number of quarters within the Ukrainian-Canadian community, most tellingly by the distinguished Ukrainian historian John-Paul Himka.

In a recent CBC radio interview Lubomyr Luciuk rejected what he termed "elite" perspectives on the Nazi genocide by which, presumably, he means the perspectives of specialists trained as historians and in the techniques of museum representation. Is his alternative the development of museum exhibitions organized around the beliefs sacred to specific ethno-cultural interests? Is this to be preferred to such work undertaken according to prevailing scholarly and institutional norms? Isn’t this chauvinism supposed to be exactly what the UCCLA opposes?

My view both as an educator and a researcher studying the representation of war and atrocity, in museums such as the CMHR and in works of art, is that the Holocaust bears a special relationship to the emergence of contemporary human rights discourse, particularly as it is manifested in international law but also as it emerges in popular representations of atrocity. The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and especially the Genocide Convention (1948) introduce rights concepts and articulate conceptions of the limits of legitimate force that are directly indebted to the horrific experience of the Holocaust which immediately preceded them. That we speak now quite informally about a nuclear or an environmental Holocaust reveals exactly how hard-wired the Holocaust (and not the Holodomor or the Armenian Genocide) is to our collective moral and political imagination.

Saying this in no way degrades or diminishes our capacity to acknowledge the vast suffering accompanying other acts of atrocity, but it does place a special burden on the explanation of the Holocaust and its effects (explanations undertaken in, for example, such works as Jeffery Alexander's Remembering the Holocaust).  In order to understand human rights we must come to terms with the Holocaust both as an event and as a metaphor for extreme evil, that which lies beyond our pale. This is a responsibility we simply don't face when confronting other manifestations of man's capacity for evil.

The CMHR's devotion of a distinct space for explanation of the Holocaust embodies a perfectly justifiable acknowledgement of the complexities and scale of our moral, historical, and aesthetic investments in this profound tragedy. This does not privilege the suffering of its victims, or its horrors; it does, however, reflect the extent to which the explanation of what human rights are and how rights discourses function is embedded in, since it arises from, the Nazis' attempted extermination of Jews and anyone else they deemed "socially undesirable."


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