Michel Epstein, with Proof

For the past several months, my friend Bradley Smith has been stuck on a question. He began by directing the question to Deborah Lipstadt, knowing just how that would go. He has since directed the question to historians and working scholars, some of whom have responded with testy amusement.

Some people find Bradley’s question to be impertinent, or even offensive. Others confidently assert that the question  has already  been answered, probably in excruciating detail, by people presumed to who know what they’re talking about. There are also those who think Bradley is being an ass.

Bradley’s question isn’t rhetorical. Nor is it very interesting, as questions go. It is, however, undeniably provocative. It goes like this:

Can you provide the name of one person, with proof, who was killed in a gas chamber at Auschwitz?

Think you can answer it? Think you know someone who can? Perhaps you think it’s a trick of some flavor? Or just the sort of irrelevant noise one might expect from a certifiable kook? Those are the usual outs.

Me, I think it’s a good question. A reasonable question. A jurisprudential and empirical question. I think it’s precisely the sort of question that should be asked of scholars, without courting stigma. I also think there’s a real chance someone will be able to answer it, with compelling evidence and due specificity. Trouble is, the historians are disposed to ignore old Bradley. Or to scoff in good form.   

A while back, I stepped into the comments thread appending a post by Michael Blowhard. Michael’s volley was devoted primarily to the prickly gender politics of one F. Roger Devlin, but there was also some emphasis on the question of when and whether it may be ill-advised to take impolite ideas for a test-drive. On that tangential point, Michael’s hook was phrased in the spirit of thoughtful exchange. He asked:

…what do you think about the idea
of reading a piece by someone who has written for The Occidental
Quarterly? Am I an irresponsible blogger for having linked to the likes
of Devlin? Or are those who won’t take a flyer on some far-out reading
the real fools?

I chimed in with some thoughts on Devlin’s essay, but I was more keyed to the broader question — the one that rebounds to the loosely defined locus of my nine-banded meanderings. So what I did was, I brought up the Holocaust skeptics. The deniers or revisionists or assholes, or whatever you prefer to name them, who are so quickly dismissed as miscreants and nutjobs. I suggested that reading the work of these intellectual pariahs amounted to a kind of litmus test, one that cuts to the pulsating gristle of the question put. I suggested that the issue assumed arguable urgency because Holocaust dissidents stand virtually alone as victims of real state-sponsored persecution and censorship in most western democracies. I mentioned Bradley, but not his question. I mentioned Arthur Butz, whose "banned book" I read years ago.

It seemed relevant. I didn’t mean to derail things, but I should have known better. To his credit, Michael remained gracious as things unfolded, or imploded. Even when Bradley stopped by with his question, which probably was off topic.

But this is perhaps too much in the way of backstory.  The point is that someone took a shot at answering Bradley’s question. Credit goes to a commenter writing as "blah," who offered the following account:

Némirovsky,
a Kiev-born Jewish woman, had settled in France with her wealthy family
after the Russian revolution; become a literary celebrity on a par with
Colette in 1930s Paris; was refused French citizenship shortly before
the second world war broke out; and, in 1942, was deported to Auschwitz
where she died, a stateless Jew, aged 39….

Similarly her husband wrote frantically to the German ambassador in
Paris after Irène’s arrest, pleading for her to be released: "[E]ven
though my wife is of Jewish descent, she does not speak of the Jews
with any affection whatsoever in her works." The letter didn’t save his
wife – she died from typhus in Auschwitz on August 17 1942. Michel was arrested and gassed in Auschwitz on November 6.

Blah backed up his (or her) cut & paste with a link to an article published in The Guardian, which centered on the controversy surrounding Irène Némirovsky following the posthumous publication of her novel, Suite Française.  This was hardly a primary source. The article didn’t offer anything in the way of proof, or even evidence, for the claimed fate of Némirovsky’s husband. It was just an assertion.

But still, there was a specific date and a specific person — a man whose full name I soon learned was Michel Epstein. A few rounds of obligatory Googling turned up a number of references to Epstein’s death at Auschwitz. Most of these references, like the one in The Guardian, were attached to discussion of Némirovsky’s novel and her alleged anti-Semitism. Some confidently repeated the claim that Epstein perished in a gas chamber, perhaps along with his two brothers and a sister. Other accounts ventured that this was "almost certainly" the case.

It may be that there is some compelling reason to believe that  Michel Epstein was murdered in a Nazi gas chamber. The commenter known as "blah" made no effort to provide any such reason, but the fact that the claim is so often repeated would suggest that it has some basis. After all, it is not claimed that Epstein was shot, or that he died of typhus or some other affliction. He is said, in most web-accessible references, to have been murdered in a gas chamber, the Nazi-preferred weapon of mass destruction. Specifically, on November 6, 1942. Someone must know what they’re talking about.

And so, just for the hell of it, I’ve decided to do what our Googling commenter couldn’t be troubled to do. I’m going to follow the trail and see where it leads. I will begin by reading the
Némirovsky biographies and checking the sources. If necessary, I will contact Yad Vashem and the USHMM, to make use of their registries. I will consult genealogies and archives and whatever other resources are suggested along the way. Perhaps I will hit paydirt in short order. Perhaps I will end up running in circles. All I know is I have a name, a date, and a specific and oft-repeated claim about one man’s tragic fate in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

I don’t know if I will be able to provide Bradley with a definitive answer to his question. But I am going to try. I will report back.

Memento mori.   

Antinatalism and the Christina Ricci Button

A reader writes:

I’m a fellow antinatalist and have read a great
deal of the material on both your blog and others too. There are,
however, many things that concern me about this nascent movement. I
would like to give expression to those concerns below:

Firstly, there seems to be an assumption among antinatalists that
their arguments are irrefutable and that anybody who questions the
assumptions upon which such arguments are based should just be ignored.
Many antinatalist blogs which I have read incorporate a very high
degree of abstract material, and are liberally strewn with quotations
from philosophers, writers and thinkers, both past and present. Showing
that you have a wide-ranging knowledge of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kant,
Aristotle and Plato is not of any great help to anyone. I view such
demonstrations of supposed intellectual prowess as shallow and
unconstructive. There is, sadly, very little by way of practical
guidance for the "common man" and very little understanding of
objections which a "normal" 21st century heterosexual individual may raise to the issue of remaining childless.
 
Playing devil’s advocate, for example, imagine I say the following
(and incidentally, almost none of what follows is self-description):
I’m a 35 year old heterosexual man, of average intelligence, an
atheist, living in a developed country. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we
find each other attractive on all levels, physically, intellectually,
etc. I have a great job, at which I meet loads of great people. I have
many hobbies which I enjoy, a vibrant social life, and 2 kids. They are
both at school, and great fun to be with. They, too, are healthy, happy
and, in general, enjoying life. We’re going to have a few more
children. I don’t see why we shouldn’t, just because there’s a risk
that they may suffer. Yeah, OK, there’s a small (less than 10% chance)
that they may suffer badly, but a far greater chance that most of their
lives will be spent in happiness. We will do our best to ensure that
they come to no (non-trivial) harm. On the off-chance that something
serious does happen to them, well, as you say, death will stop them
suffering in the end. Dealing with certain misfortunes is not
"suffering" anyway, and neither is being disabled (necessarily).
Certain experiences will only serve to mould my children’s character
and to make them self-reliant, decent citizens. I understand that if we
all stopped reproducing, all suffering would end with the present
generation (at least until an evolutionary accident throws up something
like us again), but that’s just boring, life’s too much fun to be
missed! And yes, I am gambling with someone else’s life – I cannot deny
that – but the dice are loaded in my favour, and theirs too. With
regard to death, yeah, I accept that I’ve got to die, as does every
other human being on the planet, but I don’t bother to think about it –
just enjoy life now, when death happens, it happens. There’s no need to
take it so seriously!
 
Convince this hypothetical human being not to have any more
children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying that he
is either:
 
a) stupid, and/or
b) selfish and/or
c) immoral
 
is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.
 
Next, there seems to be an assumption on many blogs that it is a
pre-requisite to join the atheist fold and give up religion in order to
espouse the cause of antinatalism. I see this as a non-sequitur – why
does belief in God preclude one from being an antinatalist?

 
I don’t see antinatalism as fulfulling any purpose whatsoever if
it seeks to be an exclusive members only club at the "cerebral edges of
blogland" (quote from antinatism.net),
populated by pseudo-intellectuals who use it as a marketing tool and to
preach to the "very much already converted". Antinatalists should make
available succinctly presented information to the general public
showing clearly the advantages of their approach and using reason and
logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine. Simply stating
a million times: "Stop having kids because that’s the only way humanity
can avoid suffering – are you too stupid to see that" is not going to
convert even 1 person that’s not already converted (independently).
Below is my response, edited from correspondence.

To begin, I’m not much for movements. Nor have I ever sought to fulfill a purpose, at least not in the sense that might matter. This is not some left-handed stab at humility. Truth is, I’m lazy, selfish, and prone to drift. 

For me, the proposition that no one should have children follows
from taking seriously any number of ethical precepts that are
uncontroversial in other contexts. Regardless of whether people are schooled in the rudiments of
philosophy (and I’m a dilettante at best), I find that most people — including, I suppose, the "common man" — subscribe to
some version of the harm principle, whether it takes the form of "rights" or the Golden Rule or basic decency. Most people believe consent is valuable, unless there is a good reason to trump it. And most people will try like hell to avoid death and
misfortune (for themselves and for those they love) when choices are
available. These are the sentiments to which I mean to appeal, even when my tone is perhaps a mite strident. Or pretentious, as I am told. I mean
to say, simply, that where procreation is at issue, a choice is
available, and that caution alone begs that the easily caricatured "other side" be given due consideration, or at least a hearing. For reasons that people already understand. 

While I
personally find David Benatar’s expression of the pleasure/pain asymmetry to be compelling on a number of
levels, I recognize that his formulation proceeds after certain premises and
intuitions that not everyone will share. It would be foolish to believe
I could change hearts and minds. Yet experience suggests that there are at least a few people  (perhaps those already harboring
inchoate doubts and misgivings about this long gathered parade of life) who receive the argument like a flash. For such people, I believe that simply seeing the position
articulated can matter. It mattered for me. Without treading into sanctimony, I believe it
can save lives.

there seems to be an assumption among antinatalists that
their arguments are irrefutable and that anybody who questions the
assumptions upon which such arguments are based should just be ignored.

I
don’t think my arguments — i.e., the arguments I embrace — are by any means irrefutable. In fact, I think the position I’ve triangulated is rather easily refuted from the trench of a certain brand of amoral
egoism — the "tough shit" rejoinder, as it were. That one cuts straight
to the core of every moral assumption or premise to which I appeal, and leaves me with nothing to say. Of course, very few people adopt such a position.

The trouble,
I find, is that people seldom bother to question the underlying
assumptions of the various forms of philanthropic antinatalism with
which I have come to be marginally associated. On those occasions when they do,  interlocutors tend to recoil from the logical implications. I’ve seen it play out too many times.

Take the most conspicuous pillar —
that of the pain/pleasure asymmetry formulated by David Benatar. And just to keep things clean, let’s
assume that by "pain" we are talking only about unrewarded and nontrivial pain or
suffering (of which I contend there is plenty in every life). As you are aware, the core assumption of the second
half of the asymmetry distills to the view that where there is no
person, the absence of pleasure is neutral whereas the absence of
(unrewarded) pain is still good. Some critics question this
assumption, either by a.) arguing that the calculus is rendered
meaningless by the problem of non-identity, i.e., that non-existent beings are morally irrelevant, or b.) by arguing that the
asymmetry is mistaken; to wit, that the absence of pleasure is bad even
when no one is deprived by this absence.

The first objection is, I believe, obtuse
to the role of human agency in the act of procreation. Once you gut out the nuances, this becomes clearer. Take the case of parents who have a
child knowing that there is a 100% chance that their child will be born with
a debilitating illness, or the case of a pregnant woman who ingests thalidomide for kicks. When the stakes are sufficiently stark, the intuitive appeal of  non-identity whithers. It makes little
sense to argue that the non-identity of the uncreated person negates
parental agency in those cases where having a child will certainly result in otherwise avoidable
and profound suffering. And if non-identity fails in such instances, well, the problem of
risk in less delineative contexts remains to be confronted. We move past non-identity, to a continuum. Or a gambit. And the asymmetry yawns back.

For those who argue
that the asymmetry is mistaken, i.e., that the pre-existent are
actually deprived of good by not being brought into existence, there
are serious implications that almost no one seems willing to indulge,
much less embrace. For example, if non-existent beings are subject to
deprivation, then moral agents would seem to have a duty to at least try to fulfill
their presumptive claims to such unrealized pleasure — most obviously by having as many
children as possible. While this conclusion follows neatly from a
denial of the asymmetry, thus articulated, I have encountered very few critics who seem
willing to play it as it lays. In short, I have no problem with people questioning
antinatalist assumptions or premises (and this would go for other assumptions/premises
regarding harm and consent); I just don’t think that’s where the buck
stops. As long as you’re resigned to play the moral game, you’re left to wrestle with problems. You have some heavy lifting to do.
Perhaps there are couunter-arguments which would yet convince me, but I have
yet to hear them voiced. And in the absence of a compelling refutation,
my view is that prudence — and the presumption of harm — should dictate.

Many antinatalist blogs which I have read incorporate a
very high degree of abstract material, and are liberally strewn with
quotations from philosophers, writers and thinkers, both past and
present. Showing that you have a wide-ranging knowledge of Nietzsche,
Heidegger, Kant, Aristotle and Plato is not of any great help to
anyone. I view such demonstrations of supposed intellectual prowess as
shallow and unconstructive. There is, sadly, very little by way of
practical guidance for the "common man" and very little understanding
of objections which a "normal" 21st century heterosexual individual may raise to the issue of remaining childless.

I
don’t know which antinatalist forums you are referring to, but I would
recommend taking a stroll through Jim Crawford’s "Antinatalism:  The
Ultimate Taboo
" or  the "Don’t Have Kids" site. Jim cuts things to the meat and
seems positively impatient with the strictures of high end cerebration.
Even Sister Y’s The View from Hell, while it is  informed by a variety
of normative ideas and thought experiments, is written in a clear and engaging style
that  would scarcely seem to alienate a reasonably intelligent reader.

Furthermore, I don’t see many currents of antinatalist
reasoning banking off  the philosophers you mention. The forebears, such
as they are, are more neatly grounded in analytical moral philosophy, legal
ethics, contract theory, and of course, in various schools of utilitarian thought. And while I’m not sure what you would make of
Schopenhauer, he has always struck me as a refreshingly worldly and
readable old snot. I imagine that even a "normal" 21st century
heterosexual guy might find something of value in his the great pessimist’s aphoristic brio.

Finally, although it is  aimed at a philosophically literate audience, I would add that Benatar’s book, Better Never to Have Been, is crisp and cogent and consistently resistant to the imputed obscurantism of Continental philosophy. Perhaps such efforts are doomed to be ignored by the unwashed multitudes, but then most people don’t read anything. I can’t change this.

Playing devil’s advocate, for example, imagine I say the
following (and incidentally, almost none of what follows is
self-description): I’m a 35 year old heterosexual man, of average
intelligence, an atheist, living in a developed country. I’ve got a
lovely wife, and we find each other attractive on all levels,
physically, intellectually, etc. I have a great job, at which I meet
loads of great people. I have many hobbies which I enjoy, a vibrant
social life, and 2 kids. They are both at school, and great fun to be
with. They, too, are healthy, happy and, in general, enjoying life.
We’re going to have a few more children. I don’t see why we shouldn’t,
just because there’s a risk that they may suffer. Yeah, OK, there’s a
small (less than 10% chance) that they may suffer badly, but a far
greater chance that most of their lives will be spent in happiness. We
will do our best to ensure that they come to no (non-trivial) harm. On
the off-chance that something serious does happen to them, well, as you
say, death will stop them suffering in the end. Dealing with certain
misfortunes is not "suffering" anyway, and neither is being disabled
(necessarily). Certain experiences will only serve to mould my
children’s character and to make them self-reliant, decent citizens. I
understand that if we all stopped reproducing, all suffering would end
with the present generation (at least until an evolutionary accident
throws up something like us again), but that’s just boring, life’s too
much fun to be missed! And yes, I am gambling with someone else’s life
– I cannot deny that – but the dice are loaded in my favour, and theirs
too. With regard to death, yeah, I accept that I’ve got to die, as does
every other human being on the planet, but I don’t bother to think
about it – just enjoy life now, when death happens, it happens. There’s
no need to take it so seriously!

I’m not sure I ever said "death will stop them suffering in the end." Or anything of the kind. In most circumstances, I consider death to be a grave harm — both
for the victim whose life options are cut short, and for his or her
friends and loved ones, who may suffer greatly from grief. But, taking your
narrative at face value, I can’t shake the suspicion that your
hypothetical actor suffers from severe Pollyannaism. In world-historic
or terms — or to up the ante, in sub specie aeternitas terms — the risks
that your actor contemplates, for others, are demonstrably more serious than his
optimism allows.

Step in your time machine and set the controls for a random point in history. I promise you
will find the average person living under dire conditions. Starving. Or subject to severe climate-borne deprivation. Disease and hardship and warfare and oppression will be common. And even today the risk that an individual
life will be fraught with misfortune is far from trivial. Forget for the moment that your would-be procreator has it well. Life changes in an instant, as Joan Didion reminds us. The
future is always uncertain, and the cavalier rationalizations offered
by your Average-Joe falsely deny or minimize this uncertainty. This man’s
child may be conscripted into an unjust war. His child may be raped.
His child may suffer from excruciating jealousy, or depression, or loneliness. Or — perish the thought — his child may grow up to be an antinatalist and rue his very existence. That such prospects remotely occur to your hypothetical actor says more about his lack of imagination than it says about the actual stakes of the game he would play with a life not his own.

And as
to the business of "gambling with someone else’s life," I would be
interested to know if your guy would retain his air of rose-tinted nonchalance if the
life at issue had already begun. To avoid undue abstraction, let’s say the risk centers not on the life of his potential offspring, but on the life of Christina Ricci.
Here’s a button. Push it, and you activate an added 10% chance that Ms.
Ricci will be afflicted with cancer, or that she will be tortured, or severely burned.
Don’t push the button, and Christina’s life will go on as it would have, with no
additional risk of any of these misfortunes. Assuming your guy doesn’t have the opportunity to inform Ms. Ricci of the existence of this button and to solicit her views on the option before him alone, do you think he might hazard a guess as to what she might say? How about: NO!

Of course there’s always the chance that she would dig the prospect, for whatever idiosyncratic reason we might imagine. Perhaps she is a  masochist. But when you couple the absence of  consent with the otherwise avoidable possibility of serious harm, caution and decency are sufficient to advise against the gamble.  "Sure, you’re taking a risk." Trouble is, you haven’t begun to justify it.

Convince this hypothetical human being not to have
any more children, in simple language that he will understand. Implying
that he is either:
 
a) stupid, and/or
b) selfish and/or
c) immoral
 
is clearly not going to do the job, and neither is trying to browbeat him through complex abstraction.
I
don’t mean to browbeat anyone. If someone is determined to have children and
that person is predisposed to dismiss or ignore antinatalist arguments,
there is absolutely nothing I can say or do to change their mind. But again, there are
plenty of people who begin with doubts. And for those people — the ones on
the fence, so to speak — simply hearing the "other side" articulated
can be enough.

It would be absurd to suggest that procreators are typically stupid. People are evolved
to propagate their genes, and to invent clever rationalizations when things go wrong.
I do think that, barring an ethical catastrophe involving twins and
blood types or something, having children is inherently selfish. If there’s
is a  commonplace justification for procreation that isn’t selfish, I have yet to encounter it. If pointing this out ruffles people, I can’t say that I care.

As to morality, it depends on your default premises. I’ve already said
that the amoralist is exempt from such appeals, but if you don’t want to up the
negative odds for Christina Ricci, then I believe you have some
explaining to do.And while I hope I am not guilty of — and don’t think I am capable of —
much in the way of "complex abstraction," appeals to moral agency and
basic foundational ethical premises (regarding, say, the nature of selfishness) are
simply unavoidable. Indeed, to the extent that people are rationally governed
by moral concerns, they invite as much. People can turn a blind eye to any argument, but burying one’s head doesn’t change a thing.

Finally, to play by your rules as I understand them, I suppose I —
or some other "movement"-oriented  antinatalist — might appeal to your potential
procreator’s sense of rational self-interest. Having kids — or, in this case, more
kids — is costly. Studies show that having children doesn’t typically increase
happiness for parents (in fact, it tends to decrease happiness), and
the prosaic obligations that attach to children serve as
impediments to other pleasurable endeavors and goals, such as reading or
recreation or sex tourism. The fact that there are articulable moral reasons to
consider refraining from additional childbearing could be viewed as
ancillary to such self-interested appeals.

But again, if your guy is determined there is nothing I can say to
convince him. If I could, I would offer him money to be sterilized.
As Sister Y has observed, "humans have a notoriously high discount rate."

Next, there seems to be an assumption on many blogs that
it is a pre-requisite to join the atheist fold and give up religion in
order to espouse the cause of antinatalism. I see this as a
non-sequitur – why does belief in God preclude one from being an
antinatalist?

I
can’t speak for others, but if I have ever said anything to suggest
that atheism is a prerequisite for antinatalism, you’ll have to point
it out to me. I’ll gladly retract it, because this is not my view. To the
contrary, my essay on antinatalism and the problem of "belief in
belief" sought to take very seriously the stakes contemplated by Andrea
Yates when she drowned her children to rescue them from the possibility
of eternal damnation. Given the assumptions of her theology, I believe
her actions were defensible, if not imperative. And I believe the stakes are generally far more stark for believers — of whatever faith or denomination — whose
belief includes the possibility of hellfire, i.e., eternal suffering. I can’t begin wrap my mind around such a concept. If you believe it, you have a special burden.

While I admit to being an incorrigible atheist, one of the most
articulate procreation skeptics I have yet encountered happens to be a Christian.  I agree with you that it’s a non-sequitur.  I would add,
echoing David Benatar’s argument in the March 2008 issue of Think
magazine (which is very similar to Jim Crawford’s argument here), that secularists are often just as blinded by optimistic
bias (delusion A) as theists are by supernatural solace (delusion B). It’s worth remembering that the Shakers
ran a more successful antinatalist project than any freethinking group
I could name.

Incidentally, if you want to see what a sincere antinatalist Christian sounds like, check out Dan’s two cents in the Mere Comments blog. I have absolutely no problem with theistic antinatalism.

You conclude:

I don’t see antinatalism as fulfulling any purpose
whatsoever if it seeks to be an exclusive members only club at the
"cerebral edges of blogland" (quote from antinatism.net),
populated by pseudo-intellectuals who use it as a marketing tool and to
preach to the "very much already converted". Antinatalists should make
available succinctly presented information to the general public
showing clearly the advantages of their approach and using reason and
logic to drive home the central tenets of the doctrine. Simply stating
a million times: "Stop having kids because that’s the only way humanity
can avoid suffering – are you too stupid to see that" is not going to
convert even 1 person that’s not already converted (independently).

Honestly,
I’m not that fucking ambitious. I’m not really seeking converts, either.
Antinatalism is an idea that fascinates me, partly because I believe it
makes sense and partly because it proceeds from ethical premises that
most people find compelling in other contexts. I also think that life is far shittier than most people dare admit. Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon, complicated all the more by innate and adaptive dishonesty. Humans are natural self-deceivers.  I don’t trust them. 

I try to present my
arguments, derivative as they are, in a way that is consistent with my
style and sensibility. Most people will dismiss what I am saying, I am aware. This is fine with
me. But a few people may find themselves thinking further, which is the best I should hope for. I happen to think that the antinatalist edges of the web
— at least those of a philanthropic bent — are more nuanced than you
imply, but there’s always room for more argument. If you have a more PR-savvy approach, I would encourage
you to take the reigns. I’ll be the first to notice.

I believe that’s all I’m going to say about this subject for a while. The L.A. Rollins book is finally at the printer, and I have other projects on the burner.

Memento mori.