MAXWELL:  With equal passion for all

11/12/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the wake of events such as the slaying of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Oklahoma City bombing and the furor over Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, I, like most other Americans, have been thinking about hatred.

As a black columnist who receives daily hate mail, I am acutely aware of this most destructive of human sentiments and my uneasy relationship to it.

Like most African-American children of my generation, I experienced hatred on a personal level as an ember that flared each time my presence intersected the lives of white people. I felt it, say, when I wanted to try on clothes in a downtown store, when I boarded a city bus, when I had business in a government office.

And, like my peers, I had no real sense of hatred as a system of thought, as a social, cultural or philosophical construct that traps human beings in time, that makes groups and individuals blood enemies. Although I grew up reading the Bible and knowing that Jews were “different,” for instance, I did not _ and still do not _ comprehend the world’s profound hatred of them. My parents and grandparents were too unlettered, too unsophisticated, too busy making ends meet to teach me hatred as an abstraction.

I carried this ignorance with me to Wiley College, a small, historically black school in Marshall, Texas. There, in wonderful isolation, I became a voracious reader, fearing that if I did not have a book, journal, magazine or newspaper open every second, I would miss out on something vital to the rest of my life.

Not until the second semester of my sophomore year did I learn that I was a freak on campus, one warily observed by many of the white faculty, by most of the black faculty and, as far I knew, by all of the black students who knew me. I learned of my outsiderness one afternoon after overhearing one of my professors, a white Woodrow Wilson scholar from Rutgers University, tell a black colleague: “Our Mr. Maxwell hugs Anne Frank with one arm and Martin Heidegger with the other _ all at the same time.”

Was this bon mot an insult or a compliment? Indeed, I had written a paper on The Diary of a Young Girl. I was gripped by Frank’s horrible experiences, especially the depictions of Nazis hunting Jews as if they were animals, of Jews having to huddle in smothering dens. But I was just as moved by this Jewish child’s humor and insight, by her ability to remain an adolescent and fall in love under such circumstances.

At the same time, I had thrown myself into writing a paper on the development of existentialism, on Heidegger’s discussions of “human existence” and “nonhuman presence.” I was pulled into his complex prose, fascinated by the notion that, the more human beings become absorbed by “things,” the less “authentic” their existence becomes. And I pondered then _ and still do _ Heidegger’s expression: “Language is the house of Being.”

I was considered an outsider because I did not discriminate among writers. I read and discussed all of them with equal passion and tolerance.

Even though I, like other students, had learned in lectures that Heidegger, a great German philosopher, was a Nazi who admired Adolf Hitler, I wanted to read him all the more.

Unlike most other students on campus, I did not reject Being and Time, arguably Heidegger’s most important work. Why should I have? It was not a tract of hatred. It did not discuss the man’s private feelings. It laid the groundwork for his existentialist philosophy. To me, Being and Time was nothing more than the intellectual product of a brilliant mind. Furthermore, I wanted to know how such brilliance could accommodate hatred.

I went on to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, H. L. Mencken’s commentaries and the works of other well-known Caucasian haters. I also read black haters, such as Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad. I wanted to understand them all _ black and white.

My interest in this subject was rekindled by William H. Honan’s recent New York Times article detailing Heidegger’s longtime affair with his student and fellow philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who, in the name of love, forgave Heidegger his anti-Semitism.

These new findings have ignited brush fires in academia. “Some of the greatest philosophers were despicable people,” Arendt scholar Sandra Hinchman told the Times. “Rousseau abandoned his five children to a Catholic orphanage before writing Emile, his treatise on education. My fear is that if we concentrate on the lives of some philosophers, we may become prejudiced against their work.”

Hinchman’s is a tantalizing question: To what extent should we judge the works of influential thinkers by the vileness of their private acts?

Obviously, I do not have a definitive answer. I do suggest, however, that when we seek truth, we must try to keep the private acts of important thinkers separate from their work. And if we are trying to understand hatred, we must engage it intellectually. More often than not, hatred is irrational and emotional, and it cannot be countered with equal doses of irrationality and emotion.

Above all, we should not try to avoid hatred. It destroys us when we try to avoid it and those who espouse it. Avoiding it may give us the illusion of safety, and we may become smug in the process. But understanding hatred _ reading about it, studying those who espouse it _ remains the best way of defeating it.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.