Immobilized by Moral Ambiguity

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 18, 2007, issue of May 18, 2007.
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Will it never end?

The “it” refers to the cruelty, the meanness, the violence that so have characterized our times, and do still. While Iraq and Afghanistan continue to leech — blood, treasure, honor — it is other things I have in mind just now.

The haunting question is the disturbing theme of a movie I saw the other evening, a Dutch movie called “Black Book” by film director Paul Verhoeven. Although I found it deeply affecting, I am hesitant to recommend it since almost all the reviews, most of them quite positive, remark on its vulgarity — an aspect of the film that, I confess, largely escaped me.

The movie tells the story of a Jewish woman in Holland during the war (“the war” meaning World War II) who hides her Jewishness in order to survive, joins the Resistance, and, after a few too many brushes with death, both as witness and almost victim (which lead her to ask, plaintively, the “Will it never end?” question), ends up on a kibbutz in Israel.

The film is almost entirely a flashback; it begins, quite briefly, and ends, even more briefly, on the kibbutz, where she is a teacher of young children and herself a mother, her punishing and too-often melodramatic past apparently safely tucked away. But this is Israel in October 1956, the year of the Sinai campaign.

And so, in the final seconds of the film, Verhoeven answers what we’d imagined was merely a rhetorical question: Suddenly, a swarm of Israeli soldiers races into the kibbutz, taking up defensive positions. No, it does not end. No place is safe, there is no peace, soldiers and guns are everywhere. And death.

On an old cassette tape, I have a Hungarian version of the familiar “Ani Ma’amin,” familiar until, partway through, the performing artists switch to Yiddish from the Hebrew and sing directly to God, asking, among other things, “When will there be an end to the punishments of Exile?”

Which brings me to Darfur. It is now almost exactly two years since President Bush described what’s happening in Darfur as “genocide,” almost three years since Congress unanimously adopted a joint resolution declaring the atrocities in Darfur genocide.

The United Nations Genocide Convention, which became international law in 1948 and which the United States finally ratified in 1988, declared genocide a crime that the signatories “undertake to prevent and to punish.” It is possible that the president believes that our diplomatic interventions fulfill our obligation, since they do, however ineffectively, “undertake to prevent.”

Be that as it may, it is certain that many of the 400,000 Darfurians who have perished, often from hunger and disease, or who were simply slaughtered, entered the dismal statistical roll during these past two years. As also many of the some 2.5 million Darfurians who have been displaced, many of the more than 80% of Darfur’s villages that have been looted or destroyed, and many of the 4 million Darfurians who are now dependent on humanitarian aid.

Seven months ago, the Massachusetts Coalition To Save Darfur learned that the Boston-based mutual-fund giant Fidelity Investments had more than a billion dollars invested in two of the most unscrupulous companies operating in Sudan, PetroChina and Sinopec.

The Sudan Divestment Task Force, a national research and advocacy group, identified these Chinese oil companies (principally owned by the Chinese government) as among the two dozen or so “worst-offending” businesses in the war-torn region. In consequence, a campaign was begun to encourage people with funds at Fidelity to divest, in the hope that such action might lead Fidelity to clean up its act.

I’ve been aware of the effort for a while now, but it was only last week that I finally took action, writing to Fidelity, in which I do indeed have a chunk of my retirement funds. I wrote of my concerns and of my disposition to withdraw from all my Fidelity holdings unless I could be persuaded that Fidelity was acting responsibly.

Fidelity’s response? They “comply fully with all applicable laws.” And, “Were our government to decide to enact new laws or regulations to broaden restrictions on investments, the Fidelity funds, of course, would comply with those laws as well.” After all, Fidelity’s fiduciary responsibility is to maximize investors’ returns.

But note: Fidelity has — gulp — $3 trillion under management. Of this, $1.4 billion or so, barely enough to qualify as a statistical error, is invested in the two Chinese oil companies operating in Sudan. It can scarcely be thought that shifting the $1.4 billion to other companies would impair the bottom line. Obedience to the letter of the law may permit, but hardly requires, investment in Sudan.

As to those of us who are offended by this “by the book” abdication of responsibility, Fidelity superciliously writes, “We understand that some investors may choose to advance specific causes based upon their personal social or ethical values.”

It was on reading that sentence that I decided to quit Fidelity. Putting an end to genocide is not quite the same as advancing a “personal cause.”

The Verhoeven movie is riddled with moral ambiguity. There is a “good Nazi,” and there is an evil resistance fighter. The leader of one resistance cell devoted to rescuing Jews lapses at one point into antisemitism. The heroine of the movie is less than a woman of virtue.

We’re told, these days, that the situation in Darfur is not as simple as we supposed a year or two ago. There, too, ambiguity.

But it is not acceptable to be immobilized by ambiguity, not when women are being raped, children starved, people driven from their homes, routinely slaughtered. Much of life is inherently ambiguous. Yet: If not now, when?

Else it will never end.


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