The clarity and moral force of If This Is a Man’s witness to nazism’s crimes against humanity is as urgent as ever. Philip Roth once called Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce – usually published as one volume – “one of the century’s truly necessary books”. If you’ve read Levi, the only quibble you could make with Roth is that he’s too restrictive in only referring to the 20th century. It’s impossible to imagine a time when the two won’t be essential, both because of what they describe and the clarity and moral force of Levi’s writing. Reading him is not a passive process. It isn’t just that he makes us see and understand the terrible crimes that he himself saw in Monowitz-Buna. It’s that in doing so, he also makes us witnesses, passing us knowledge that gives us a moral and practical responsibility. We too must remember. We too must tell others. I write this article now in the hope that I can encourage more people to read Levi and understand his importance. If you’re hesitating now – and if I can possibly induce you – go read this book. If I can’t persuade you, let me turn to Roth again, who described Levi’s achievement thus: With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and the most contemptible. The testimonies that commenters have shared in this month’s reading group have also been moving and impressive. BengalEuropean, for instance, recalled reading Levi’s 1982 novel If Not Now, When?: “I read it at one of those turning or decision points in life, and it helped me to find the courage to decide to do something that dramatically changed my future. Apart from his Holocaust memoir – which is every bit as profound and important as posters here are saying – he’ll always occupy a special place in my mind as a writer able to frame the right questions and to suggest ways to think and behave as a human.” HellzaPopp1n wrote: “This book had a great impact on me. One aspect in particular that has stuck with me is how he vividly describes true, raw, all-consuming physical hunger and what one might be prepared to do to get the tiniest scraps of food. I shall never say ‘I’m hungry’ again.” “I still think of many of the things Primo Levi describes, such as how it was better to be on the top bunk, how he still had that habit, years later, of constantly looking at the ground,” wrote babystrange. “I went to the Auschwitz museum and, as horrific as that is, I still found nothing evokes the horror of the Holocaust like this book.” And deadgod eloquently summed up the urgency of reading Primo Levi: “The point of Levi’s being on a ‘life syllabus’ isn’t just … responsibility to Levi himself (though there is that); one probably doesn’t have time and might not have the strength to read every gutting Shoah book. The responsibility is also to those who didn’t survive the Khmer Rouge, or Srebrenica or Rwanda. The responsibility is to the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere and Australia and the Pacific islands. And so on.” I’m optimistic that the world can be less bad, and I’m convinced that writing like Levi’s contributes to this possibility. Levi looked to the future himself, while travelling through Vienna in The Truce; the Nazis seem to have been vanquished, but he warns us that he still sees “an irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling like a gangrene in Europe and the world, the seed of future harm.” In a later afterword, he tell us to always be “suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will.” His warning to history continues: In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt … A new fascism, with its trail of intolerance, of abuse, and of servitude, can be born outside our country, and be imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names, or it can loose itself from within with such violence that it routs all defences. At that point, wise counsel no longer serves and one must find the strength to resist.
Posed by models. Composite: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Guardian DesignI am a woman in my early 20s and have had a few sexual partners, with one longer-term on-off relationship (in which I had my first sexual experiences). My mother never spoke to me about masturbation, which I began experimenting with, well before any sexual activity, after reading about erotic fiction websites in a women’s magazine in my teens. I am worried my use of erotica may be affecting my ability to orgasm during sex. While I masturbate (successfully) regularly, I have only reached orgasm once with a partner. I know my own body, but am unable to translate this into sex, possibly due to my own insecurities from my teens. What can I do? I am worried about having unsatisfying sex for ever.There is nothing to be concerned about; everything you have described is completely normative. Using erotica is not a problem – in fact, it most likely helped you to fire your own erotic imagination and learn how your body works. Your task now is to go through the process of teaching partners how to please you. This might mean simply guiding them verbally – or perhaps physically guiding their hands or mouths. Many people erroneously imagine it is easy to switch between masturbation and sex with someone else, usually because they expect partners to read their minds. But satisfying sex requires communication; patiently helping your partner to know and do exactly what you want, and fully reciprocating. And relax – it takes time to learn the arts of giving and receiving.• Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a US-based psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.• If you would like advice from Pamela on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org (please don’t send attachments). Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.
First-time drug offenders can face 10 years imprisonment. Photograph: oneword/Getty ImagesIn 2008, months before his election as president, Barack Obama assailed feckless black fathers who had reneged on responsibilities that ought not “to end at conception”. Where had all the black fathers gone, Obama wondered. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has a simple answer to their whereabouts: they’ve gone to jail.Her clear-eyed assessment, published in the UK almost a decade after it first stunned America, is an indictment of a society that, since the 1980s, has been complicit in the explosion of its prison population from around 300,000 to more than 2 million. Drug convictions have largely fuelled the increase, and an extraordinary number of those new felons have been black. This is not coincidental. The Reagan administration’s “war on drugs” shifted the legal goalposts, Alexander asserts, so that mass incarceration “emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialised social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow”.In the years following the civil war southern legislators designed “Jim Crow” laws to thwart the newly emancipated black population, notably curbing voting rights. Under the laws, black people also, increasingly, found themselves “relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery”. If Jim Crow was an effective means of controlling the black population, then modern mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is its successor.> The law is supposedly colour-blind but narratives around crimes are framed according to those deemed worthy of pityThe figures are extraordinary. A decade ago in Chicago, for instance, 55% of the adult black male population had a felony record. In quiet yet forceful writing Alexander, a legal scholar, outlines how the Reagan government exploited 1980s hysteria over crack cocaine to demonise the black population so that “black” and “crime” became interchangeable. It was a war – not on drugs – but on black people. While churchgoing mothers in the ghetto might want politicians to be tough on crime, they don’t want to see their sons routinely arrested (suspected of being drug dealers for wearing baggy trousers).Alexander doesn’t understate the devastation caused by crack cocaine, quoting the historian David Kennedy’s observation that it “blew through America’s black neighbourhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. But if the “war on drugs” was simply a question of controlling crime then college campuses, rather than black ghettos, would have been a safer bet. In 2000, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that white students used crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students.First-time drug offenders can face 10 years imprisonment; thousands of black Americans, following plea-bargaining, languish in jail for crimes they did not commit because of fears of these mandatory sentences. On release, they enter a parallel shadow society, where employment opportunities disappear, creating “a closed circuit of marginality”.Black people haven’t fared better under the Democrats. President Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” legislation led to a further surge in prisoners given mandatory life sentences after conviction of a violent third felony.The law is supposedly colour-blind but narratives around crimes are framed according to those deemed worthy or unworthy of compassion. Alexander draws stark comparisons with the prosecutions of drunk drivers. Cocaine is a scourge in US society but drunk driving (by white men 70% of the time) results in far more violent deaths, yet drunk drivers are often charged with misdemeanours.The emergence of black leaders hasn’t improved matters but, rather, has perpetuated the fantasy of a post-racial society. How can a system be racist when there are black heads of police departments? Alexander argues that if we understood its dependency on black exceptionalism, then “the existence of black police chiefs would be no more encouraging today than the presence of black slave drivers…hundreds of years ago”.Alexander wrote recently in the New York Times that she’s encouraged by “the astonishing changes that have been made in the last several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues”, including Florida restoring voting rights to more than 1.4 million people with felony convictions. But she is sceptical about the technological fix championed by enthusiasts of algorithms determining who should or shouldn’t be incarcerated. Notwithstanding improvements to the US judicial system, this distressing book offers important lessons for all societies that claim colour-blindness but enact policies that scapegoat marginalised groups. Colour-blindness leads to denial, believes Alexander; better to strive for colour-consciousness.This review is from the Observer • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander is published by Penguin (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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