Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yom HaShoah: Never Forget

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day. A common phrase I associate with this day of remembrance is "never forget."  I find it especially poignant this year, because it seems to me we are entering an era, as those who survived the camps are replaced with a younger generation who only read about them in Number the Stars, where we are forgetting the horrors of years' past.  We are forgetting them in a subtle way: by the insidious separation of Hitler's beliefs and his crimes, his symbols and his practices, his life and the deaths he wrought.  I'll give you three examples.

When I watched the film Inglourious Basterds, although I couldn't get behind the idea of summary execution for every Nazi collaborator, I did find that having swastikas carved into their foreheads would be a useful device.  How much easier to not have to question the vileness of the beliefs behind their words, however charming they might be.  But now, apparently, having a swastika tattoo isn't enough. Why?  Because the white power movement uses the swastika to represent their racism.  Now, knowing that they're racists is useful, so I applaud their self-branding.  But I do not understand how racists and white supremacists can use and admire Nazi symbols.  Because as much as I find racism utterly despicable, I also find it hard to believe that most racists, no matter how much they dislike one group or another, would advocate for rounding that group up and systematically slaughtering them, men, women, and babies.

I know my message won't be read by a lot of racists, they probably don't frequent this blog, but if you happen to hear this, then take a good look at your swastika tattoo, your Nazi flag, your arm salute, and ask yourself: do you, scum of the earth as you are, really want to associate yourself with a man who perpetrated the greatest crime against humanity history has ever seen?  If not, take off the effing swastika--because that is what you're supporting.  You're not arguing against affirmative action, or fighting illegal immigration, or even promoting segregation (plenty vile in its own right): you are championing the murder of millions of people, from infants to geriatrics, who are blameless, innocent, and created by the same God you claim to worship.

Do you hear me, Michelle McGee?  Is that what you believe in?  Do you hear me, Jesse James, who thinks Nazi hats can be funny, and you can use a symbol of death and torture in your bike shop logo, because the Nazis made cool machinesWhen we use symbols of the Third Reich casually, whether to express our own ignorance or racism, we do forget the Holocaust.  Hitler's crime was not racism.  To use a swastika because you are a racist, or just because you are a jerk, is to whitewash the reality of killing 17 million people.

I have to say, good for Hailey Glassman for standing up and expressing her intolerance for anti-Semitism.  When she found out Michelle McGee would be refereeing a boxing match she's participating in, Glassman told Radar Online:
I’m a young, Jewish woman! That Nazi picture (of McGee) brought me to tears. I believe in equality and that everyone should be treated equally. When they first approached me to do this event I was told that the ref would be some random person. Next thing I know it’s this girl with a swastika tattoo and a Nazi arm band.  She better have everything covered up on the day of the match because if she comes near me with that stuff showing I’ll make a scene and walk out. I don’t care if I get sued. I will NOT be associated with anti-Semitism.
Next, we have an old controversy, but one that I find relevant to the idea behind "Never Forget": Ben Stein exploiting righteous horror over the Holocaust to make the case for Intelligent Design.  In 2008, Stein released a documentary called "Expelled," but which he wanted to call "From Darwin to Hitler," and in it, he makes the case that Darwin's ideas about evolution are link to anti-Semitism, eugenics, and the Holocaust.  From Roger Ebert:
Ben Stein is only getting warmed up. He takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.
Evolutionary biologist (and, full disclosure, noted atheist) Richard Dawkins writes an open letter to someone who was duped by Stein's documentary, to explain that Darwinism has nothing in common with so-called "social Darwinism," and even less with eugenics and (gag) "artificial selection."
The first thing to say is that natural selection is a scientific theory about the way evolution works in fact. It is either true or it is not, and whether or not we like it politically or morally is irrelevant. Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave.

...Hitler did attempt eugenic breeding of humans, and this is sometimes misrepresented as an attempt to apply Darwinian principles to humans. But this interpretation gets it historically backwards, as PZ Myers has pointed out. Darwin's great achievement was to look at the familiar practice of domestic livestock breeding by artificial selection, and realise that the same principle might apply in NATURE, thereby explaining the evolution of the whole of life... Hitler didn't apply NATURAL selection to humans... Hitler tried to apply ARTIFICIAL selection to humans, and there is nothing specifically Darwinian about artificial selection.
Using the Holocaust to promote your own goals, and, even more insidiously, implying that a scientific theory was responsible for the horror of Hitler's regime is also forgetting.  There is a big huge Grand Canyon-sized difference between holding any beliefs about evolution and killing 17 million people

And now we have another example of forgetting by just plain forgetting: Writing a book about the history of World War II, and conveniently leaving out that Hitler was a racist, megalomaniac, homicidal dictator.  Patrick Buchanan wrote this book, called Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, in 2008, but it was only recently brought to my attention when a discussion club I had sometimes attended decided to make the book a topic for an upcoming meeting.  I couldn't go to the meeting, but decided to research the book anyway, because any book that starts off with the premise "World War II was unnecessary" sends up red flags for me.  Reading multiple excerpts and reviews of the book, I found that Buchanan's argument careened from something I basically believed--that if the Treaty of Versailles had been different and more attention given to Germany's reconstruction, WWII and Hitler's rise to power might have been avoided--to something I find utterly despicable: that Hitler was essentially a good guy who just wanted to carve off his slice of Europe and go about his business, and it was meanie Churchill who was responsible for starting the war and the Holocaust.

As Christopher Hitchens notes regarding Buchanan's argument that Europe should have appeased Hitler's aggressions while gathering arms just in case:
This might perhaps have worked if Germany had been governed by a right-wing nationalist party that had won a democratic vote. However, in point of fact Germany was governed by an ultra-rightist, homicidal, paranoid maniac who had begun by demolishing democracy in Germany itself, who believed that his fellow countrymen were a superior race and who attributed all the evils in the world to a Jewish conspiracy. It is possible to read whole chapters of Buchanan's book without having to bear these salient points in mind.
As for Buchanan's assertion that the Holocaust was result of the war, and not a cause, I point to the damning timeline of events.  Kristallnacht happened in November of 1938.  Mein Kampf (with such quotes as "The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew," and "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.") was published in 1925.  Both long before the official start of the European conflict.  Are we to believe that Hitler intended to round up all the Jews to take them out for ice cream, but once engaged in a battle with England, had to slaughter them instead?  To in any way imply that the allied powers hold equal blame for the Holocaust as the man who perpetrated it is wrongheaded and revisionist beyond belief.

The Holocaust was the product of a man with a racist and fascist belief system whose sheer lack of conscience translated these tendencies into unspeakable crimes.  I am happy to debate whether or not the allies should have done more to prevent said crimes (I would argue, by opening their doors to immigration) or whether their involvement in the war had anything to do with humanitarian reasons at all (I would say mostly not), but I am not willing to shift the blame for (once more) the murder of 17 million people off the shoulders of the man who perpetrated it so that Buchanan can admire him more.  I find the claims in the book both deeply historically inaccurate and anti-Semitic.

Reading further, I of course discovered that Pat Buchanan is an actual ant-Semite, who has stepped as close to the line of Holocaust Denial as one can go without going over (here's a Newsweek column that summarizes some of the "highlights", and there's more where that came from), and this puts the agenda of his book in a startling new context.  But really, there is no context that can make defending Hitler's strategy, military ambitions, and leadership, without detailing his essential character and responsibility for genocide, an okay proposition.  To do so is to imagine we can separate his aggression toward Europe and his apocalyptic vision of a Jew-free world, his domestic agenda and his persecution of minorities from the moment he took office, his life and the lives he snuffed out.  To do so is impossible.  We forget the Holocaust if we forget that Hitler the leader was also Hitler the murderer.

These are three ways in which I find our modern discourse forgetting the realities of the Holocaust, while perhaps paying them lip-service.  So, in remembrance of those murdered by Hitler's brutal regime, and victims of genocide the world over, let us vow: Never Forget.

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