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“Amnesia Peddled As Blithe Counter-History”: Ben Carson Is Wrong About The Holocaust; Jews Did Fight Back

Wolf Blitzer, the improbably named CNN personality, is no one’s idea of an adroit interviewer. His questions have a certain Dada quality, strings of declarative fragments that seem to have been cut and pasted at random. Ben Carson, the suddenly notable presidential candidate, is a slightly better interviewee, if only because, if you can get past his sleepily anodyne delivery, he is almost guaranteed to say something oblivious, terrifying, or both. Carson’s campaign is Your Older Relative’s Facebook timeline, a series of utterly fantastic claims and propositions presented as the commonest sense. It seemed unlikely that Blitzer, in a Thursday interview, would shake anything loose that wasn’t already rattling around under the hood of the Carson express.

So it came as a surprise when the Internet lit up with word that Blitzer had nabbed Carson’s most improbable claim yet, that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.” But Thursday was not the first time Carson has made this claim.

One of the weirder rituals of the American presidential campaign is the production of the campaign book. These tend to be widely purchased but little read. Their titles echo lyrics of patriotic songs or pull-quotes from historic American oratory. They’re little more than invitations to cable news bookers who would’ve booked the candidates for interviews anyway. Well, Wolf’s producers actually combed through A More Perfect Union, Carson’s latest epistle to the American people, and they discovered the claim that one of the foundations of the Holocaust was civil disarmament.

Whatever else he may be, Ben Carson is not a rigorous thinker, and it’s unlikely he paused to clarify in his own mind whether it was all Germans who would’ve martialed a civic militia to sweep Hitler from power or just Germany’s Jews who would’ve shot their way to freedom like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The notion that private gun ownership prevents tyranny is more an article of faith than a thesis statement. It is worth noting that Hitler’s actual attempt at an armed putsch failed, and the Nazis only later came to power through democratic, parliamentary means. If it’s no longer in vogue to say that all Germans were “Hitler’s willing executioners,” then it’s still fair to note that the Nazis swiftly and effectively consolidated their power and achieved broad support in their country.

But Carson’s comments, thoughtless or no, touch on a troubling undercurrent in the popular Western mythology of the Holocaust: the notion of the Jews as universally passive victims who did not resist their own destruction. This image is amplified in the sentimental portrayals of the Holocaust in so much of our film and media, in which the Jewish victims of the Nazi killing machine are urban, intellectual, and assimilated: city people who would never own a gun or fight back. The shopkeepers and intellectuals and small industrialists are rounded up and packed off to their doom. At best, they hide, or some Schindler saves them.

Eastern Europe, in this narrative, remains vast and undifferentiated. That Jews, cosmopolitan and rural alike, did resist remains unremarked. This serves the American self-image as the singular vanquisher of Hitler’s regime, which was unstoppable and inexorable until our boys made the beachhead at Omaha. But, though it failed and was overwhelmed, there was active resistance in Nazi-conquered Europe throughout the war, and Jews were among the resisters. We do remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but we forget that there was armed resistance throughout the ghettos of Poland and the occupied Soviet Union, more than one hundred instances in all. There were uprisings in the camps, in Treblinka and Sobibor and eventually in Auschwitz. Jews fought among partisan resisters in almost every country in occupied Europe. They formed their own partisan resistance groups, like the Bielski partisans in occupied Poland (now Belarus), often facing both German and Soviet forces.

This resistance was not successful. It reveals the lie in Carson’s real central claim. Armed citizens could not prevail against the might of the Wehrmacht. It required the combined power of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler, and even then at the cost of tens of millions of lives. But it also reveals the hateful and frankly anti-Semitic assumption that the Jews of Europe stumbled meekly to their own slaughter.

A grim irony is that the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom was blamed on a Jew with a gun. Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish-German Jew living in Paris, upon learning of the expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany, bought a gun and bullets (quite legally), went to the German embassy, and assassinated the diplomat Ernst vom Rath. (An additional irony: Rath, though an anti-Semite himself, had expressed regret at the treatment and suffering of Jews.) A citizen with a gun became one of the gross pretexts on which the Nazis began their Final Solution.

As a Jew, I find it uncommonly disturbing to be treated as a delicate historical artifact that must be preserved under armed guard at all times. There are many Jews, and many kinds of Jews. To reduce us to no more than the point of our almost-destruction and then display us forever as a cautionary tale is worse even than hatred—it’s contempt. And using the Holocaust as a debating point in America’s endless Second Amendment tussle is bad enough without the additional implication that mass extermination is just the sort of thing that happens to people who don’t ammo-up and fight back. Ben Carson likely won’t become president, and we will all feel better about laughing on Twitter at his inanity. But there is a very real problem with amnesia peddled as blithe counter-history. It isn’t disarmament, after all, that makes history repeat, but forgetfulness.

 

By: Jacob Bacharach, The New Republic, October 9, 2015

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Holocaust, Jews | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Chamberlain Shook Hands With Hitler”: By His Own Reasoning, John McCain Is Neville Chamberlain

President Obama delivered a rather beautiful tribute this morning to Nelson Mandela at the memorial service for in Johannesburg, where the U.S. president received an extraordinarily warm welcome as one of the world’s most popular leaders. The domestic political chatter has decided the remarks and the reception aren’t terribly important.

What does matter, apparently, is the “selfie” Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt took with Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the perfunctory handshakes Obama made with other heads of state on the stage, including Cuba’s Raul Castro.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday compared President Obama’s handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler.

“It just gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial regime,” McCain told PRI’s Todd Zwillich. “Why should you shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” the Arizona lawmaker said, referring to the British prime minister’s handshake with the Nazi leader after Great Britain agreed to Germany’s takeover of the Sudentenland in Czechoslovakia.

In case you’re thinking this is an exaggeration, and even McCain wouldn’t be so reckless as to say something this foolish on the record, there’s an audio clip confirming the accuracy of the quote.

It’s been nearly two whole weeks since congressional Republicans compared the president to Chamberlain, so I guess we were due?

In terms of responding to McCain on the merits, we could explain that Raul Castro isn’t Hitler. And we could note that a polite handshake bears no resemblance to the agreement struck in Munich in 1938. And we could mention that the reflexive reaction from Republicans to play the Hitler card at a moment’s notice became tiresome a long time ago.

But let’s put all of that aside and instead focus on an event from recent memory: in August 2009, McCain traveled to Libya, where he personally visited with Muammar Gadhafi, shook the dictator’s hand, praised him publicly, and even bowed to him, all while discussing delivery of American military equipment to the Libyan regime.

McCain later described Gadhafi as a modern-day Hitler. By his own reasoning, wouldn’t that make McCain … Neville Chamberlain?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 10, 2013

December 11, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Those For Whom It’s Always 1938”: The Republican Tirades Sound Rather Familiar

Some of the initial pushback to the Iranian nuclear deal has faded, but for much of the right, the outrage lingers. A few too many conservatives – in Congress, in the media – seriously want Americans to see a good deal as tantamount to Nazi appeasement.

Indeed, for much of the right, the players have been cast in their proper historical roles: Obama is Chamberlain; Iranians are Nazis; and Netanyahu is both Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. (Don’t think about this too much; conservative historical analogies are deeply odd.)

But Peter Beinart raises a good point this morning: the tirades sound rather familiar.

Over the past quarter-century, there’s hardly an American or Israeli leader the Kristol-Netanyahu crowd hasn’t compared to Chamberlain. In 1985, Newt Gingrich called Reagan’s first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” When Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, hawks took out newspaper ads declaring that “Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.”

Then, when Israel moved to thaw its own cold war with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yitzhak Rabin assumed the Chamberlain role…. Then it was Bill Clinton. “The word that best describes Clinton administration [foreign] policy is appeasement,” explained Robert Kagan and Kristol in 1999. Then, of course, it was the opponents of war with Iraq. “The establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it’s about to lose. Churchill was attacked more viciously in 1938 and 1939 than earlier in the decade,” wrote Kristol in a 2002 editorial, “The Axis of Appeasement.”

The Munich comparison is offensive on a variety of levels, but Beinart raises an important criticism: those pushing the analogy are also lazy.

For much of the right, there are simple, shorthand responses to almost every question that are intended to end debates in their favor. Can we bring health care security to millions of American families? “No, because it’s socialism.” Can we talk about income inequality and the concentration of wealth at the very top? “No, because it’s class warfare.” Can we talk about expanding investments in education and infrastructure? “No, because it’s big government.”

Can we reduce the nuclear threat – for us and the world – by engaging Iran in constructive diplomacy? “No, because it’s Munich.”

These are knee-jerk responses intended to circumvent thought. But they’ve also become tired and predictable, so much so that when it comes to diplomacy and national security, conservatives keep reading from the same script, making up new Hitlers, new Chamberlains, and new Munichs. The only thing that stays the same is the role of Churchill – a role they hold for themselves.

No one, least of all President Obama, should take the rhetoric seriously, though he can at least take comfort in knowing he’s in good company.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 27, 2013

November 29, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Iran | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nazis, Lynching And Obamacare”: In An Era Of Metaphors Gone Mad

You might think that the methodical extermination of millions of Jews by a brutal regime intent on world domination would resist appropriation as an all-purpose metaphor. You might think that genocide, of all things, would be safe from conversion into sloppy simile.

After Paul Ryan’s fact-challenged address at the Republican National Convention last year, the chairman of the Democratic Party in California actually compared him and his compatriots to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. A short time later, the chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina likened that state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, to Adolf Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.

At that point Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, did what he shouldn’t need to do even once, let alone the multiple times that he’s been forced to. He implored politicians and pundits to stop it already.

No matter. Allusions to Nazi Germany were back for debates over gun control and, of course, Obamacare. Ted Cruz, the Senate’s prince of tirades, compared people who claim that the new insurance program can’t be stopped to those who rolled over for Hitler and the Third Reich. This prompted a public reprimand from John McCain, who has developed something of a sideline career of swatting Cruz on the nose. They’re like a hapless master and his hopeless dachshund. The former keeps trying to housebreak the latter, while the latter just beams at every mess he makes.

It’s not only Nazis who are flourishing in this era of metaphors gone mad, of analogy bloat. Lynch mobs are also having a good go of it. A senator who was quoted anonymously in The Times last week used that term to describe the Republican lawmakers who had lit into Cruz during a private luncheon, and lynching was invoked more disturbingly by the chief executive officer of A.I.G., who recently said that public complaints about Wall Street bankers’ bonuses were intended “to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses.” This, he added, was “sort of like what we did in the Deep South.”

How absolutely bonkers. And yet how unsurprising. We’re awash these days in metaphors as overworked as our political debate is overwrought, and it’s impossible not to wonder how much one contributes to the other. When nuance and perspective exit the language, do they exit the conversation as well? When you speak in ludicrous extremes, do you think that way, too?

Obamacare has proved to be not just ideologically divisive but linguistically fertile. There’s seemingly no event or passage in American history to which it can’t be compared.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11? Check. Back when Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, was still in Congress, he summoned that day’s horror to characterize the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Affordable Care Act.

Slavery? Check. Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, has described opposition to Obamacare in terms of stands against fugitive slave laws.

The hyperbole and hysteria make any constructive debate impossible, and they insult the past, robbing important events of the specific meaning and individual detail they deserve. Consider our recurring “-gate” mania. We equate each new scandal, whether extra-large or fun-size, with Watergate, and by willfully misremembering President Richard Nixon’s crimes, we dilute them. It’s just a suffix for the taking, a point of comparison for such wildly unrelated matters as the spilled secrets of Arkansas law enforcement officers who were supposedly privy to Bill Clinton’s private life. Troopergate, that was called.

For President Obama, Benghazi was supposed to be his Watergate, and so was the I.R.S.’s scrutiny of conservative groups, and so were a bunch of other things I can’t even remember anymore. They blur and fade, which is not to say they didn’t matter. It’s to say that when everything is supposedly like everything else, nothing’s distinctive. It’s all one big mush.

For that reason, among others, we should watch our words. They have consequences. As irresponsible and detestable as the recent actions of the most conservative wing of House Republicans have been, we’d be better off without figurative talk of hostage taking and guns to heads, without headlines like one in The Huffington Post that said: “Boehner Threatens to Shoot the Hostage.” That sort of language only turns up the heat.

And I cringe at how pointlessly hurtful it must have been for a 9/11 widow or widower to listen to the right-wing moralist Gary Bauer exhort voters to fight back against President Obama’s agenda the way passengers on United Flight 93 fought back against hijackers. Or for Holocaust survivors to hear all this gratuitous Nazi talk.

You know what’s just like Germany in the 1930s? Germany in the 1930s. We’re in an unfortunate place, but we needn’t travel back there to describe it.

 

By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 7, 2013

October 9, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Our New Isolationism”: Sometimes, You Have To Put Some Spine In Your Diplomacy

The United States has just spent thousands of American lives in a distant land for a victory that now seems hollow, if indeed it can be called a victory at all. Our own country, moreover, is emerging from a recession, dispirited and self-absorbed, worried about the fragility of the recovery and the state of our democracy. Idealism is in short supply. So, as another far-off war worsens, Americans are loath to take sides, even against a merciless dictator, even to the extent of sending weapons. The voices opposed to getting involved range from the pacifist left to the populist right. The president, fearful that foreign conflict will undermine his domestic agenda, vacillates.

This is the United States in 1940. Sound a little familiar?

I’ve been reading two engrossing new histories of that time — “Those Angry Days” by Lynne Olson and “1940” by Susan Dunn — both focused on the ferocious and now largely forgotten resistance Franklin D. Roosevelt had to navigate in order to stand with our allies against Hitler.

Of course, 2013 is not 1940. The Middle East is not Europe. President Obama is not F.D.R. But America is again in a deep isolationist mood. As a wary Congress returns from its summer recess to debate Syria, as President Obama prepares to address the nation, it is instructive to throw the two periods up on the screen and examine them for lessons. How does a president sell foreign engagement to a public that wants none of it?

The cliché of the season is that Americans are war-weary from our long slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is true, but not the whole story. To be sure, nothing has done more to discredit an activist foreign policy than the blind missionary arrogance of the Bush administration. But the isolationist temper is not just about the legacy of Iraq. Economic troubles and political dysfunction have contributed to a loss of confidence. Add to the mix a surge of xenophobia, with its calls for higher fences and big-brotherly attention to the danger within. (These anxieties also helped give rise to the expanding surveillance state, just as nativism in that earlier period gave license to J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive eavesdropping.)

Isolationism is strong in the Tea Party, where mistrust of executive power is profound and where being able to see Russia from your front yard counts as mastery of international affairs. But sophisticated readers of The New York Times are not immune, or so it seems from the comments that arrive when I write in defense of a more assertive foreign policy. (In recent columns I’ve advocated calibrated intervention to shift the balance in Syria’s civil war and using foreign aid to encourage democracy in Egypt.) Not our problems, many readers tell me.

Isolationism is not just an aversion to war, which is an altogether healthy instinct. It is a broader reluctance to engage, to assert responsibility, to commit. Isolationism tends to be pessimistic (we will get it wrong, we will make it worse) and amoral (it is none of our business unless it threatens us directly) and inward-looking (foreign aid is a waste of money better spent at home).

“We are not the world’s policeman, nor its judge and jury,” proclaimed Representative Alan Grayson, a progressive Florida Democrat, reciting favorite isolationist excuses for doing nothing. “Our own needs in America are great, and they come first.”

At the margins, at least, isolationists suspect that our foreign policy is being manipulated by outside forces. In 1940, as Olson’s book documents, anti-interventionists deplored the cunning British “plutocrats” and “imperialists,” who had lured us into the blood bath of World War I and now wanted to goad us into another one. In 2013, it is supposedly the Israelis duping us into fighting their battles.

Many pro-Israel and Jewish groups last week endorsed an attack on Syria, but only after agonizing about a likely backlash. And, sure enough, the first comment posted on The Washington Post version of this story was, “So how many Americans will die for Israel this time around?” This is tame stuff compared with 1940, when isolationism was shot through with shockingly overt anti-Semitism, not least in the rhetoric of the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Both Lynne Olson and Susan Dunn, in interviews, were wary of pushing the analogy too far. The Middle East, they point out, is far murkier, far less familiar.

“In 1940 everything was black and white — there was no gray,” Dunn told me. “On one side, Adolf Hitler and ruthless, barbaric warfare; on the other side, democracy, humanism, morality and world civilization itself.” Yes, at least so it seems in hindsight, but the choice was not so clear in 1940. Both books offer copious examples of serious, thoughtful people who had real doubts about whether Hitler was a threat worth fighting: cabinet members and generals, newspaper publishers and business leaders. At Yale, Dunn reports, an antiwar student movement that included such future luminaries as Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart and Sargent Shriver drafted a petition demanding “that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”

Olson told me she was startled to hear Secretary of State John Kerry inveighing against “armchair isolationism” last week in his testimony on Syria. “I think to be skeptical now does not mean you’re an isolationist,” said Olson, who is herself skeptical about taking sides in Syria. “It’s become a dirty word.”

Fair enough. But can we dial down the fears and defeatist slogans of knee-jerk isolationism and conduct a serious discussion of our interests and our alternatives in Syria and the tumultuous region around it?

The event that ultimately swept the earlier isolationists off the board was, of course, Pearl Harbor. But even before the Japanese attack the public reluctance was gradually giving way, allowing the delivery of destroyers to the British, the Lend-Lease program, a precautionary weapons buildup and the beginning of military conscription.

One factor that moved public opinion toward intervention was the brazenness of Hitler’s menace; Americans who had never given a thought to the Sudetenland were stunned to see Nazis parading into Paris.

Another was a robust debate across the country that ultimately transcended partisanship and prejudice.

Most historians and popular memory credit Roosevelt’s leadership for the country’s change of heart, but Olson points out that for much of that period Roosevelt was — to borrow a contemporary phrase — leading from behind. He campaigned in 1936 on a pledge to “shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars” and to seek to “isolate ourselves completely from war.” It was a vow he renewed repeatedly as Hitler conquered country after country: there would be no American boots on the ground.

Olson argues that while Roosevelt resolved early to send aid to Britain, it is not at all clear that he would have taken America into the war if it had not been forced upon him by Pearl Harbor. But by December 1941, she writes, “the American people had been thoroughly educated about the pros and cons of their country’s entry into the conflict and were far less opposed to the idea of going to war than conventional wisdom has it.”

“Obviously we got into it because of Pearl Harbor, but that debate made a crucial difference,” Olson told me. “And I think that is what’s called for now.”

Congress in recent years has not won much respect as an arena of policy debate, but it was heartening last week to hear leaders of both parties moving a little beyond petty obstructionism and bitter partisanship and inviting a serious discussion.

I hope that Congress can elicit from the president this week a clear and candid statement of America’s vital interests in Syria, and a strategy that looks beyond the moment. I hope the president can persuade Congress that the U.S. still has an important role to play in the world, and that sometimes you have to put some spine in your diplomacy. And I hope Americans will listen with an open mind.

 

By: Bill Keller, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 8, 2013

September 9, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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