On Paterno, Sandusky, and what we may have learned

I didn’t think I’d talk about Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky, even though I’ve stumbled into so much coverage of the issue in the news and among my fellow bloggers. I’d take a pass, I thought, rather as I did with the Casey Anthony case, and let others rage about abominations. But then I read Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times and experienced a cascade of emotions.

Douthat speaks delicately of good people who do bad things and bad people who do bad things — as we all, I instantly associated with his message and recollect from my childhood in church, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Douthat did not intend a cleansing message, a solidarity in sin that suspends judgment.

Quite the contrary. Good people and bad people do bad things for different reasons — and good people too often fall into the trap of imagining they do bad things for “a higher cause.” Douthat’s final riveting paragraphs:

Sins committed in the name of a higher good, [Catholic essayist John] Zmirak wrote, can “smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin. Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice … what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt.”

No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.

Reading these lines, I knew I should talk about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. And I realized that perhaps I initially thought to move on and let Joe and Jerry sink beneath the nano-short American attention span because I was molested as a child by a trusted and beloved teacher — and I didn’t particularly want to think about it, and knew I wouldn’t need to much longer.

I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t “raped.” I was molested while I slept, and when I awoke and realized what was happening, I gradually, ever so slowly so as not to disturb or alarm my teacher, eased myself out of the bed and slept on the floor for the rest of the night. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, and always felt I had simply handled it. I never felt injured, just betrayed. The man didn’t love me. He lusted for my little penis. But that was between me and the teacher, and there were ways, in due course, he would know what that betrayal meant. Just him.

When I punished him in tiny ways, there never issued an apology, or even an acknowledgement of what had happened. Just obtuseness. Just a tacit power relationship that had now been flipped. And I had no desire for the power, just the apology. Just the basic recognition that what had happened was wrong. Just the flicker of a moral framework so that we could move on. It never came.

I still like to think I just handled it, and that was it, end of story. But I know I will never know for sure. It’s finally impossible to parse why we are who we are. And therapy, which has never struck me as good value for the money, seems just as likely to take us down rabbit trails, and new exciting reasons to validate ourselves, typically at someone else’s expense, as to yield true self-understanding — which happens, if ever, as a happenstance of cosmic grace. But being the man with two failed marriages makes me wonder, lightly, and makes me wish more earnestly I knew who I am and why with the clarity that seems to me the most obvious gift God could ever give us, if He were truly a God of compassion.

I later learned that my teacher was rumored to be involved with several other instances of molestation. My little brain didn’t know how to process this. The best I could do is tell another boy insistently, don’t ever let him do it.

As far as I know, my teacher never acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He was never held to account.

And I suppose this is the true injury — not to me, but to us, all of us — this tacit permission we grant again and again with our silence to have sex with children, to feel vague horror, turn away, and do nothing.

Sociology team Samuel and Pearl Oliner examined the reasons why some Gentiles helped Jews during the Holocaust. They did hundreds of interviews, all toward divining what mattered, in the moment, when a Jew on the run from the Nazis showed up at your doorstep. Did you slam the door? Did you tell them with a quiver in your voice that you couldn’t afford to help them? Or did you invite them in?

The Oliners ran the variables as to what would make some Gentiles help Jews and others not. As it happens, piety or frequency of church-going (or not) doesn’t predict inclination to help a Jew — and neither did particular religious affiliation, political party or orientation, education level, or socioeconomic status.

The single variable that mattered was having been raised with a clear sense of right and wrong. The Gentiles most likely to help Jews, even at risk to themselves, were Gentiles with a core sense of right and wrong. In that terrible moment, with everything in their life imperiled, they concluded they could not not help this person.

And this is Douthat’s ultimate point. We know in our gut, or we do not, what is right and what is wrong — quite apart from our religion, our politics, or anything else — and when the terrible and unfair moment arrives, as it does to an arbitrary few, as it did to Joe Paterno, do we do what is right at risk to ourselves and higher causes to which we’ve devoted our lives, or not?

I can’t condemn Joe Paterno. But I can say to every parent: teach your children the difference between right and wrong. Instill that simple dichotomy as insistently as you possibly can — because some day, the most profound justice of the moment may turn on your child’s simple appreciation of right and wrong.


On the Difficulty of Recognizing the Jewish State of Israel

From the simple recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, peace and a Palestinian state follow. The chief geopolitical excruciation of our time, the Palestinian obsession of the United Nations, the rancor of millions who thrive on demonizing either Israel or Palestinians — all of it shrivels if Palestinians and surrounding Arab states simply recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

But that single, simple step to peace remains elusive. Why?

Note that I am urging Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, not merely Israel’s right to exist. The extremists who cannot even acknowledge Israel’s rudimentary right to exist are part of the permanent insurgency against peace and human decency. They will never entirely disappear, but they can be marginalized.

The question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is more complicated. It would mean, for example, giving up any Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. Asking Israel to absorb potentially millions, or even hundreds of thousands, of Palestinian refugees in Israel would be an invitation to geopolitical suicide. Eventually, Israel’s Jews would be a minority population. Israel’s Jews cannot become a minority population, for there would then be no defensible homeland for the Jews. Jews would again become beholden to a fickle majority, as they were in Europe and Russia — and to every Jew who vows to remember, this cannot happen. Never again.

We melting-pot Americans are not accustomed to thinking of states as ethnic enclaves — even though they often are. We would chafe at the notion of Guatemala as a Mayan state or Kenya as Kikuyu state. But the viability of Israel as a Jewish state is a special case, rooted in excruciating history.

Think of the Middle East as a football field. Think of Israel and Palestine as two wee postage stamps on this football field. The scale is important for the history that follows.

On October 4, 1946, President Truman issued a statement declaring United States support for creation of a “viable Jewish state.” On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition plan that divided the tiny area into three entities: a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an international zone around Jerusalem.

Jews accepted this internationally-sanctioned partition. Arabs did not. At this crucial inception of Israel, there was never any international question that the tiny nation of Israel would be a Jewish state.

There was a sound reason for this tiny new state, and a sound reason that it be Jewish. In 1946, there were still tens of thousands of displaced Jews in Europe, survivors of the Holocaust. The thriving Jewish communities of Europe were all but wiped out. The Nazi machine killed six million Jews and produced a new word: genocide. But the defeat of the Nazis did not defeat homicidal anti-Semitism. Jewish refugees attempting to return to their European homes met murderous bigotry.

The middle 20th-century put to rest forever the notion that Jews, as a minority, could rely on the good will of their host nations. Good and patriotic German Jews, good and patriotic Polish Jews, good and patriotic Hungarian Jews — all died in the gas chambers, or were killed by locals when they tried to return.

Jews needed their own place to live. Their original homeland, the place that gave rise to the Bible, the place where they had a continuous presence for thousands of years, the place where Jews had been going for decades and transforming the land, made sense.

The world understood this in 1947. The world understood that Jews needed one place that they controlled, one place where pogroms were impossible, one place where Jews could be Jews without apology and obsequiousness. The world understood that the people who had suffered the most horrific slaughtering in human history had earned a place of their own.

Arabs also lived in this land. Indeed, Arabs, Jews and Christians had been living side-by-side for quite some time in what was then the British Mandate. And so the world did not give it all to the Jews. The world split it between Arabs and Jews. It was the solution to which everyone now aspires: a Jewish state and an Arab state. Yes, 64 years ago, the world solved the Middle East problem.

The Jews said yes, but the Arabs balked. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, proclaimed the existence of a Jewish state called Israel. President Truman’s administration immediately issued the following statement: “This Government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof. The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the State of Israel.”

On May 15th, Arab states issued their response statement, and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq attacked the new state of Israel, aided by volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Libya. It could have been over for Israel then. It very nearly was. The football field attacked the postage stamp with determination to wipe it out.

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, declared a new genocide against the Jews: “kill the Jews wherever you find them — this serves God.” He really meant it. He had passed the world war with fascists, and while a guest of fascist Italy in 1941, he submitted to the German government a draft declaration of German-Arab cooperation, stating:

Germany and Italy recognize the right of the Arab countries to solve the question of the Jewish elements, which exist in Palestine and in the other Arab countries, as required by the national and ethnic (völkisch) interests of the Arabs, and as the Jewish question was solved in Germany and Italy.

Had the Nazis prevailed in North Africa (they didn’t), they had a plan to exterminate Palestinian Jews and prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, and “the most important collaborator with the Nazis and an absolute Arab anti-Semite was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem.” Many honorable Palestinians refused to take up arms against the Jews because of their disgust with Haj Amin al-Husseini.

The fledgling state of Israel survived, barely, the attack of every surrounding Arab country. Israel survived again in 1967 and 1973, when Arab regimes attacked Israel with intent to destroy it. The violations of international law, never mind human decency, in these attacks are legion.

Meanwhile, Arab states set about dealing with their Jewish populations, and it wasn’t pretty. Most of Yemeni and Adeni Jews, some 50,000, were evacuated between 1949-1950 in fear of their security. 150,000 Iraqi and Kurdish Jews were encouraged to leave in 1950 by the Iraqi Government, which ordered in 1951 “the expulsion of Jews who refused to sign a statement of anti-Zionism.” The Jews of Egypt began fleeing the country in 1948, and most of the remaining, some 25,000, were expelled in 1956. The Jews of Algeria were deprived of their citizenship in 1962.

So Jews were being systematically kicked out of Arab countries, typically without their property. There could have been a “Jewish refugee” problem exceeding the “Palestinian refugee” problem. But there wasn’t because Israel of course accepted the 800,000-1,000,000 Jews kicked out of Arab countries. Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, suffered horrible deprivations of basic rights by their host countries.

Over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, and they are barred from 73 job categories including professions such as medicine, law and engineering. They are not allowed to own property, and even need a special permit to leave their refugee camps. Unlike other foreigners in Lebanon, they are denied access to the Lebanese health care system. The Lebanese government refused to grant them work permits or permission to own land.

The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to Palestinian Arab refugees (or their descendants) “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” In other words, Palestinian refugees are pure politics for Arab League members. And that is why the most free Palestinians live in America and Israel.

If I were Palestinian — and sometimes I wish I were just for the test of my character in the teeth of oppression and suffering — I believe I would be skeptical of my Arab brothers and their cynical anti-Semitism, and I believe I would say yes, let there be a Jewish state and a Palestinian state so that I could at least begin to control my own destiny, and I would cease to be a pawn in the games of nations that have done nothing for me except exploit my victim status.

Israel must be a Jewish state. There must be a homeland for Jews. And there must be a homeland for Palestinians. We have not evolved beyond ethnic thinking and ethnic hatred. That will take a while. Meanwhile, there can be peace, accounting for ethnic hatreds — but it must begin with recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

And acceptance of a Jewish state begins with understanding of what happened to Jews. The Holocaust must become real to Palestinians. In the New York Times, Palestinian social scientist Mohammed S. Dajani Doudi and Jewish-American historian Robert Satloff write:

But Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, know little about the Holocaust and what they do know is often skewed by the perverted prism of Arab popular culture, from the ranting of religious extremists to the distortions of certain satellite television channels to the many ill-informed authors. What happened to the Jews during World War II is not taught in Arab schools or universities, either as part of world history or as a lesson in genocide awareness or as an atrocity that ought not to be repeated.

* * *

Almost two years ago millions of Muslim Arabs listened carefully when President Barack Obama, speaking in Cairo, respectfully recited sentences from the Koran and proclaimed America’s endorsement of a two-state solution to achieve a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Few, however, remember that he also condemned Holocaust denial. Now that the Arab masses are applying the universal lessons of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in taking down their authoritarian governments, it is time they take back the learning of history, too. That includes teaching their children the universal lessons of the Holocaust.

History, true history, is almost always painful. Understanding why Israel must be a Jewish state is painful. Jews in Israel cannot ever again submit to the tolerance of a host culture. That is absolute.

Lars von Trier: “I’m a Nazi”… HaHaHa…

Lars Von Trier, the director of the new movie Melancholia, is a jokester. In promoting his film at a recent press conference, he had this, among other choice hahas, to say, when asked about his German roots and his interest in the “Nazi aesthetic”:

“The only thing I can tell you is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew, then later on came [Danish and Jewish director] Susanne Bier, and suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. That was a joke. Sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew. If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family is German. And that also gave me some pleasure. So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things but I can see him sitting in his bunker. [Kirsten Dunst goes, “Oh God!” and hides uncomfortably behind Lars.] I’m saying that I think I understand the man. He is not what we could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him … But come on! I’m not for the Second World War. And I’m not against Jews. No, not even Susanne Bier. I am very much for them. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass. How do I get out of this sentence? Okay, I am a Nazi. As for the art, I’m for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also one of God’s best children. He has a talent that … Okay, enough.”

Yes, let’s agree Lars was being his jokester self. The problem with shock-humor of this sort is:

(a) it’s easy and adolescent, but that wouldn’t differentiate it from much mainstream Hollywood comedy, or Bill Maher, except that

(b) it cheapens actually sincere and critical political dialogue because:

(i) not everyone gets the joke, and a swath take it literally as vindication of their twisted notions;

(ii) the “joke” plays offensively on genocide issues of the deepest real-world (contra Hollywood) emotional significance for millions of people; and

(iii) the “joke” feeds very disturbing, real-world narratives that debase or deny the significance of the Holocaust, or the Holocaust itself (yes, in a world where heads of state still deny the Holocaust, and sponsor conferences for Holocaust-deniers, a measure of maturity on the subject is necessary), and does so most cringingly because —

(iv) it’s insufficiently ironic — which is to say, it resonates at the simplest (again, adolescent) level of Holocaust-hahaha, which in the real world is dangerous, without accomplishing irony’s essential task of exposing and excoriating the target narrative for what it truly is; which is a re-stating, finally, of:

(c) the “joke” isn’t funny. In this case, as with most shock-humor, it’s transparently headline-grabbing self-promotion. People willing to debase themselves this way will always bewilder me. It’s a fame-and money-first sensibility — integrity, maturity and rudimentary decency be damned — and our reality-TV culture appears to be making that embarrassing choice ever more appealing.

One can embrace the Nazi aesthetic. Filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl did so — and then protested, after World War II, “oh my, I’m just an artist, I didn’t know,” while garnering an enormous, adulating following for precisely her Nazi aesthetic. Susan Sontag — no conservative, to be sure — penned a devastating exposé of Riefenstahl’s lies and hypocrisy — and the willingness of liberal American culture to whitewash her sins in the service of celebrating a woman filmmaker:

The rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal societies does not happen with the sweeping bureaucratic finality of the Soviet Encyclopedia, each new edition of which brings forward some hitherto unmentionable figures and lowers an equal or greater number through the trap door of nonexistence. Our rehabilitations are smoother, more insinuative. It is not that Riefenstahl’s Nazi past has suddenly become acceptable. It is simply that, with the turn of the cultural wheel, it no longer matters. Instead of dispensing a freeze-dried version of history from above, a liberal society settles such questions by waiting for cycles of taste to distill out the controversy.

This is an instance of serious dialogue about the serious embrace of a Nazi aesthetic.

What is utterly unserious — what one cannot do, as an adult — is “play” with embracing the Nazi aesthetic. Lars von Trier is a teenager venturing into waters 20,000 leagues above his evident ken.

Holocaust Remembrance Day and Osama bin Laden

I passed a momentous day in silence. Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah in Hebrew). It was also the day America celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden.

Both are fitting reminders that there is such a thing as evil, that human beings can still do horrific things to other human beings, that a true conscience can never rest.

It was a day foremost of sadness. Sadness that we are still here. Sadness that we are still a species who wantonly kill our own, who slaughter for politics and power.

Genocide on the scale of the Holocaust may be truly past — but the genocidal impulse is shamefully alive in the human breast.

The death of Osama bin Laden is closure. Nothing more, nothing less. The man orchestrated a great evil. He did so, moreover, with perverted distortion of a great religion. He proudly killed innocents, and he sought to kill the humanity of Islam, to conscript the religion into a program of hatred, hostility and murder.

He failed to convert Islam into Islamism — but we still fight because his ideology of murderous hatred did not die with him. The horror of 9-11 now becomes an ever so slightly more bearable thing because its mastermind is dead. But evil is not dead.

If evil could die, it would have died when the light shone on the death camps after World War II. It did not.

That is why we must always remember.

UPDATE (May 9, 2011): To the proposition that evil did not die with the death of Osama bin Laden, Charles Krauthammer fittingly adds that “Evil does not die of natural causes.”

On Glenn Beck, George Soros, and Moderate Dialogue (and Nazis of course)

I had hoped to take a wee vacation from the subject of hate and retreat into a quiet place, and re-emerge a few days hence a better-fitted wee white corpuscle against the hate cancer cells of our body politic. But vileness evidently never takes a vacation.

Before getting into Glenn Beck’s vileness about George Soros’ alleged responsibility for sending Jews to the death camps, I have a personal digression about my way of doing dialogue.

One reason few people own up to being moderates in our society is the double-toll of the charge of inconsistency. Conservatives need only be consistently conservative, and all other conservatives applaud them. Liberals need only be consistently liberal, and all other liberals applaud them. And all are merrily angry. Neither particularly cares what the other camp thinks about them, unless they can have a meta-rage about the latest outrage of being called Nazis. I’m jealous.

Moderates swim in the shark-infested sea of nods to conservatives and nods to liberals. As a right-of-center moderate, my take on President Obama’s State of the Union address was considered too liberal by some conservative friends and too conservative by some liberal friends. That’s fine. That spurs constructive dialogue. But I also set myself up for the charge of inconsistency — as when I slammed Representative Moran (D-Va) yesterday for his vile accusations about American racism to an Arab television network. Well, I didn’t actually slam him. In fact, I said I’d let his own words speak for themselves, and invited liberal friends to do what I have frequently requested of the left: condemn leftist hate speech. Some did, most didn’t.

One liberal friend wrote to me asking, “when will you call out Glenn Beck for a long deep pattern of race-baiting, Jew-baiting and all around hatred? I realize he is not an elected official but his ratings are far higher. Influence is power.” As it develops, his plea was fair, about which more momentarily. But I need to make plain that I will not always be consistent. I do not say that merely as a kind of Emersonian conceit about rising above the hobgoblin of small minds. I mean, I will at times be indefensibly inconsistent. It happens. What I care about, what moves me in a particular moment, will be rational as often as I can manage it — but not always. I am moved most powerfully by what and whom I love, and that can indeed yield the very irrationality, and inconsistency, that is a staple of human narratives about love.

Since I truly love specific people across the political, racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation spectrum — and being a right-of-center moderate — mediating my various reactions in some consistent way will be impossible. I’m not even talking about “ideological” consistency, which I abhor, no, hate. I’m talking about simple logical consistency, and I’m conceding, won’t always be so.

So, but for a liberal friend, I wouldn’t be posting this excoriation of Glenn Beck. I’d have been inconsistent. And it wouldn’t have troubled me overmuch.

Here’s what Glenn Beck said:

[Soros] used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening. Here’s a Jewish boy helping send the Jews to the death camps. And I am certainly not saying that George Soros enjoyed that, even had a choice. I mean, he’s 14 years old. He was surviving. So I’m not making a judgment. That’s between him and God. […] George Soros is — many people would call him an anti-Semite. I will not. I don’t know enough about all of his positions on Jews.

Rather than letting Glenn Beck’s words speak for themselves, as I tried to do with Rep. Moran, hoping we’d all agree, I have some thoughts.

  • Glenn Beck needs to stop making references to the Holocaust.
  • Glenn Beck needs to stop making references to Nazis.
  • I wrote last week about the tone scale of American political discourse, urging that it never go above 4, on a scale of 1-10. Glenn Beck managed 10 against a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
  • George Soros, who bankrolls numerous left-wing groups and candidates, who views his adopted country, the United States, as “the main obstacle to a stable and just world order,” just got a big sympathy bump, courtesy of Glenn Beck. Thanks Glenn. Well done. As I wrote last week, “the farther up the scale dialogue reaches, the more likely the opponent gains sympathy because of the nature of the attacks upon him or her. Put another way, the angrier you are, the more likely you are to help the person you hate.”
  • Liberals have no need now of bothering to condemn Rep. Moran slamming Americans as racists for electing Republicans in the 2010 elections, or Rep. Cohen calling Republicans Nazis on the House floor. They have Glenn Beck! Thanks Glenn. Well done.
  • Glenn Beck has many good things to say. Among them is not any reference whatever, ever, to the conduct of Holocaust survivors who happen to be political enemies. His liberal determination to tread into this territory betrays a gross misapprehension of how one approaches the agonies of that period. He speaks of the Holocaust as a high school student might speak of the Flapper Era, with a kind of cheer about how interesting it was and how much we can learn. Stop.
  • As liberals go into their camp, righteous regarding Glenn Beck, and conservatives go into their camp, righteous regarding Rep. Moran and Rep. Cohen, let it be understood that Beck, Moran and Cohen do what they do because too many Americans feed upon it and righteously retreat into their respective camps. That retreat by both camps empowers Beck, Moran and Cohen. We’ll never stop this madness until enough people say “a plague on both your houses,” and really mean it.

For those interested in additional interesting information, here is criticism of Beck from a conservative Jewish publication, clarification of that criticism from the same publication, an ad by rabbis appearing in the Wall Street Journal condemning Beck, and, for my friends who love Lewis Black, his skewering of Beck as a man with Nazi Tourette Syndrome.

Please say now, to Beck, Moran and Cohen, you don’t always speak for us. And you won’t whenever you engage in hateful speech. We cannot shut down hateful speech, such is our robust First Amendment tradition, but we can condemn it (consistently?).

UPDATE (2-2-2011): Jewish Groups Denounce Anti-Glenn Beck Letter.

Godwin’s Law, Hitler comparisons, and Stop!

My friend Mike Godwinyet another University of Texas Daily Texan editor who acquitted himself very well in that position and thereafter — formulated two decades ago what has become widely known as Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”  In other words, virtually any internet discussion, given enough time, ends in pernicious comparisons to Hitler and Nazis.

It is elegant precisely because it does not pre-judge, simply predict.  Though Mike himself may legitimately lament that overwrought comparisons to Hitler trivialize the Holocaust, his Law says only that such comparisons invariably happen.

One might imagine that the predictive force of Godwin’s Law would decline precisely as it became better known — that is, as more and more people came to understand the profound silliness of Hitler comparisons, such comparisons would become rarer.  Who wishes to invite the most obvious ridicule imaginable?

Alas, Godwin’s Law remains robust.

Godwin’s Law applies specifically to the internet, where anonymity routinely brings out the repugnant in people.  I’m guessing that an email or public speech or face-to-face salon version of Godwin’s Law would have little predictive force.

And in a way, that’s what makes the persistence of a form of Godwin’s Law he would never have articulated so puzzling.  Why has the left become so profligate with Hitler and Nazi comparisons — in public?

I hasten to add, Hitler and Nazi comparisons frankly make less sense on the right.  Hitler’s Nazi party was the most abominable scourge the right has ever produced.  A little humility on the right is appropriate.  Not to minimize Stalin’s or Mao’s contemporaneous genocidal slaughters from the left — just to say I’d be a bit less tolerant of spurious Hitler and Nazi comparisons coming from the right.

Not to start with Hollywood, but, well… it’s easy.  Richard Dreyfuss plays Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone’s “W,” and tells Joy Behar that playing “the villainy” of Dick Cheney simply involved getting in touch with his inner Hitler.  (Which, as he’s “always said to kids,” we all have, along with Jesus.)  Among the multiple layers of irony here is Richard Dreyfuss getting in touch with his inner Hitler while his director, Oliver Stone, told the Sunday Times back in July that the Americans and the British supported Hitler, that Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jews, and that the Holocaust is overplayed because of “Jewish domination of the media.”

Then Rob Reiner huffs to great applause on Bill Maher’s show that his “fear is that the Tea Party gets a charismatic leader, because all they’re selling is fear and anger and that’s all Hitler sold. ‘I’m angry and I’m frightened and you should hate that guy over there.'”

The Tea Party has come in for a rather unseemly amount of Nazi comparison.  When they were fairly new, and making town hall meetings by complacent Democrats a bit uncomfortable, liberal commentator Bill Press complained about tea party protesters because, “taking a page right out of a Nazi playbook,” they were bussed in.  “Rule by the mob,” he declared.

No!  Not bussed in!  Like Oprah Winfrey offering to send people to Jon Stewart’s upcoming rally in Washington DC?  Bill Press thinks Oprah is a Nazi??!  Who knew?

No, Bill Press doesn’t think Oprah Winfrey is a Nazi, and no, he doesn’t think tea party members are Nazis.  He just used a much-too-convenient trope.

And much too convenient it has indeed been.  The thousands of ugly comparisons of Bush to Hitler dwarf the comparisons of Obama to Hitler.  All of these people, on both sides, should be ashamed. There is not a single whispered syllable of dialogue — only smallness and hate, only the shamefully public denunciation of dialogue itself — from stupid comparisons of any American public figure with Hitler and Nazis.

Republicans should be especially careful.  Hitler was the ultimate right-winger.  No left-wing politician in America bears the remotest political resemblance to Hitler.  Do not be stupid.  Democrats play this game at their peril because no one buys it. It may appear easy, but no Republican politician in America bears the slightest resemblance to Hitler.  The charge is equally baseless and stupid.

And speaking of stupid, Americans get it.  If they’re swayed at all by Nazi comparisons, it’s in the opposite direction.

European Anti-Semitism versus Measuring European Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Europe is a given — but the ways of measuring it are not.

The most recent survey of anti-Semitism in Europe by the Anti-Defamation League does not properly assess anti-Semitism.  The magnitude of anti-Semitism in Europe is alarming, according to the survey, and the magnitude of anti-Semitism in Europe is no doubt alarming — but not because the survey accurately measured it.

The survey covered Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.  Respondents were asked whether or not they thought the following four statements were “probably true” or “probably false.”

1) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country.

2) Jews have too much power in the business world.

3) Jews have too much power in international financial markets.

4) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.

Respondents were also asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that “Jews are responsible for the death of Christ.”

Finally, respondents were asked if their opinion of Jews was influenced by actions taken by the State of Israel and whether they believed the violence directed against European Jews was a result of anti-Jewish feelings or anti-Israel sentiment.

It is difficult to measure bigotry because bigots will hide their bigotry when surveyed.  The only possible way to account for bigots hiding bigotry is to ask indirect questions that assess less controversial attitudes.  The survey did not do this.  For example, the survey could ask “are you acquainted with any Jews?”  And then, if no, “would you wish to be?”  If yes they are acquainted with Jews, then the survey would assess attitudes toward these people.

The first question — “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” — may or may not assess anti-Semitism.  A respondent answering “yes” may simply believe that Jews consider Israel the homeland for Jews, that it is a besieged homeland, and that preservation of that homeland is more important than any self-preservation issue confronting “this country.”  That respondent may or may not be anti-Semitic.  Moreover, a respondent answering “no” may well believe Jews are more loyal to “this country,” but still be anti-Semitic.

The second and third questions, concerning Jewish power in business and finance, test very tired stereotypes.  Indeed, one of the silliest notions about Jews is their disproportionate financial power.  An anti-Semitic respondent could easily answer “no,” simply because the notions are silly.  (The fact that over half the respondents in Hungary, Poland, and Spain nevertheless answered “yes” is pretty much all you need to know about European anti-Semitism.)

The fourth question — Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust — has little to do with anti-Semitism.  About the Holocaust, some Jews speak and some Jews are silent.  The person answering this question may live next to the Jew who is silent or who speaks.  There is no reliable measure of anti-Semitism from speaking, or not speaking, about the Holocaust.

The issue is Holocaust denial.  The survey should have nothing to do with “talking” about the Holocaust, and everything to do questioning the Holocaust.  “Jewish claims about the Holocaust are probably overstated,” for example.  Test that.  The very real modern indicia of anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial.

The fifth question — “Jews are responsible for the death of Christ” — is a frankly stupid question.  It surely touches upon a historical basis for anti-Semitism, but ineptly.

1. It begs the question, for some, whether there ever was a “Christ” (as opposed to a historical Jesus, or Yeshua bar-Josef).  Some will say “No,” simply because they object to the term “Christ,” even though they might be anti-Semitic for other reasons.

2. Strictly speaking, according to the Biblical narrative, certain Jews were responsible for persuading Pontius Pilate to order the death of Jesus.  Thus, some who are not anti-Semitic in any respect and may be ardent supporters of Israel may answer “Yes” to this question based upon fidelity to their scriptural text.

3. For many Christians, of course, “Christ” did not die, or stay dead.  Some may therefore answer “No” simply because they object to the notion that “Christ” (as opposed to Jesus) ever died.  They may or may not be anti-Semitic.

In probing anti-Semitism, the question is not whether Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, but whether “Jews are appropriately to blame for being Christ-killers.”  This framing tests modern attitudes about collective guilt for deicide.  It wouldn’t do to ask whether Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, because according to the dominant Christian narrative, yes, certain Jews were.  It is not anti-Semitic to say that certain Jews persuaded Pontius Pilate to order the crucifixion of Jesus (and that certain Jews objected, that certain Jews were horrified, that certain Jews were disciples and many others loyal to Jesus, etc.).

The sixth and final question concerns Israel and Jews — and gives any bigot an obvious out to blame hostility toward Jews on Israel.  This query gets the real question precisely backwards.  Hostility toward Israel is sometimes anti-Semitic.  It might be useful to probe that question, but it is not useful to ask whether violence against Jews has more to do with Jews or Israel.

We can be confident, unfortunately, that anti-Semitism in Europe is robust.  We cannot be confident that it has been measured well.