Nothing's unique

>> Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Mike Godwin of "Godwin's Law" fame has a fine op-ed at the Los Angeles Times this week that's worth your consideration.  In summation, he's basically saying use thoughtful Nazi analogies as needed in perilous times, but go read it yourself.

He did use one phrase, a common one I think, that did catch my eye and crinkle my nose a little.  He writes, "It's also sometimes used (reflexively, lazily) to suggest that anyone who invokes a comparison to Nazis or Hitler has somehow 'broken' the Law, and thus demonstrated their failure to grasp what made the Holocaust uniquely horrific," "It" being Godwin's Law, of course.

What crinkled my nose about that line is something that I worry could be direly relevant to the present era, and that's the fact that the Holocaust wasn't necessarily "uniquely" horrific.  I don't mean to minimize the horror of it in any way, and I have a suspicion Mr. Godwin would largely agree with what I'm going to say here.  But part of the awfulness of the Holocaust was that it was another horrific example of humanity's ability to create an organized system of atrocity and death.  While the Holocaust had its own uniquely technological, uniquely 20th Century, uniquely European, and uniquely German angles, it was also undeniably in the same range as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as the forcible relocation and mass murder of Native Americans by the United States, the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor, and subsequently the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields--and I feel absolutely certain I've left crimes out.  (No, I know that I have because every page I visited to provide those links had multiple links to other atrocities.)

This is not, absolutely not to take away from the Holocaust.  And if you read into any of this some species of "whataboutism," you're a fool.  The point I'm trying to get at is actually something rather distressing: that the discrete events collectively described as "The Holocaust"--the segregation of minorities, the creation of ghettos, the street violence, the property seizures, the rounding people up and placing them into concentration camps, the evolution of concentration camps into death camps--are things that can happen anywhere, anytime, and in cultures as varied as the American frontier and postwar Communist China, from the seat of the former Ottoman Empire to once idyllic Buddhist farmlands.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the Holocaust captured the imagination of the Western world in the way in which it did, I think, is itself a kind of subtle racist thing: before the Second World War, Germany was regarded as one of Europe's highest cultures, a bastion of science, technology, philosophy, poetry, and music--and nevertheless not immune to utter barbarism.  A mid-Century European might expect the Japanese to have slaughtered tens or even hundreds of thousands in the Rape of Nanjing, considering popular Occidental stereotypes of Asians as having no respect whatsoever for the inherent value of human life; but the Germans gave us Martin Luther, Goethe, Strauss, Brahms, and Beethoven.  They basically invented the automobile and co-invented modern medicine, for crying out loud.  Not to mention basically inventing modern physics.  They had well-run trains, air travel, and were rivaled only by the British in shipping.  The best-organized army in the world.  And all the laws, so many laws, laws and lawyers and courthouses--what were they doing slaughtering millions of civilians over their ethnicity?  And in wartime--callous and tinny as it sounds, much of the Allied skepticism over the intelligence they received during the War about death camps came directly from the utter ludicrous absurdity of the idea of the Germans irrationally slaughtering a potential resource; slave camps, awful as may be, well certainly, but death camps, these spies and refugees must be kidding.

To the average racist European or American of European descent: Arabs and Slavs and the Japanese and Chinese, well, naturally they torture and murder people, what more do you expect from brutes lacking in Christian virtue and European refinement?  But Germans, why... Germans are white people, and they compose such lovely music and write such beautiful prose and build such clever machines.

But of course that's horseshit.  The Nazis weren't merely monsters or reassuringly aberrant: they were human beings, and so were their not-quite-Nazi-but-sympathetic supporters along with their not-at-all-Nazi-but-in-denial quiet collaborators.

This is the point I'm getting at, right?  That one of the distressing things about the Holocaust is that it wasn't unique, that the tendency to apply that label to it is something we do to reassure ourselves that we're better, that "It Can't Happen Here."  When it can, and in fact has (I am making certain assumptions, dear reader, that you are living in North America, where your ancestors pushed aside and slaughtered the indigenous peoples, or perhaps owned slaves, or may well have whistled about their business while African Americans were lynched or literally had cities destroyed by whites).

Infelicitous phrase that launched a few hundred words aside, I think Mr. Godwin would agree with me and that this coincides with one of the main points of the opinion piece linked to at the top.  We should make the comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis when they are apt (and highlight the contrasts when the comparisons aren't).  And we should do this, I think, because if there is something that distinguishes culturally and technically sophisticated Americans of the 21st Century from culturally and technically sophisticated Germans of the 20th, it's that we can look back on the terrible things they did and try to figure out the hows and whys of not doing the same fucking things they did.  We can, perhaps, hopefully, maybe, take our racists and would-be despots in hand and neutralize them so that we aren't falling into the trap described in George Santayana's most-quoted line.

We aren't special.  We might be educable.



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