Thursday, October 18, 2007

The demonic and the human

-- by Dave

It's really becoming impressive just how much the right, increasingly backed into its political corner, is lashing out by calling everyone in sight Nazis. Glenn Greenwald commented on this a couple of weeks ago, noting the rise in comparisons of liberals to various shades of fascist, from Bill O'Reilly to Mark Levin and Michelle Malkin.

It's all Newspeak, of course:
[T]he conservative charge that fascism was a leftist phenomenon is a rightist attempt at David Irvingesque historical revisionism. There is not a single serious historian of either fascism or World War II who does not consider it a right-wing phenomenon: its anti-liberalism and anti-socialism were its defining characteristics, regardless of the rhetoric adopted by early adherents and leaders.

The currency of the "liberal Nazis" meme has if anything picked up in recent weeks, ranging from the local radio talker who called Oprah Winfrey a Nazi to Michael Savage and Debbie Schlussel attacking George Soros and Media Matters as Nazis.

Schlussel's example is especially striking because of the nature of the projection she's making. The centerpiece is her post titled "Nice Try, Media Matters Nazis, But Ann Coulter is No Anti-Semite," wherein she writes:
Contrast that with the villain here: Media Matters. It's anti-American, anti-Israel, and funded by George Soros, a Jew who proudly worked for the Nazis rounding up Jews and sending them to their deaths. Hmmm . . . him versus Ann Coulter? That's an easy choice. I'd much rather go with the woman who looks like an Aryan but is a friend to the Jews and their allies than the billionaire atheist Jew who's lived his entire life like a Nazi.

So what's the truth about Soros? Well, as Media Matters explains:
To support her claim, Schlussel linked to an April 18 post in which she smeared Soros (a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust) as "a fake Holocaust survivor, who -- instead of 'surviving' the Holocaust -- helped the Nazis perpetrate it." In the same post, Schlussel falsely claimed that Soros has funded Media Matters. In a May 1 blog post, she referred to Media Matters as "Nazi-funded," linking to the same April 18 post.

In her April 18 post, she cited David Horowitz and Richard Poe's book, The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party (Nelson Current, 2006) to claim that Soros is a "war criminal and proud Jewish Nazi." Like Horowitz and Poe, Schlussel pointed to Soros' experience as a 14-year-old boy in Nazi-controlled Hungary to suggest that he collaborated with the Nazis. In that post, she claimed that "Horowitz details how Soros bragged on CBS' '60 Minutes' of helping his adopted father round up Jews to send them to their deaths at the camps and confiscate their property." Taking the smear further, she claimed in her October 11 post that Soros personally "round[ed] up Jews and sen[t] them to their deaths." As Media Matters has noted, during the December 20, 1998, edition of 60 Minutes, interviewer Steve Kroft stated: "My understanding is that you went out with this protector of yours who swore that you were his adopted godson." Kroft added, "Went out, in fact, and helped in the confiscation of property from the Jews." Soros responded, "Yes, that's right, yes." He did not "brag[] ... of helping his adopted father round up Jews to send them to their deaths."

Michael T. Kaufman wrote in a biography of Soros, Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire (Knopf, 2002), that Soros' father attempted to protect his family from Nazi persecution by paying an employee of Hungary's Ministry of Agriculture named Baumbach to take in Soros, "ostensibly as his godson." Soros accompanied his "godfather" as he went to oversee the confiscation of property from Hungarian Jews, as Media Matters has noted.

Of course, it's easy for someone in her comfy chair in suburban America in 2007 to second-guess the choices made in 1944 by a young Jewish man swept up in the horror of the ongoing Holocaust. But it's clear that people like Schlussel and Savage have never really understood the special evil the Nazis inflicted on their victims, both the dead and the survivors.

The evil genius of the Nazi regime lay in how it inflicted itself on the populace at large by creating a world of the most vicious Social Darwinism in action -- survival of the fittest, the "fittest" being the most cunning and ruthless and conscienceless. Anyone who failed or refused to play along with this vision of the world simply did not survive. And those who did often found afterward that they had sacrificed their humanity along the way.

There are a couple of fascinating portrayals of this dynamic in action available to anyone who wants to take the time. One -- Sophie's Choice, the central scene from which you can see above -- is a work of fiction, but probably based on real events. (Oral histories make clear that similar scenes of horror were common in these situations.)

One of my personal favorites is Art Spiegelman's Maus, which depicts in graphic form the tale of a Holocaust survivor and how he got there. Its hero, Vladek Spiegelman, and his wife Anja manage to survive in part through the hope they give each other. But it's also clear that an element of ruthless and hard-heartedness is involved:

At one point, one of the characters muses: "Yes. Life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn't the BEST people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was RANDOM!"

Another superb work along these lines is Agnieszka Holland's remarkable Europa Europa, which depicts the true adventure of a young Jewish boy who survives the war by posing as an Aryan German, and eventually a Hitler Youth, going so far in his attempt to disguise himself as to sew up his foreskin. It's a prolonged meditation on the kinds of choices an evil like Nazism forced upon its victims, and the price it made them pay. When I heard George Soros' story, it made me think of Solly Perel.

The evil genius of the Nazi regime is that it created, and imposed on its world, a social regime in which the worst traits of humanity -- greed, selfishness, mendacity, betrayal, cowardice -- become the supreme social traits, not just in the camps (though there especially) but throughout Nazi society, because it was precisely those traits which insured one's survival.

Milton Mayer's remarkable book They Thought They Were Free, built around a series of interviews he conducted with "ordinary Germans" who lived through Nazi society, talked about the mechanism by which this happened:
"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn't see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don't want to "go out of your way to make trouble." Why not? - Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

"Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, "everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to you colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, "It's not so bad" or "You're seeing things" or "You're an alarmist."

"And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.

"But your friends are fewer now. Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to – to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

"But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked – if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in "43" had come immediately after the "German Firm" stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in "33". But of course this isn't the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D."

It is by small steps of incremental meanness and viciousness that we lose our humanity. The Nazis, in the end, embodied the ascension of utter demonic inhumanity, but they didn't get that way overnight. They got that way through, day after day, attacking and demonizing and urging the elimination of those they deemed their enemies.

They did this by not simply creating them as The Enemy, but by denying them their essential humanity, depicting them as worse than scum -- disease-laden, world-destroying vermin, in desperate need of elimination. But that kind of behavior, over the years, has hardly been relegated merely to the Nazis; indeed, it has a long history in America as well, and has been bubbling up on the right increasingly in recent years.

You can hear it in Debbie Schlussel's description of George Soros as a "Jewish Nazi" and someone who "round[ed] up Jews and sen[t] them to their deaths," denying the very human reality faced by a young Jewish boy in that milieu. You can hear it in Savage's ugly rant:
Hey George, let me tell you something, I don't have as much money as you. I have 50,000 times the influence that you do, you punk, lying, coward, Satanist, backstabbing freak. You're the people -- people like you give Jews a bad name, Soros. It's people like you who brought about the Holocaust, Soros. I stand by those words. I stand by those words. I would debate you tomorrow, Soros, on any platform, anywhere. I'll debate you anywhere. It's people like you who brought about the Holocaust, Soros. That's why I need you to shut your mouth and understand the damage you're doing to this world and to the Jewish people, George Soros.

The right's attempt to smear liberals isn't merely a Bizarro World inversion of reality. It's becoming, in content and nature, the very demonic thing it claims to fear.

[Hat tip to Hume's Ghost.]

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