Friday, March 31, 2023

Two Ways

We covered the Holocaust in class this week.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. This is an American history class, after all, and the Holocaust was a European event. I devote much more time to it in my Western Civ class. But it was the reason for a significant chunk of the total deaths of World War II – a war the United States played a major role in winning – and there are too many ignorant fools out there trying to pretend it didn’t happen at all, so it has to go in there somewhere.

History: the real stuff matters.

We covered the basics – what it was (a systematic attempt by the Nazis to eliminate anyone they felt didn’t deserve to live), the categories of the targets (mostly Jews, but also Slavs, Romany, Socialists/Communists, LGBTQ people, dissenters, resisters, and so on), and the total death toll (somewhere around 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 or so). They all had names, but we don’t know all of them.

Any estimate of the total dead in World War II that doesn’t have at least six zeroes at the end of it is an outright lie, by the way. We don’t know to the nearest million how many people died as a direct result of the war, let alone anything more precise. All we know is that it was a lot. World War II was the single biggest collective endeavor in human history and by far the deadliest, which says something about us as a species.

Whenever you cover the Holocaust, however briefly you do it, the inevitable question comes up: how did this happen? The subtext of course is: could this happen again and how would we recognize it?

Students want the answer to be complicated, difficult, hard to replicate. They want to know that the Nazis were evil, soulless monsters – which are, after all, rare and often easy to spot. They want some reassurance that this is a historical event, safely in the past.

Sometimes the proper role of a historian is, in fact, to make students uncomfortable.

Because the simple fact is that while the Nazi leadership had a much higher than average percentage of soulless monsters and the Nazis did in fact commit astonishing acts of pure unadulterated evil, the run of the mill Nazi was just some guy, boring to the point of banality. Most of them weren’t monsters even if they were doing monstrous things, and that’s a far more frightening fact when you think about it. You don’t need monsters to do evil. You just need people, in all their messy reality.

If you ever want to look deeper into that, you should start with Hannah Arendt’s brutally disturbing book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (she coined the phrase “banality of evil” after all), and Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority. Good luck sleeping for a while after that, though.

Furthermore, not only is it not complicated but also it isn't something safely confined to the past.  It has happened since. It happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. You could make a case that it happened in Rwanda in the 1990s too.  It can happen again.

It’s not even that hard to do, really.

You start with a strongly authoritarian political party in search of scapegoats for the ills of the nation, one they can blame for all the nation’s troubles and use to rally the rubes behind them. They usually choose a small, relatively powerless, often already disliked and suspected outgroup since those are easier to isolate and persecute. For the Nazis this was the Jews. Other authoritarians focus on other groups.

You then launch a massive and vicious campaign to dehumanize them. You accuse them of being unnatural, of being an affront to whatever version of God you happen to worship this week, of being a crime against Nature by their very existence. You accuse them of all sorts of heinous and largely unverifiable crimes, often without – and sometimes despite – evidence. Evidence doesn’t matter when emotions run high and you’re just whipping up hatred at this point. You don’t need evidence. You present them as a threat to the social order, to the economy, to the existence of the family as traditionally constructed. Won’t someone think of the children, you cry. Children are always a good battering ram to use when you want to knock despised people over, after all, even or especially if it is your own people who are the greatest actual threat to children. You make this outgroup into Threats.

Once that’s had some time to make an impact, you start to pass laws stripping them of human and civil rights. You restrict their movements. You tell them they can’t get married. You limit the jobs they can have and the places they can live and the things they can do in their spare time. You deny them access to appropriate health care and to education. You turn them into second class citizens and then you take away their citizenship. You make them Outsiders.

And once you’ve turned this group into Outsiders and Threats, it goes one of two ways.

Either it will be stopped by people who remember how it ended the last time.

Or it will proceed.

Those are your choices.

If you think this is pure history, safely confined to the past, you’re not paying attention. We in the US are watching this play out live in front of us with the current violent hysteria whipped up by the Republican Party over trans people. Trans people are being dehumanized – pretty much every step described above has been part of the GOP rhetoric for months now, perhaps even years. And you’re seeing a flood of restrictive legislation being shoved through Republican state legislatures designed to strip basic human and civil rights from an already disliked and suspected outgroup that would prefer just to live their lives harmlessly, without interference.

Honestly, if you want to see threats to children, the real “groomers” and sexual abusers, statistically you should be looking at youth pastors and scout leaders. But since those people reliably vote Republican, this gets overlooked and excused.

There are only two ways this goes, folks.

Where do you stand?

Take a position, because to stand neutral is to side with the oppressor. Don’t sit there. Don’t wave your hands. Take a position.

As for me, I am a goddamned American patriot. My family has been here for almost two hundred years. I have at least three ancestors who fought on the correct side of the Civil War, for the Union created by the Founding Fathers and against the treason of the South and the human slavery it was based on. I literally have a PhD in the Founding Fathers and have devoted my life to the true history of this nation. This is a great nation, with great virtues and great flaws, and if you don’t acknowledge both halves of that you’re missing things.

During World War II, the United States gave medals to my ancestors for shooting Fascists, and I will be damned if I will disgrace their memory by supporting it here now.

And if the GOP doesn’t want me to call them Fascists they should stop doing the things the Fascists did. Keep in mind the recent speaker at CPAC – the right-wing agenda-setting conference that is held every year to set the goals for the GOP – openly discussing the “elimination” of transgender people. That kind of language is pure Nazi, and he was applauded for it instead of being run out of town on a rail the way he should have been.

Fuck them sideways with a Buick.

Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility, and this cis-het guy is going to support them to the best of my ability. If the GOP wants to turn this country into a rerun of the Third Reich they can damn well go through me to do it. It's my country too. 

I have no illusions as to the scope of my personal influence on the world. If I ran the world it would be a much different place. But I will make my stand and do my part. I can do no other.

Happy Transgender Day of Visibility to those who celebrate.

May your future be a kinder and more supportive place than it is now.