Friday, August 14, 2009

Silence Is Not An Option

Michael Gerson's column today is an object lesson in being ridiculous. On the one hand, the whole, "I'm not the Nazi! You're the Nazi!" crap is truly stripping the word of any meaning whatsoever. Whether it's left or right, the end result is a schoolyard shouting-and-pushing match that leaves most of us bewildered.

On the other hand, leading his column with an anecdote from 1968 leaves me befuddled. While I am sure there are many readers of the Post who know who Gore Vidal was, most Americans probably don't. Furthermore, they couldn't give a fart in a hurricane for something that happened 40 years ago. I suppose this is Gerson's attempt to show that "both sides do it, so there, nyah", which kind of puts him in the same boat as the "I know you are, but what am I?" crowd. The entire thing, while attempting to bring a kind of gravitas and seriousness to the issue, ends up just being a mish-mash, because Gerson misses a point it is important to remember.

As horrific as the Nazi era was - and, while we're at it, the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge, and any number of places under dictatorial tyranny - they were not some kind of superlative, transcendent evil. They were, rather, as Richard Rubenstein reminds us, instances when humanity stretched beyond any limit of what it is conceivable to do to other human beings. Evil the things done in the name of these regimes most certainly were. But as historical events, they are also fully human events, capable not only of study and understanding, but pondering as we consider the possibilities that lie just over the horizon.

While it might be helpful to consider the social and political and cultural climate in Wiemar-era Germany that led to the rise of the Nazis (as well as the centuries-long history of German anti-Semitism and Pan-Germanism that fed this political disease), that there are elements of our current right that are acting as thuggish as some of the Brownshirts did in the final death throes of Weimar does not mean we are on the brink of the emergence of a former corporal to lead us to our destruction. While hardly a fan of elements of the right that seem to dance with the devil of armed resistance, I do not believe we have an SA waiting to arise to stamp out the socialists and academics and burn down synagogues. The American right is dangerous, to be sure, and the blood on its hands is all too real. But is it an American phenomenon, not a German one.

Richard Rubenstein wrote a little-noticed essay, The Cunning of History, at the height of the Nixon agonistes. The title alone declared his intent, and the theme of the essay, which is that, given the proper set of circumstances, the Nazis proved that anything is indeed possible, including the mass destruction of human life in the name of this or that political ideology. It does not trivialize evil to note that Rubenstein saw in the right, thirty five years ago, strings and themes that could weave themselves together in to a deadly pattern for our nation. It does not trivialize evil to recall that the history of dehumanization is not limited to Nazi Germany. We in the west have put very little value on human life in general, quite often slaughtering one another in great numbers over the slightest provocation. That the Nazis, or the American right, are simply instances of a larger human phenomenon needs to be remembered as a non-trivial fact.

Silence in the face of the Nazis, or any expression of massive evil, is not an option.

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