“His Own People”

“…if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’”-Oscar Wilde

You have undoubtedly by now heard about Sean Spicer’s comments at a White House briefing earlier today in which he compared the Assad regime to Hitler and seemed to suggest that Assad was way worse. After being asked to clarify his statement that Hitler had not sunk to the level of using chemical weapons he explained:

“He was not using the gas on his own people the same way…”

Spicer later went on CNN to apologize for what he said. “I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

I give Spicer some credit for saying “I apologize” rather than saying “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” But Spicer did not mis-speak, he mis-thought. The problem with his off-the-cuff response was not the comparison or the wording but the mindset that created it. Hitler did not kill “his people,” Spicer said. In Spicer’s understanding of the Holocaust, the category of “Germans” does not include the category of “Jews.” The Jews lived amongst the Germans, but were different from them. Thus the Germans committed violence against another people, not their own. We are used to this framing. Germans killed Jews. But, in fact, Germans killed Germans. They killed Germans who had a different religion.

Timothy Snyder put it powerfully the Guardian:

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus “unfit for life.” After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

This matters because when we fail to recognize the fallacy of the frame then we are at risk of behaving in the same way. When we define some group of our neighbors as fundamentally not us it rarely ends well.

A few days ago I recorded my thoughts after watching the film The Normal Heart, a movie that dramatizes the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community. I wrote about my own shameful lack of action when one of my floor mates cut out the picture of the president of the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance from the student paper and stuck it on the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and the words “No Lezzies.” I was able to stand aside because I did not see myself as the target. In that moment, I had decided along with the tormentors, to categorize that young woman as different, someone I could disassociate from, rather that as my fellow student and therefore like me.

A few years ago I read a book called Love the Sin by Jakobsen and Pellegrini. The authors took a look at newspaper and magazine headlines and examined who “we” were imagined to be, and who the headline writers imagined were “others.”

For example they took the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” And noted: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.”

The gay men who died from AIDS were not separate from the general public, they were part of the general public.

This mindset, that people who have a difference are not part of us, but are simply living amongst us, when carried to its extreme sees those others as the enemy within. It becomes quite easy to blame our social ills on them. When this is allowed to go unchecked, the consequences can be deadly.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen used the word “eliminationist” to describe this point of view in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The eliminationists, he argued, believed that “For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What ‘elimination’– in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness–meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitsm. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.”

Eliminationist rhetoric focuses on the enemy within and advocates for the elimination of that group.  In 2009 David Neiwart of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he described the “core myth” of such movements as palingenesis or “a Phoenix-like national rebirth.”

Today we are once again hearing a lot of talk about alien invaders of the American body social. This is combined with the idea of a national rebirth. We need to tread carefully.

To quote Snyder again, “To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat…The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged. ”

In my article on The Normal Heart, I had originally included one more paragraph about my time at this college. In the end, I cut it out. At the time, it seemed to personal, and I was not sure what point I was making with it. Here is what I left out: Ironically, or perhaps it was divine justice, only a few months later I was discriminated against for being a lesbian. Nothing had actually changed about me, but I had gotten on the wrong side of one of my roommates and she retaliated by spreading false rumors. I did not know that she had been doing this. I only knew that people suddenly seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder. After a few months of this, another roommate confessed that she now realized the other roommate was a pathological liar. She told me what she had heard about me, apologized for believing it and now she wanted to be friends. How could I? If she had been willing to tread me badly when she thought I was gay, how could I accept her friendship simply because she had decided I was not? You may think that you will never find yourself among “the others” but can you be sure of that?

I initially wrote and posted this article last night around midnight and it ended at the previous paragraph. This morning I woke up and read Snyder’s excellent article in The Guardian. He was making the same point I had been, but he articulated something better, I feel, than I did.

As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of “the people” they always meant “some people.” Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our “own people,” are more worthy of life than others.

First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of one’s own.

Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.

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