Friday, May 02, 2008

Ahistoricality Alert: Unspeakably Banal

I've not been terribly vocal about the Democratic campaign -- neither Clinton nor Obama were my first choice, both have fairly similar policies (neither of which will be enacted in anything like their present form), both have a thin but adequate resume, both have substantial talents and drawbacks as potential chief executives and both are way better than McCain. I was shut out of our state caucuses, due to time-bound obligations, so I didn't have to chose. Also, I'm on hiatus, and find most of the strong pro/anti arguments pretty vacuous, also well-balanced.

But sometimes someone says something so ... well, I'll just quote her:
"They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white-collar service jobs, and no one said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced, and nobody said anything."

(The original reportage, with a bit more context, is here)
This is, obviously, a riff on Niemoller's famous formulation. As other Jews have pointed out, this comes just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I have two reactions to this, both negative.

The first, and more obvious one, is that it is tactless, inappropriate, banal and absurd to compare global trade shifts to the Holocaust. I'm not going to say "it's offensive" because there is no objective measure of offensiveness. I will say, however, that I am offended. It is a gross dimunition of the Holocaust -- an atrocity that slaughtered Jews, Romany, political dissidents, Slavic peoples, religious minorities, and the disabled -- to use this in a speech on unemployment.

Second, and perhaps less obvious, is the historical absurdity of the statement. Niemoller's poetic formula works because it was pretty close to truth: there was very little resistance or protest in Germany as the Nazi programs were rolled out and Volk, Lebensraum, Judenrein became official policy. Trade, on the other hand, especially global competition and relocation, has been a constant political and economic topic of discussion, protest, legislation and speculation for the last thirty years or more. It may be true that classes who felt "above" globalization didn't take it seriously until the effects became obvious, but it's not at all true that there's been no cross-class unity, and "leadership" from unions, think tanks, legislators, presidents, affected businesses, the WTO, and assorted commentators.

I don't know if Hilary Clinton thought it was just a rhetorically clever move, or if she really thinks that outsourcing is some sort of economic Holocaust which justifies the equation she's made. I don't care: as an historian and as a Jew (also partially Polish, leftist and former union member, all of which would have gotten me rounded up at some point), I am offended.


Anonymous said...

Can't agree with you more concerning the dullness of the dem debates and banality of pro/anti arguments for both Clinton and Obama.

Sometimes, though, it seems as if the Clinton people are trying to screw up. The fear-mongering 3am ad, the bad civil rights movement history, the race card bizness, and now inappropriate holocaust references? How many times do they have to completely blow it before the democrats finally lose patience?

Anonymous said...

I'm neither Jewish nor of Polish descent, but I'm offended too. They've made Holocaust a dog whistle word, just as Bush has done with 9-11. Outsourcing vs. mass murder: hmm, let me think about it. Nope, not the same thing. Not even in the same universe.

Had I not already cast my vote last month, this would strongly influence me. I'm glad you called her on it.

Ahistoricality said...

Thanks, Terry, and Mr. Alarm.

It just gets worse and worse. Today the NYT reports her saying "Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans."

This was by way of a blanket dismissal of economists who find her gas tax "holiday" proposal absurd. It's scorched earth rhetoric, a way to try and silence critics by lumping them together as anti-American. It's an attempt to avoid very real questions from bipartisan and nonpartisan analysts, and it taps into an anti-intellectualism which is, frankly, corrosive.

But then, I'm an educated person: must be one of those anti-american elites.....

Anonymous said...

As one whose SPD grandfather was sentenced to death in 1933 and whose uncle lost his family in the Holocaust, I am not just offended, but feel violated in some way. The only word for this is sick.

The statement itself has been banalized in the past by people who misuse and misunderstand it, but I think this is the first time it has been twisted beyond recognition.

I'm going yo make this the post of the week on my blog.

Ahistoricality said...

Thanks, Ralph!

I really am surprised there hasn't been more discussion of this one.