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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Grist for the Mill » National Review Editor Characterizes the Holocaust as "Sensible"

   
Author Topic: National Review Editor Characterizes the Holocaust as "Sensible"
MattLeo
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Now before I post the link to the blog post in question, I'd like to say I would not dream of saddling my conservative friends with any of the opinions expressed in the post, other than perhaps that we on the left are naive and a bit thick-headed.

No.

I think we can all on the left or right agree that genocide is bad, and that the genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust wasn't a good thing for the German people. What I'd like to is hold this up as a real-world example of spectacularly faulty, tunnel-vision reasoning:

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/339003/president-obama-commemorates-senseless-holocaust-eliana-johnson.

I think this is worth studying as writers, because it's an example of an apparently benign stage in the development of a malignant public delusion. I don't think she is arguing that the Holocaust was *justified*, but she's arguing for a lemma that, were it proven true, would be a significant step towards justifying the Holocaust, namely, that the genocide of the Jews was somehow *rational*.

It isn't hard for any of us, I trust, to see the problems with that notion. Some forty years earlier Mark Twain put his finger on the real issue:
quote:
I am persuaded that in Russia, Austria, and Germany nine-tenths of the hostility to the Jew comes from the average Christian's inability to compete successfully with the average Jew in business.
Is it rational for a nation to secure its economic future by murdering its most productive citizens? Obviously not. Would anyone really want to argue that getting 1/3 of the electorate to vote for some party means that its policies make sense? I am certain this is principle nobody would subscribe to if they knew it was going to be applied honestly.

But that's the thing about authoritarianism. It's not about applying principles honestly, it's about compelling useful belief. I am reminded of an extraordinary dinner I had when I was in high school at the home of some Jewish friends. Also guests were a German couple who'd been children in WW2. They hadn't had any Jewish neighbors but admitted that if they had, they probably would have turned them in, "because we were brainwashed."

Brainwashing is about turning off critical thought; it doesn't work if people listen to what they themselves are saying and thinking.

Some time ago I did a few days of writing research on white supremacist, neo-nazi and Christian Identity websites, and what struck me is how, if you turned off your suspicious critical faculties for a moment, they could start to sound almost reasonable. They weren't advocating (they claimed) hatred of other races, only love of the "White Race". You had to listen carefully to everything being said and stitch the whole together. Hatred of the Jews was optional, but so was love; and the Jews were an inferior race responsible for all the troubles of the White Race and were, in fact, a positive threat the White Race's continued existence. The conclusion of how you were supposed to feel about the Jews didn't have to be stated; it was an obvious consequence of other things that were stated.

It might seem a stretch to get anyone to believe all these propositions, but it's not so hard if everyone you talk with believes them without question, and not believing them means ostracism.

It all starts, I think, with not being able to think about the words that are coming out of your own mouth. That's not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon either, as is shown by Stalin's pogroms against the "kulaks" -- wealthy Russian and Ukrainian peasant farmers.

I think writers have a role to play in the encouragement of critical thought, by modeling it, by holding it up for admiration, and by exposing the viciousness of credulous scapegoating.

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As usual, well articulated and well written, Matt Leo--and so apropos with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day just passed. You should have a blog (do you?).

The commentary within the National Review regarding President Obama's choice of words in speaking at the Remembrance Day commemoration I find actually consistent with what you share.

The NR writer is not "justifying" the Holocaust anymore than the President is offering an apology for it--i.e. it would be so easy to dismiss the Holocaust as an example of the German "senseless violence" toward Jews.

It was not "senseless". It was deliberate.

If something is "senseless", you cannot explain it. What makes the Holocaust so terrible is that it was rationally and intentionally committed by the German government, its people, the people of the nations they conquered (Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, French, etc.), and even abetted by the Allies in limiting and even turning away Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Jew-hatred (antisemitism) was the root cause of the Holocaust, and was something the Nazis as well as the peoples they conquered, and even those they fought (to some degree) shared.

And it still persists. Thus, it is important not to dismiss the Nazi's actions as "senseless," but to identify their purposeful crimes and hold this up in the face to all those who espouse similar views today, whether as blatant Jew-hatred or in the false disguise of anti-Zionism, etc.

The NR writer is correct in clarifying that for the Germans of the time the Nazi "Final Solution" was not senseless. The Nazi's believed they were justified, even "elected" (in the sanctimonious not political sense) to, as modern day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says of their descendants in Israel, "wipe them off the map." The Nazi's saw this as their duty, not only to the German people, but to all humanity; and they then efficiently and systematically undertook the task with rational deliberation.

Their Jew-hatred, and their methods and intent were not "senseless".
They were evil.

Good Shabbos!

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MattLeo
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Well, Dr. Bob, I think a lot depends on how you think the writer construes the word "senseless".

In the liberal blogosphere, it's taken for granted that she means "unjustified", which would mean that she thinks that the Holocaust was "justified" or at least "defensible". That's obviously a deliberately over-extreme interpretation. I actually think you go to far the other way, taking her to interpret "senseless" as meaning "inexplicable". It can mean that of course, but it would be odd to accuse anyone of believing the Holocaust was inexplicable because an obvious explanation is that the Nazis hated Jews.

I fall somewhere in between; I think she took it to mean "pointless". In evidence I submit her citing of several ostensibly reasonable (in her words "non-senseless") goals in the Nazi platform, including unification of all Germans, land to sustain the German people economically, and the maintenance of the distinctions between the Jewish and Aryan race.

My opinion is that with the exception of maintaining racial distinctions (a somewhat scientifically dubious goal), there is no rational basis for thinking the genocide of the Jews served any of the goals in the Nazi platform, or the national interests of Germany. For example, exterminating Jews did nothing for the goal of land and economic sustenance for the German people, because the Jews didn't have any land and they were net job creators.

The Holocaust was irrational, although obviously explicable in terms of human irrationality. It was a catastrophe for the German people, as well as the rest of antisemitic Europe -- Poland especially.

One thing I learned by my research into white supremacist thinking is not to take anything an authoritarian says at face value. You've got to listen and observe carefully, because there's usually an element of specially engineered jargon in their speech, and it all gets wrapped up into a ball of glittering generalities.

If you examine them, some of the "non-senseless" goals in the Nazi program start to look more vicious. Take "land for the German people". What this means is seizing lands in other countries like Czechoslovakia where Germans emigrated in past centuries. That's like Mexico scheming to annex California and Texas.

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Robert Nowall
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You are taking Eliana Johnson's commentary on President Obama's over-frequent use of the word "senseless" to describe tragic events, for Eliana Johnson's own opinion of the Holocaust.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
You are taking Eliana Johnson's commentary on President Obama's over-frequent use of the word "senseless" to describe tragic events, for Eliana Johnson's own opinion of the Holocaust.

No, I assume she disapproves of the Holocaust and is amazed at the reaction she is getting (unless she was trolling).

This may sound a bit odd, but I'm not so much concerned with her opinion of the Holocaust as I am about the arguments she is making. The simplest way to deal with it is to dismiss it as a straw man, which it is, but I think in her argument she attributes more rationality to the Holocaust than is justifiable, and more honesty to Nazi justification of the Holocaust than is justifiable.

You can't argue that Obama is overusing the word "senseless" unless you are arguing that "senseless" is an inappropriate word to use. In fact, you have to either demonstrate that *no* sense of the word "senseless" applies, or that the president was clearly using the *wrong* sense of the word.

Ms. Johnson's post is, at best, a sloppy piece of writing, so it's not entirely clear what position she is attributing to the president. Key in that sloppiness is her use of the word "non-senseless" to apply to Nazi justifications of the Holocaust. It was intended to be ironic, but unless she is completely clear about which sense of the word "senseless" she's attacking, we don't know how we should understand the word "non-senseless" to mean.

If by "non-senseless" she means "explicable" (as Dr. Bob charitably suggests), it makes no sense to apply the adjective "non-senseless" to Nazi justifications, because if you take those justifications as sincere (which she apparently does) they ipso facto explain the Holocaust. If you don't take those justifications as sincere, then they do not explain anything and have no bearing on whether the Holocaust was explicable. So in the *most* charitable construction of her words, she is either making entirely irrelevant arguments or giving Nazi ideology more credence than it deserves.

I agree that the intepretation that she thinks the Holocaust is justfiied reads too much into her words. But short of reading *nothing* into her words whatsoever, it's hard to put a pretty face on her argument.

It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but when dealing with authoritarian arguments (on the right OR the left), it's important to examine them closely and carefully because they're carefully crafted to sound more reasonable than they are. Authoritarians frequently argue on more than one level at once saying one thing in plain words but delivering highly emotionally charged implication, as in the claim that neo-nazis make that they don't hate the inferior races (while having every reason to).

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Matt,

What is notable, therefore, is how words are transmutable in the mind of the reader.

You (based on your thread title) and others who commented on the writer's op-ed in the National Review interpreted the writer's words one way and I (as a member of a family of Holocaust Survivors) interpreted them another.

One set of words and diametrically opposed understandings!

How much can an author protect against this to preserve her (or his) meaning and intent? That is the real lesson.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MattLeo
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quote:
One set of words and diametrically opposed understandings!
Dr. Bob -- That's because you are nicer than me! [Smile]

But let me reiterate that unlike most of the people responding to her bog entry, I don't think this person approves of the Holocaust. I take it that she thinks it made sense, in the same way that robbers stealing from banks makes sense but stealing from soup kitchens would not. I happen to think she's wrong in that regard, that the German national interests she identified were not in any rational way served by genocide.

I also believe the answers to this kind of question are important to get right. It reminds of that reminds me of Christian "just war" theory, where one of the first hurdles a belligerant action has to pass is the question "will this succeed?" That's because destructive actions are *sometimes* justifiable in terms of their desired effects, but are *never* justifiable the desired effects can't be achieved that way. Thus one might argue either way as to whether the firebombing of Dresden was too savage to be justifiable, but had not legitimate military aims been achievable through bombing, *and had the Allies knew this*, you'd be forced to classify the attack as an act of genocide.


quote:
How much can an author protect against this to preserve her (or his) meaning and intent?
By writing better than this person does -- which shouldn't be hard!
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LDWriter2
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When I first read this I was a bit busy and second I wasn't totally sure why you put it up Matt.

I was thinking it may have had to do with your last sentence.

quote:
I think writers have a role to play in the encouragement of critical thought, by modeling it, by holding it up for admiration, and by exposing the viciousness of credulous scapegoating.
I was also unsure how to respond to a couple of your comments without sounding political.

But in this discussion about what the person actually meant I do have a comment.

I can see why some people would read it as her approving of the holocaust especially when you consider that there seems to be an uptick in anti-Semitism. It's not a good thing and some groups are already fighting it but it's there.

Making a point like this has been done before and usually it does led to misunderstandings. It takes a very careful reading and maybe even knowing the writer to see what the point really is.

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Robert Nowall
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It's hard to avoid being political when discussing either Obama or the National Review. And their site tends to crash my web browser...I much prefer the print edition.

But I don't see anything wrong with the blog post---not the subject, not the handling of the subject---which is about Obama's overuse of the word "senseless," whether appropriate or not---and not the writing in the blog post.

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Robert Nowall
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Did you see Eliana Johnson's followup to her original blog post?

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/339583/senseless-violence-eliana-johnson

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rcmann
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This is where the different paradigms come into play. People regard human nature differently. The way one interprets behavior such as genocide will depend on the paradigm that one follows. To a person of strong religious beliefs, who holds a powerful sense of absolute right and wrong, it is easy. Nazi=Evil.

To someone who believes that people are primarily the product of environmental conditioning, it's more complicated. Then you have to get into what caused people to act this way. To people who emphasize nature over nurture, one might simply say that the primal beast within broke free of its conditioning.

And of course, there are other possible ways of looking at it, including every possible blend of the above and more besides.

I get the impression that the author of the article is operating under a paradigm that emphasizes personal choice and free will, and minimizes any attempt to assign responsibility to an external source for one's choices. Although that may be just my impression. By that paradigm, if I am reading it correctly, it sounds like she is saying that refusing to acknowledge her viewpoint is equivalent to minimizing the severity of the matter.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Did you see Eliana Johnson's followup to her original blog post?

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/339583/senseless-violence-eliana-johnson

I have, and I'm not impressed.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
This is where the different paradigms come into play. People regard human nature differently. The way one interprets behavior such as genocide will depend on the paradigm that one follows. To a person of strong religious beliefs, who holds a powerful sense of absolute right and wrong, it is easy. Nazi=Evil.

Which is fine, as long as you understand that evil impulses are something that nobody is completely free of. Everybody has the capacity to do evil, or to serve evil.

quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:

I get the impression that the author of the article is operating under a paradigm that emphasizes personal choice and free will, and minimizes any attempt to assign responsibility to an external source for one's choices. Although that may be just my impression. By that paradigm, if I am reading it correctly, it sounds like she is saying that refusing to acknowledge her viewpoint is equivalent to minimizing the severity of the matter.

Actually, I get the impression that she got caught equivocating, making a straw man argument, and engaging in some extremely weak historical argument. The equivocation and straw man are no big deal these days, but the historical argument is where she got into big trouble.

You can't take a glittering generality like "personal responsibility" and slap it on a position to make that position valid. You've got to *show your work*, connect the dots. This is where she fell down in her original post, when she cited Nazi justifications of the Holocaust as "non-senseless" causes of the Holocaust. This is the way an authoritarian argues; he justifies his crimes with glittering generalities, but if you attempt to connect the dots the illusion of reason is dispelled.

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LDWriter2
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
It's hard to avoid being political when discussing either Obama or the National Review. And their site tends to crash my web browser...I much prefer the print edition.

But I don't see anything wrong with the blog post---not the subject, not the handling of the subject---which is about Obama's overuse of the word "senseless," whether appropriate or not---and not the writing in the blog post.

Actually, I thought his post even though close to politicking was Okay, its just that a couple of my comments on some of what he said might go over the line here.
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LDWriter2
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quote:
Originally posted by rcmann:
This is where the different paradigms come into play. People regard human nature differently. The way one interprets behavior such as genocide will depend on the paradigm that one follows. To a person of strong religious beliefs, who holds a powerful sense of absolute right and wrong, it is easy. Nazi=Evil.

To someone who believes that people are primarily the product of environmental conditioning, it's more complicated. Then you have to get into what caused people to act this way. To people who emphasize nature over nurture, one might simply say that the primal beast within broke free of its conditioning.

And of course, there are other possible ways of looking at it, including every possible blend of the above and more besides.

I get the impression that the author of the article is operating under a paradigm that emphasizes personal choice and free will, and minimizes any attempt to assign responsibility to an external source for one's choices. Although that may be just my impression. By that paradigm, if I am reading it correctly, it sounds like she is saying that refusing to acknowledge her viewpoint is equivalent to minimizing the severity of the matter.

I think you have a point here, I have read and heard people who have a different paradigm. Sometimes what they say seems to come out of left field.

But I would be somewhat surprised if you are correct about this person's paradigm, that one doesn't fit with the usual comments from that side.

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Robert Nowall
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I think I've put my finger on what bothers me about this whole line of argument. It comes across as this: "I take exception to what I suppose this writer's line of argument to be, and, besides that, she's a bad writer."

I'd discuss how the Left often treats creative types who cross them in some way, but I fear that discussion would become political in nature. Unfortunate.

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