Monday, May 02, 2005

Holocausts and scapegoats
Mustang Bobby points out this column by Leonard Pitts, Jr. in today's Miami Herald.
Gay Holocaust?

That was the subject line of an e-mail I received last week from "Chris," a lawyer in a red state. He wanted to know if anybody else sees a similarity between the beginning of the Holocaust -- the nibbling away of rights and personhood that ultimately led to the attempted extermination of a people -- and what is happening to gay people in American right now.

He knows it's far-fetched. "But," he says, speaking of the conservative element that is pushing hardest against gay rights, "we are not dealing with normal people here."

Chris concedes that there are differences between the plights of Jews and gays. "But they also have this in common -- at one time in history, that time being the present for gays, they were the object of official government-sponsored hatred couched in the name of religion or morals."

Here's what I think:

The Holocaust is an atrocity unique in history, and I'm wary of appending modifiers: the "this" holocaust or the "that" holocaust. There's a reason the word takes a capital h.

Which is not to say the lawyer is off base. I've long felt the current spate of laws -- you can't do this because you're gay, can't have that because you're lesbian -- bears a discomfiting resemblance to Germany in the 1930s.

Both spring from a mind-set that says a given people is so loathsome, so offensive to our sensibilities, that we are obliged to place them outside the circle of normal human compassion. We don't have to hear their cries, don't have to respect their humanity, don't have to revere their tears, because they are less than we -- and at the same time, are responsible for everything that scares or threatens us.

Whatever it is, it's all their fault. Blame them, whoever "them" may be.

My problem is that I see human dignity as all of a piece. I don't know how to want it for me and mine but not for them and theirs. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, we are caught in a network of mutuality. As Dick Cheney put it, freedom means freedom for everybody. As Cain put it, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

I always considered that the signature lesson of the Holocaust; always felt that in the largest sense, it was not about Jews and Aryans, but about humanity and inhumanity. The Holocaust was, after all, only hatred carried to its logical extreme, the predictable outcome of an environment where we countenance taking rights from "them," heaping scorn on "them," making scapegoats of "them."

And who can deny that this describes the plight of gay Americans in 2005? Or that demagogic lawmakers are using this environment to further their own ambitions?

There used to be an expression in Southern politics. The candidate who lost because he had been found insufficiently draconian on racial issues was said to have been "out-niggered." These days, the worry seems to be that one might be "out-homoed." Consider, for instance, a law under consideration in Alabama to ban books with gay characters from public school libraries.

My only objections to the use of the phrase "Gay Holocaust" is that it is historically non-specific. There already has been a Gay Holocaust. It was part of the first Holocaust. While many groups suffered under Nazi rule, only a few were marked for total extermination: Jews, Gypsies, the Polish intelligentsia, Soviet commissars, and homosexuals. What do people thing those pink triangles refer to. Our work today is not to prevent a Gay Holocaust; our work is to prevent another Gay Holocaust.

As a lifelong Westerner (I've never been east of Billings), I would never have thought of the "out-niggered" parallel. I think that is one of the best parallels for the current situation that I have seen. I think it also think it shows the direction this kind of rhetoric is going. Hostility leads to exclusion which leads to elimination. In the US, we are less likely to have a German style Holocaust than to have Southern style lynchings with immunity or Ukrainian style pogroms. But I shouldn't get to comfortable with my Westernness and think that it vaccinates my neighbors from "Southern" behavior.

One of the recurring interpretations of the Holocaust is the Goldhagen Thesis, which claims that the Germans have a special talent for and inclination toward genocidal Anti-Semitism. I don't buy it. The problem with this kind of thesis, is that it absolves the rest of us of any responsibility. The Germans did that because "they" are not like us. This kind of "they" is just as corrosive as the "they" that allowed the Germans to remove and exterminate millions of their neighbors. Pitts points out that we and the victims are all part of the same humanity. That goes both ways; we also share the same basic humanity with the frightened killers.

At one time it was common to summarize the primary difference between liberals and conservatives as one of human nature. Liberals saw all humans as having the souls of angels who would act on their best impulses if only freed to do so. Conservatives saw all humans as having the souls of devils who would act out their worst impulses unless ruthlessly forced to behave. This attitude is still present, though somewhat modified. Lakoff points to it in his descriptions of the nurturing mother and stern father metaphors that form the basis of the liberal and conservative worldviews. In its purest form it is still visible in competing liberal and conservative theories of child-raising (Spock versus Dobson) and criminal law (rehabilitate versus punish).

Though I'm thoroughly in the liberal camp, I can't quite bring myself to make the old fashioned statement that people are born with the souls of angels. I'm more inclined to call it a blank slate. Most people have the same capacity for good or evil as any other person. It is shockingly easy to get the most decent people to commit or approve of the most evil acts. In this, I think we have moved from the attractive metaphysical metaphors of angels or demons into the more sterile social science metaphors of nature versus nurture. I'm sure you've heard the joke that liberals believe all behavior is learned, except sexual preference, while conservatives believe all behavior is inherited, except sexual preference. There is more than a wee bit of truth in that.

It's not a freak accident that I would prefer the science metaphor over the religion one. The liberal mindset is more comfortable with ambiguity and therefore more friendly to science. The conservative mindset is more absolutist and therefore more friendly to western style religion. But that is the subject for another post and another day.

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