A Spokesperson For The Ages

Normally, you would think that a public official would pick a spokesperson based on that person’s ability to shape and convey positive and persuasive messages that advanced the public official’s agenda.  And when the “public official” in question is the President of the United States, whose every move is put under a microscope, you would think the careful messaging requirement would be even more essential.

So how in the world did Sean Spicer end up as the White House press secretary?

trumpSpicer’s comment yesterday that suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was in some ways worse than Adolf Hitler, because “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” is unforgivably ignorant — because, of course, Hitler did use poison gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  Children are taught that fact during their world history classes, and the national Holocaust Museum is only a mile or so away from the White House.  How can you be the press secretary for the President of the United States and not be aware of the fact of Hitler’s poison gas executions and avoid making a comment that suggests that you are a know-nothing fool?

Spicer later apologized, but the entire incident raises questions about Spicer and his staff.  Spicer’s abrasive style clearly rubs the press the wrong way, and it has been hilariously lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.  There’s nothing wrong with having a combative press secretary if that is the President’s way of sending a message to the media, although Spicer often seems over the top for my tastes.  But you can’t have a press secretary whose behavior and comments make him the story that distracts from, and undercuts, the President’s goals.  Don’t Spicer and his staff prepare for his press conferences, and carefully consider the arguments he is going to present before he goes before the country and makes them?  If so, how could his staff not recognize the fundamental, underlying idiocy of his comparison of Assad and Hitler?  And if they don’t vet his arguments, and Spicer just “wings it,” then he’s an incompetent whose instincts are obviously ill-suited for the job, and it’s just a matter of time before he makes another thoughtless and stupid comment that sets off another firestorm or provokes an unintended international incident.

Either way, Spicer should be replaced as press secretary.  President Trump might like his two-fisted way of dealing with the press that Trump seems to hold in contempt, but he’s got to realize that Spicer is a huge liability who is just going to step into it again, and again, and again, and make the Trump Administration as a whole look like amateur hour.   That’s not the kind of messaging you want from your press secretary.

Jews In Europe, Again

On Saturday, a gunman in Copenhagen went on a rampage at a free speech event and then shot and killed a Jewish man guarding a synagogue before being killed by police; Danish authorities think he may have been trying to recreate last month’s murderous attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and a kosher supermarket, in Paris.  On Sunday, hundreds of Jewish tombs were desecrated in eastern France.  Surveys of Jews in Europe show increased worries about anti-Semitism, and a recent hidden camera video shows a Jewish man being insulted, spat upon, and threatened as he walked the streets of Paris.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded to the Denmark incident by calling for Jews to emigrate to Israel; he said Jews deserve protection in every country but warned that the attacks will continue.  Some Jewish leaders in Europe rejected that call, arguing that, in one man’s words, for Jews to leave Europe would be handing Hitler a “posthumous victory.”  They contend, instead, that Jews should remain and advocate for increased democracy, vocal rejection of anti-Semitism by governments in the Eurozone, and increased police protection of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

What should Jews do?  No one is predicting a second Holocaust — but no one predicted a first Holocaust, either.  No one wants to retreat in the face of depraved and murderous attacks, but would you want to continue to expose your family and children to potentially unsafe conditions and a culture in which slurs and physical intimidation are increasingly commonplace?  It’s an impossible individual choice, being made against the dark historical backdrop of genocide that happened on the European continent less than a century ago.

The burden instead must fall on governments to stop Europe from backsliding into hell.  Protest marches and public pronouncements are nice, but more must be done to stop the anti-Semitic wave, demonstrate the commitment to a Europe that welcomes and includes Jews, culturally and politically, and aggressively identify and prosecute the perpetrators of street bullying, vandalism, shootings, and every other anti-Jewish criminal act.  Americans can reinforce that message by not spending their money in Europe unless action is taken.

If people are to leave the European continent in the wake of an anti-Semitic wave, it should be the wrongdoers, not the persecuted.

At The Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Memorial

IMG_6154Earlier this month, the newest memorial on the Ohio Statehouse grounds was dedicated.  Located on the State Street side, it is a memorial to the millions who died during the Holocaust — and to the soldiers who helped to liberate them.

The memorial is The Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial.  It consists of two massive steel and bronze pieces that fit together to leave a symbolic empty space in the shape of the Star of David; the pieces are engraved with statements about the Holocaust.  A granite walkway leads up to the memorial, bordered by a low limestone wall that reads:  “Inspired by the Ohio Soldiers who were part of the American Liberation and Survivors who made Ohio their home” and adds, “If You Save One Life, It Is As If You Saved The World.”

The holocaust memorial is a worthy addition to the wide array of public art on the Statehouse grounds.  May we always be reminded, and may we never forget.

IMG_6150

Holocaust Survivors

Richard has a fine story in the Post-Gazette about a meeting of Pittsburgh-area survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but it’s heartwarming to know that they meet, remember, and worry about whether that especially unforgivable, murderous chapter in the sordid history of the human race can happen again.

Reading Richard’s story reminded me of the first time I focused on the fact that I met a Holocaust survivor. I was traveling through Europe and encountered a vivacious older woman, probably in her 50s, with flaming red hair and an outgoing personality. We were talking, she shifted in her seat and moved her arms, and a crude numerical tattoo that I hadn’t noticed before was exposed. I looked at it and realized what it was, and she saw that I had seen it and decided to tell her story.

Her name was Bella and she was from Poland, she said. When she was young, the Nazis came and took her family away. She never saw her father and brothers again. She was separated from her mother, and she and her sister lived in one of the Nazi death camps. Her sister died, but somehow she survived. When the war ended and she was miraculously freed, she found that her entire family had been killed — but she felt it was essential that she live on. She related her story in a flat voice, and you could tell that she lived with those horrible ghosts and memories, but there was a definite steeliness to this woman who had endured so much.

Talking to her, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a member of the race that could commit such a monstrous act. I also was uplifted, however, by her positive attitude and by her view that, by surviving and going on, she was spitting in the eye of Hitler and the Nazis and their idiotic notions of an Aryan “master race.” There is still much to be learned from victims of the Holocaust.

Documenting The Axis Of Evil

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as parts of an axis of evil in the world. He was criticized by some for not engaging in constructive dialogue with those entities, but now a detailed United Nations report shows just how extraordinarily evil the North Korean regime really is.

The 400-page report was released by a specially appointed UN Commission. It compares the crimes being committed in North Korea to those that occurred in Nazi Germany, and for once the conclusion is apt rather than reckless hyperbole. Through interviews with refugees and victims, the report documents the starvation, torture, discrimination, and repression that are key elements of the North Korean regime. It describes how North Korea operates a system of unspeakably cruel labor camps and prisons, where inmates are starved, murdered, raped, and subjected to forced abortions; escapees described prisoners being forced to drown their own children and dig their own graves before being murdered by guards with hammers.

The atrocities in the labor camps have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, and hundreds of thousands more have died through starvation as a result of governmental policies that use the supply of food to keep the population under control. The report finds that North Korea also practices discrimination against women and others in a rigid, state-assigned class system, prevents the free exercise of thought, conscience, and religion, and operates a police state in which security forces use violence and cruel punishments to create a climate of fear.

The UN report reminds us of the Holocaust and calls for prompt international action to end the atrocities of an evil government, but that is not likely to happen. North Korea denies all of the allegations of the report. More importantly China, North Korea’s ally and protector, indicates that it will not support any intervention. As awful as the North Korean regime is, and as terrible as the suffering of its people may be, the international community has few options short of invasion — and there does not seem to be much appetite for such a step.

So, we are left with a report that probably will not change the reality in North Korea — but that report nevertheless serves a useful purpose. There truly is evil in the world, and it is important for us to be periodically reminded of that unfortunate fact.

The Persistent Scourge Of Anti-Semitism

The World Jewish Congress typically holds its annual meeting in Jerusalem.  This year, however, the group is meeting in Budapest, Hungary — for a reason.

The WJC wants to spotlight the rise of anti-Semitism in eastern Europe.  And sure enough, the presence of the WJC caused the anti-Semites to come crawling out of their holes, spewing their hateful rhetoric.  The Chairman of the Jobbik Party — which sounds like a Tolkien character but is the third-largest party in Hungary — accused Israelis of trying to buy the country, and another Jobbik member of Parliament said his country had become “subjugated to Zionism” and was the target of “colonization” by Israel.  The ugly speeches and slanderous scapegoating are chillingly familiar and profoundly disturbing.

I commend the World Jewish Congress for confronting the anti-Semites, and for exposing the unfortunate truth:  unbelievably, even after anti-Semitism caused millions of Jews to be slaughtered in the Holocaust, there remains a deep vein of anti-Semitism in the world.  It shows up every now and then, in the rise of political parties like Jobbik, in the rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or in the efforts of Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to obtain a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a libelous piece of venomous anti-Semitic propaganda that has motivated generations of bigots.

It’s important not to ignore the signs of anti-Semitism.  The years before the Holocaust showed that merely hoping that right-thinking people will ultimately prevail isn’t good enough — anti-Semitic rhetoric and conduct needs to be confronted and defeated.  That’s why moving the World Jewish Congress meeting to Budapest was the right thing to do.

The Hitler Brand

What is it about Adolf Hitler that causes businesses in foreign countries to use his name to market their products?

First it was “Fuhrerwein” being sold in northern Italy, now it’s a Hitler clothing store — complete with a circular swastiska dotting the “i” — that has opened in a city in western India.  The owner says that he didn’t know that Hitler was the name of a Nazi dictator who gave the order to kill millions of innocent Jews.  Instead, he claims, “Hitler” was just a nickname given to the “very strict” grandfather of a friend.  Really?  And the very strict grandpa dotted the “i” with a swastika?  Give me a break!

It turns out that Hitler is popular in certain parts of India, because he is viewed as giving “dignity and prestige” to Germany.  Apparently Indian schoolbooks don’t teach people that he was a mass murderer whose bloody dictatorial reign made Germany a pariah state that, even now, 70 years later, is still trying to to live down the inexplicable horror of the Nazi years.

But hey . . . if using the name Hitler and the swastika brings curious people into the store and results in a few purchases that might not have occurred otherwise, what’s the harm of trading on the name of one of history’s most evil figures?

 

Hitler And The Holocaust

It is hard to imagine that, nearly 65 years after the end of World War II, there are many new secrets to learn about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler.  Nevertheless, historians think they might learn something new from the memoirs of Fritz Darges, who died recently at age 96.  Darges was Hitler’s last SS adjutant, serving from 1940 to 1944, and was present for all major conferences on the war during that time.

What I found surprising about this article is that some revisionist historians apparently have argued that Hitler knew nothing of the Holocaust.  Therefore, there is interest in whether Darges’ memoirs will confirm that Hitler in fact was aware of the Holocaust.

It is hard to believe that a compelling case can be made that a rabid anti-Semite who was the absolute leader of a totalitarian regime could be completely clueless about an operation on the magnitude of the Holocaust, with its specific purpose of addressing the “Jewish problem” that Hitler himself had repeatedly discussed.  How could Hitler be unaware of a program that involved the construction of multiple work camps and death camps, the organized round-up of millions of Jews throughout occupied Europe, the use of dedicated trains to transport Jews to Auschwitz and other hellish locations, and countless other indications of organized murder on an unprecedented scale?  Does anyone really believe that the Nazi officials directly involved in planning and executing the Holocaust did not boast of their activities to the Fuehrer whose crazed writings and speeches on the subject demonstrated that he would be a receptive and enthusiastic supporter of what they were doing?

 

“Inglourious Basterds” Review

inglorious-basterds1

Yesterday, my friends and I went to the Arena Grand to see Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds, which he has supposedly been working on for almost a decade. At the very end of the movie, after carving a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead, Brad Pitt’s character turns to the camera and says “I think this is my masterpiece.” Obviously, Quentin Tarantino was speaking to the audience with this line, and is quite proud of this movie.

Tarantino should be proud. He took his usual routine – humorous violence, cool villains, non-stop cheesy pop culture references – and made it work in the setting of the Holocaust, a historical event that few like to joke about, at least openly. Tarantino’s style is toned down slightly, since the 1940s didn’t have the cheesy pop songs or fast food orders of the late 20th century, but everything is still there. When one character, known for killing dozens of Nazi SS officials, is introduced, his name shoots across the screen in bold, bright letters that look like they came from the seventies, and a power guitar chord is sounded. The movie also features a montage set to David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s early eighties hit “Cat People”.

Despite Tarantino’s sarcasm, I never felt that the gravity of the Holocaust was disrespected. Brad Pitt’s crew of American Jews intent on killing as many Nazis as possible is always understood to be on a righteous mission, despite their ruthlessness. If anything, the Holocaust setting makes Tarantino’s formula work better. Tarantino’s movies have always glamorized violence, and the fact that most of the violence in Basterds is affecting Nazis makes it easier to enjoy. The scenes that show the violence and hatred of the Nazis are intense and could upset some people, but they served to make Brad Pitt’s murderous acts more excusable and, frankly, enjoyable. They are certainly easier to root for than John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction and even Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill.

The movie is flawed, mostly in the same ways all of Tarantino’s movies are flawed. The dialogue sometimes drags on too long and feels awkward, some characters (including Brad Pitt’s) are underdeveloped, and the movie itself is too long. But it is good, and Tarantino should get credit for presenting the Holocaust from a new, bold perspective, and doing so quite masterfully.