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Yom HaShoah

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Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. The past few days I have been involved in an argument about race, culture and loyalty over at Cobb’s.

My opponents hold that there are two kinds of people, racists and Progressives. I find that view insufficient. Prejudice and tolerance are seldom—these days, in this culture—so simply polar and superficially recognizable. The Shoah, in contrast, was entirely about blood. Ethnicity and loyalty were not important.

There is a line between intolerance and genocide. That line has been intentionally blurred:

Several years ago, too, the Anne Frank Haus in Amsterdam ended its sober tour through the famed annex where that young diarist and her family hid from the Nazis with a video-laden hortatory show about nearly every social injustice that could be enumerated. The passion may now be cooler, but the impulse remains. We learn from the Amsterdam museum’s Web site that an Anne Frank School — like those being established all over the world — “obliges itself to stand up for freedom, justice, tolerance and human dignity and to resolutely turn against any form of aggression, discrimination, racism, political extremism and excessive nationalism.”

It sounds like a warning against taking a stand on anything. Any fervent belief is one step toward the gas chamber.

We should all get along, become politically active and be very considerate of our neighbors. If not, well, the differences between hate crimes and the Holocaust — between bullying and Buchenwald — are just a matter of degree.

This fails. All political action is discriminatory. The difference is in the process by which victims are selected.

The impulse to tell the Holocaust story only in the context of elaborate generalizations has also helped justify its inclusion in school curriculums and helped obtain public financing for museums: The goal was not particular but general, not Judeocentric but humanitarian.

But what kind of history emerges as a result of these generalizations? History stripped of distinctions. To understand the Armenian genocide, for example, it is insufficient to treat it simply in passing, as if it resembled what happened to the Jews in Europe. Understanding it would mean examining the Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the 20th century, chronicling the relationship between Muslims and Christians on the borders of Europe, comprehending connections between the fates of Greeks and Armenians, and analyzing the imminent dissolution of that empire.

And the deeper one looks at the Holocaust itself, the more unusual its historical circumstances become. The cause of these mass killings was not “intolerance,” but something else, still scarcely understood. Making sense of the Holocaust would mean first comprehending the nature of hatred for Jews, surveying the place of Jews in European societies and dissecting the blindness of many Germans and most Europeans to the ambitions Hitler made so explicit.

These killings were not in the context of war over contested terrain; they often took precedence over the very waging of war. And they were accomplished not primarily through individual murders by sword or rifle, as so many other ethnic massacres before and since have been, but rather by harnessing the machinery of the era’s most advanced industrial society.

I believe I read it from Cobb that for all its propaganda value, the number of Negro lynchings was very small (thousands?). Whatever flaws there were in American culture, it was not the Shoah. And more importantly to the argument I was in, the American problem is solved.

Racism is not eliminated. Although it amuses me to see my antagonists unable to point to any direct and outright examples of anti-black racisim by whites. The evidence that supports their rage must all be interpreted and decoded first.

But how did the United States get to this point, where black folk are the most dominant faction in popular (entertainment) culture? And there’s a purportedly black fellow residing in the White House…?

Government intervention. As deeply as I mistrust government in principle, I must credit the Civil Rights Acts. Some other method, perhaps just the passage of more time, could have worked. And with a different set of costs. But legislation is the method that did work.

And this puts me in an odd position in regard to the conclusion of the article on Holocaust remembrances:

Intolerance is almost too easy an explanation, implying a comforting moral message. Instead, why not look at how Hitler’s powers might have been undercut before he began to wage the war in Europe and the war against the Jews? Wouldn’t an examination of those possibilities offer a more profound lesson about how to prevent genocide?

And how central is intolerance to genocide anyway? Many intolerant societies don’t set up bureaucratic offices to supervise efficient mass murder. Many people who consider themselves very tolerant are nonetheless blind to their own hatreds. There are even intolerant people who would still find genocide unthinkable.

Industrial genocide requires a large government. Repeating the Holocaust would not be possible under my anarcho-capitialist utopia. But lesser, crowd-sourced genocides would remain possible.

I have no tidy conclusion. Evil stands wherever men gather to decide.

H/T: Maggie’s Farm