Tag Archives: Holocaust

Hitler, Assad, Trump, Spicer, Godwin, Sarin, Zyklon B, Chemical Weapon, Termites

Why Hitler is Different

Hitler is not entirely different from Pol Pot, Stalin, and the other mass killers. He is not entirely different from other fascists. But there is a short list of people, with Hitler on that list, who have this characteristic: They were so bad that we can not and should not compare their badness to each other outside of certain limited academic contexts, and they were so bad that any comparison made between them and their works to anyone not on that list, or to their works, threatens to devalue their badness.

We can not devalue the evil of Hitler or his kind. Historically, Hitler is our contemporary. His Holocaust was horrible and it could happen again. Oh, and this: It really happened. “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”*

The third or fourth most common fallacy on the Internet is that Godwin’s Law prohibits making references to or comparisons with Hitler or Nazis. This is untrue. Godwin is not a law, but an observation, that among certain sorts of internet denizens, given enough time, someone would make a Hitler or Nazi comparison. And, it was a joke. It was Godwin’s Joke.

But, that fact that Godwin’s Law does not actually exist does not mean blithe comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are not frequently unwise. However, the fact that such comparisons are frequently unwise does not mean that they are always unwise for the same reasons.

When people compare Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler appropriately (meaning, in a defensible manner helpful to understanding current events by reference to history) they are potentially doing a good thing. Making that comparison to Hitler that devalue Hitler’s badness is always bad, even though that is usually not the intent of the comparison. Simply saying that Trump and Hitler are the same is an example of that. The comparison that I’ve seen that does potentially make sense, and that does not devalue the horrors of the past, is really one comparing the people and politics now to the people and politics then.

Here is the argument for that.

If we regard Trump as a demagogue who has never shown one iota of respect for the democratic process, then we may be very concerned that when push comes to shove, he’ll push the Constitution and the law out of the way and shove whatever he wants down our throats. He has said many things that indicate he is capable of this, and has even said things suggesting that he may be planning this. Since we can’t tell the difference between Trump’s purposeful bloviating and his incidental ignorance, we must assume that when he tells us that his popularity would go up if he murdered someone, that Trump murdering someone is on the list of possibilities. When he tells us that he intends to make Mexico pay for a wall, and since we know that the only way to force another country to pay for something they refuse to pay for is to take over their government, then the possibility that an invasion of Mexico is in fact on the table, as outrageous as that sounds.

If Trump is heading in the direction of tossing aside democracy, which as I’ve argued elsewhere would not be difficult in our system, given the fact that he is in charge of the most powerful country in the world, the possibility of a Hitler-resembling result has to be considered. Trump is a democratically elected leader of a country with elections. Hitler was too. Hitler became a fascist dictator. Trump talks like a fascist dictator, like a person who wants to be a fascist dictator. It is said that Trump’s followers feel dispossessed and that is why he won the election (I do not fully subscribe to that but it is said…) Same with Hitler’s supporters. Polls have indicated that many of Trump’s followers disdain democracy and would be OK with a dictatorship as long as it is their guy in charge. And so on.

The comparison between any rising leader with fascist tendencies supported by people who are not appalled by fascism, on one hand, with any or all actual historical fascists, is not only acceptable but necessary. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1” becomes “As the prospect of a fascist taking over the country grows larger, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” No longer a joke, is it?

Spicer’s Sin

Sean Spicer, the hapless presidential press secretary, made that Hitler comparison the other day, and outraged people. Then, of course, the Internet got it all wrong.

Spicer said,

We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II … You had someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons. If you’re Russia, you have to ask yourself if this is a country and regime that you want to align yourself with…When it comes to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing…In the way that Assad used them where he went into towns and dropped him down on innocents in the middle of town was not the same.

The Internet, in response, said,

Of course Hitler used chemical weapons on his own people, that’s what the Holocaust was, stupid! Zyklon B is what Hitler used, and that is a chemical weapon!

And, references to Zyklon B have increased dramatically. Zyklon B was one of the killing tools used during the Holocaust, the preferred gas chamber chemical.

The Internet is wrong about his in two important ways.

First, Spicer’s reference was not a sin because he messed up the chemical weapons problem (we’ll come back to that in a moment). His reference was a sin because he totally messed up history while at the same time equating Assad with Hitler. Now, nobody likes Assad, and it is quite possible (if not likely) that this jerk would be just as bad as Hitler if he was in Hitler’s boots. But he wasn’t, and therefore he didn’t. Hitler was Hitler because of what he thought and what he did, and whom he cultivated and surrounded himself with, and the historical contexts of his time allowing him to get away with certain things, and so on. Assad in a Tardis, replacing Hitler in 1938, might have even been worse than Hitler. But that didn’t happen. The comparison devalues Hitler simply because Assad, in the big historical pictures, is a real jerk, but in fact, a minor jerk. Hitler, by comparison, and Hitler’s Holocaust, is on the list of the worst things that happened ever.

Spicer was, however, trying to make a valid point but because a) he is ignorant of history and b) insensitive to the Hitler problem, totally screwed it up. Or at least, I think he was trying to make a valid point. Here is how I might have said it, subject to revision:

Assad’s use of chemical weapons goes against a global disdain for such things, that has been embodied in international law for decades. The Hague made them illegal at the end of the nineteenth century, and their occasional use has universally been regarded with disdain.

By the way, Hitler produced chemical weapons and had artillery shells armed with them, but never used them. There were plans for significantly expanding their production, never finished by the end of the war. While the Japanese used chemical weapons during that war, the Germans did not really do so. The reasons are not clear and this is a point of controversy among historians. The Germans relied a great deal in some theaters on horses, and despite their efforts, the Germans were not able to make an effective equine gas mask. The allies were known to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons, despite them being illegal, and Hitler was sufficiently afraid that they would be used in retaliation of German use that he never allowed armed munitians to be near front line officers, who might go rogue and fire them off.

What the Germans did do, in the war theater, was to use chemically produced gasses to clear mainly Russians out of underground bunkers, and in one or more cases, to kill large number of people hidden underground, in Odessa and various locations in the Crimea (See: “Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War”).

The second thing the Internet got wrong was the seemingly innocent but in fact very dangerous conflation of the idea of gassing people on the battlefield using a chemical weapon and gassing people in death camps as part of the Holocaust. The word “gas” is used in both places, but there is a nearly complete (see below) and critical distinction between the two. This may seem like an academic nitpic, but it is not.

At some point in the future, the future version of Colin Powell is going to explain to the UN, the US government, Congress, the American People, etc. that we need to invade a certain country because they have weapons of mass destruction. But it might be a lie, like it was last time. And, following our most recent bout of self inflicted ignorance, that lie could rely on the conflation of killing gasses used in warfare with killing gasses not used in warfare.

The former are restricted by international law and highly monitored. The latter are routinely produced in numerous factories around the world and used in agriculture and other areas. Zyklon B was an insecticide, then it was used to kill about 1 million people in the Nazi death camps. Then it was an insecticide again, and it still is. It is not the most commonly used insecticide, but it or a close version of it is still produced in various countries, and a wide range of roughly equivalent gasses are produced widely and used widely. If we want to say that these are “chemical weapons,” which is exactly what the Internet is insisting that we say right now, then we are handing Future Colin Powell Clone an argument to invade.

Now, I need to add an important detail. Even though Hydrogen cyanide (which is what Zyklon B delivers) is primarily an insecticide these days and not generally useful as a weapon of war, dropped on enemy troops or people and the like, it has been used for this. Zyklon A (called just “Zyklon” before “Zyklon B” came along) was actually used (not extensively) during World War I (called “The Great War” before “World War II” came along). So called “blood agents” using Hydrogen cyanide are among the chemicals listed as “chemical weapons” but they are not considered very effective or useful on the battlefield. Also, note, while Zyklon B was used to kill more people in the Holocaust other gasses were used that would have made even less effective chemical weapons, such as CO.

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 9.29.53 AMIt is not sufficient to say, as some will I’m sure, “it is too a weapon because it was used to harm or kill therefore it was a chemical weapon therefore shut up.” But that is simply wrong. Again: someday someone is going to argue for an invasion of some place because of WMD’s and the WMD’s are going to be pesticides manufactured in a legal and normal factory in that country for use in agriculture or other legal contexts. That’s going to happen no matter what. Let’s not lay the groundwork to make that easier.

The other part of Spicer’s remark that is clearly wrong is the idea that Assad attacked his own people last week, but Hitler “did not use gas” against his own people. The difference between using real chemical weapons vs. some other kind of gas on his own people is in this context a pedantic point. That it is pedantic in this context does not mean it is also pedantic in the context of what a Weapon of Mass Destruction is. It is partly because of Spicer’s ham handed treatment of the discussion that we might end up making this mistake where making the mistake has significant material and life threatening consequences. Yes, of course, Hitler attacked his own people. No, it really wasn’t using “chemical weapons” as they are defined by treaty and conventions of warfare. But no, it does not matter in understanding the idiocy of Spicer’s remarks — not the remarks but the idiocy. Never mind the additional complexity that the Jews and others were not Hitler’s own people according to Hitler, or that the Syrian “rebels” are not Assad’s own people according to Assad.

My advice to Spicer: Don’t ever make any references to history, because you know nothing about history. Try, generally, to say less because you almost always screw up whatever you say. Consider a different job, like the job you formerly had in the White House, as shown in the illustration to the right. And just, well, shut up.

The Norms of Society and Presidential Executive Orders UPDATE

A brief update: This morning, Senate Republicans set aside the rules that say that both parties must be present, with at least one member, for a committee vote to advance a Presidential nominee for a cabinet appointment.

In other words, as outlined below, our system is based not only on enforceable laws but also on rules that only work if everyone involves agrees to not be the bully on the playground who ignores the rules. The Republicans are the bully on the playground.

The system requires honest actor playing by agreed on rules. So, without the honest actor, you get this. This fits perfectly with Trump’s overall approach.

Democracy is not threatened by this sort of thing. Democracy was tossed out the window a while back when this sort of thing became possible, and normal. Whatever we see now that looks like democracy is vestigial.

Original Post:

The title of this post is based closely on the title of a statement posted by my friend Stephan Lewandowsky, representing the Psychonomic Society.

The post is the official statement by this scientific society responding to President Trump’s recent activities, and it begins,

Last Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops in 1945. U.S. President Trump marked the occasion with a statement, although it omitted any specific mention of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

On the same day, Trump also signed an executive order that banned citizens of 7 mainly Islamic countries from entering the United States.

This order—at least initially—also applied to legal permanent residents of the U.S. (“Green card” holders), thus barring them from re-entry to their country of residence after a visit abroad, as well as to dual nationals if one of their citizenships is from one of those 7 countries.

I’m going to use this as a starting point to discuss the most important thing you need to know about the situation in the United States right now.

You know most resources are limited. We can cook along ignoring this for long periods of time, ignoring a particular resource’s limitations, until one day something goes awry and that particular resource suddenly matters more and of it, we have less. So a competitive framework develops and then things happen.

It is the business of the rich and powerful to manipulate the world around them in such a way that when such a limitation occurs, they profit. Candidate Trump mentioned this a while back. A housing crisis is a good thing for a real estate developer. This is not because it is inherently good; a housing crisis can put a real estate developer out of business. But the developer who is positioned to exploit such a crisis, or any kind of economic or resource crisis, is in a good position when thing go badly for everyone else.

One of the long term goals of many powerful entities is to maintain working classes, or other lower classes of servitude, in order to have cheap labor and a market. This has been done in many ways, in many places, at many times. Much of our social history is about this. Many wars have been fought over this, and many social, cultural, and economic revolutions have occurred because of this.

And every now and then, a holocaust happens because of this. This is, in part, because of what I’ll term as Mischa’s Law. Mischa Penn is a friend and colleague who has studied race and racism across all its manifestations as represented in literature, but focusing on the Nazi Holocaust and the holocaust of Native Americans. Mishca’s Law is hard to understand, difficult to believe, enrages many when they hear it, and is often set aside as lunatic raving. Unless, of course, you take Mischa’s class on race and racism, get a few weeks into it, know enough about it. Then, he gives you the thing, the thing I call “Mischa’s Law” (he doesn’t call it that) and you go, “Oh, wait, of course, that’s totally true.” And then you get really depressed for a while, hate Mischa for a while, hate his class. Then, later, ten years later, a life time after you’ve taken the class, and you’ve graduated and moved on to other things, Misha’s Law is the only thing you remember from all the classes you took at the U, and you still know it is true.

The fundamentals are always in place for Mischa’s Law to take effect. Competition, limited resources, different social classes or groups, a limited number of individuals in power, etc. But we, in America, have lived in a society where checks and balances kept one ideology (including, sadly, my own!) from taking over for very long, and there is a certain amount of redistribution of wealth and power.

But over recent years, the rich and powerful have convinced the working class that the main way we distribute wealth, through taxes, is a bad thing, so that’s mostly over. Social welfare has become a dirty word. The rich are richer, the powerful more powerful, and those with little power now have almost no power at all. But we still had a governmental system of checks and balances, so that was good.

But then the system of checks and balances got broken. In fact, the entire system of government got broken. Did you notice this? What happened is, about half the elected officials in government stopped doing the number one thing they were supposed to do, and this ruined everything.

What was that one thing? This: play by the rules.

Playing by the rules requires both knowing the rules and then making an honest attempt to respect them. Not knowing the rules is widespread in our society. I’m sure the elected officials know the rules they are breaking, but increasingly, I think, the average person who votes for them has no clue what the rules are or how important it is that they be observed.

Imagine the following situation. You go to baseball games regularly, to see your team play. Let’s make this slightly more realistic and assume this is a Little League team.

One day a big scary kid who is a bully gets up to bat. The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. Strike one. It happens again. Strike two. One more time. Strike three.

But instead of leaving the batter’s box, the big bully kid says, “I’m not out, pitch it again.” The following several moments involve a bit of embarrassment, the coaches come out, some kids are yelling at the bully, one parent hits another parent, and finally, it settles down, but the game is ruined and everyone goes home.

Next game, same thing happens, but this time nobody wants a scene, so they let the pitcher pitch the ball until the bully hits a single. Then the game continues. But the next game, there are a few bullies, not just one, demanding that the rules be ignored for them, and some other players decide to ignore other rules as well, and pretty soon, there is nothing like baseball happening.

You see what happened here? I’m going to guess that you don’t quite see the key point yet. The reason you leave the plate and go back to the dugout when you get three strikes is NOT because of the properties of matter, gravity, magnetic attraction, the unstoppable flow of water or a strong wind. You are not blown, washed, pulled, pushed, or dropped by any force back into the dugout when you get three strikes. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, right?

No. Still not right. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, AND THEN YOU FOLLOW THE RULES.

The Republican party, about half the elected officials, have unilaterally decided, in state houses across the country and in the Federal government, to stop following the rules.

A few years ago, in the Minnesota State House, a Republican representative made the clear and bold statement that he represented only the voters in his district who voted for him, and not the other citizens. He was resoundingly condemned for doing this, and he backed off and stopped talking like that. But over time, in state houses across the country, and in congressional districts, this increasingly became the norm, for Republicans. The rule is, of course, that once elected you represent all the people of your district. But more and more Republicans decided that this rule did not apply to them. They only represent those who voted for them. Now, this is normal in the Republican Party, and the first Republican President to be elected after this change said during his first news conference after his election, prior to his inaugural, that blue states would suffer and red states would benefit from his presidency.

I’ll give you another quick example. In one of Minnesota’s legislative chambers, the chair, who is from the leading party, has the right to silence any legislature who gets up to speak if the topic being discussed is not related to the matter at hand on the floor. So, the legislature is debating a proposed law about bicycles. The Democrats are in charge. A Republican gets up and insists on talking about his horoscope. The Democratic chair of the chamber says something like, “Your remarks are not relevant to the matter at hand, sit down and be quiet.” Good rule.

Last time the Republicans were in charge in that Minnesota chamber, they did this to every single Democrat who stood to say anything about anything, including and especially the matter at hand. The Republicans disregarded the actual rule (that the chair can silence a member who is off topic) and misused the power (that the chair can silence any member) to their benefit.

Tump is not following the rules, the Republicans in Congress are not acting like a “check” on Trump, and we have seen government officials in the Executive branch, apparently, ignoring court orders.

Trump’s executive orders over the last few days have been an overreach of power. For example, in its initial and badly executed form, his “extreme vetting” plan removed the rights of green card holders. Two different court orders neutered at least parts of this executive order temporarily, but it is reported that some officials, working for the Executive branches, ignored the court order. Since these are basically cops ignoring an order from a judge, and judges don’t have a police force, there isn’t much that can be done about that. Cops are supposed to follow the orders of judges. That’s the rule. The only way the rule works is if the rule is followed. There is no other force that makes the rule work.

Trump’s apparent abrogation of previous decisions on major pipeline projects was done without reference of any kind to the regulatory process that had already been completed. Regulations are acted on by the Executive branch, but they come from laws passed by Congress, and the whole judiciary is involved whenever someone has a case that there is something amiss. Trump’s executive orders and memoranda related to the pipeline ignore all the different branches of government, departments, process, and rules of governing.

It would appear that Trump had brought together the two major changes in rule observation that have developed over the last 20 years in this country. First, like the average citizen (of all political stripes) he is ignorant of how anything works. Second, like the bully that stands by the batter’s box, he shall not observe any rule that he does happen to find out about.

You see, for a United States President to become a dictator, he has to do only one thing: Stop following the rules. The US Court System, the Congress, and the Executive exist in a system of checks and balances, and that is supposed to keep everybody, well, in check. And balanced. But the Executive is the branch of government with multiple police and security forces, an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, Marines, and a Coast Guard. There is a rule that only the Coast Guard can carry out military-esque activities on US soil. But there is a mechanism for putting that rule aside. The President puts the rule aside. That’s it.

We live in a world of limited resources, and a pre-existing system of inequity, class, and ethnic categorization that allows the powerful to exploit and control most everyone else. We live in a country in which a single individual can take over the government by getting elected president then ignoring the rules, whether or not he formally declares himself in charge of everything. There is no mechanism to stop this from happening. There are all sorts of rules in place to stop it, such as the political parties putting up qualified candidates, the electors making sure they elect a qualified candidate, the Congress certifying the election of qualified candidates. But those things did not happen, and we now have a man who by all indications intends to dictate, not lead, dictate not rule, dictate not represent. There is no indication of any kind whatsoever that we do NOT have an incipient dictatorship as our form of government right now, and there are strong indications that this is where Trump is going.

And this is where Mischa’s Law becomes a thing.

“Racism, left unchecked, will eventually lead to holocaust.”

The checks, they have been neutralized.

Hiding in the Open: A Holocaust Survivor's Story

In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and soon after Jews living in ghettos in Poland’s cities were identified, sequestered, rounded up, shipped off to work camps or concentration camps, and exterminated as part of what we know of today as the Holocaust. Several Jews managed to avoid being arrested by pretending to be something else, and some of those stories have been written up as histories or biographies.

One such story is that of Sabina S. Zimering. Sabina lives in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities today, and her grand daughter was in Amanda’s class a few years ago. Sabina has visited the school and spoken to the kids about her experience, and a few years ago she wrote her autobiography, called Hiding in the Open. (There is more than one book with a similar title.)
Continue reading Hiding in the Open: A Holocaust Survivor's Story