Holocaust, Shmolocaust - Just Fix the Car, I'll Wait in the Ashtray

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the ivory-billed woodpecker come home to roost.

Oh, come on. Rumsfeld leaves the Pentagon at about the same time Sen. Tim Johnson is suspiciously felled by a congenital brain thingy? Does anyone doubt some flavor of polonium is involved, a peculiarly American flavor? Like Rum Raisin? Rummy Raisin, as in Rummy's Erasin' the Democrats' control of the Senate. Implausible, yes, and very likely untrue. But how about this: Pinochet mysteriously "dies" just before the convening of the international Holocaust-deniers' convention and jubilee? Right, right. He's not anti-Semitic, he's dead.

You'll notice Hugo Chavez didn't die right before the Nazi-lovers' hoedown. He had the guts just not to go, even though he loves Ahmedinajad who, let's face it, is a hot guy, if you like creeps. And who doesn't? If you don't believe me, just look at the one you're with.

You know who else didn't go? Improv comedy guru Del Close's skull. A lot of people thought they saw Del Close's skull there, but it was an imposter skull. Although I will say this about Del Close's skull: when it was in his head and full of his brains he once said this: "I'm not a knee-jerk anti-Nazi."

Also, in a play I wrote, a Jewish character has the ashes of his dead wife poured over his head by Hitler. Then there's an immediate blackout. One night, during a production of this play, Del Close was in the audience, and in the blackout, in the silence of the audience's shock or unhappiness or boredom, the lone cackle of Del Close could be heard. Now, the play was not a somber examination of the Holocaust. It was called "The Croaking Fascist and the Armband Variations," and one of its highlights was a scene of a Jew spanking Hitler with a menorah. But, you know, for most people the slapstick antics of the thing made the ashes/blackout combo it ended with that much more sobering. Not for Del, though.

I don't think Del Close was any kind of crypto-Nazi. I just think he had a reflex against sacred cows. And I don't think Del minded pissing people off if he could get a few laughs, even if they were his own, out of blaspheming against the sanctity of the Holocaust or of anything else.

In Art Spiegelman's graphic novel MAUS, his casting of the Germans as cats and the Jews as mice bespeaks the ambivalence of the artist regarding the moral expectations of his audience. In treating the subject of the Holocaust, a moral person's opinions are considered a foregone conclusion. The Nazis were bad. But an artist, and certainly a comedic artist, and even more so a satirical artist, can only bridle at a morality imposed by social convention and etiquette. An imaginative, thinking person's morality is arrived at through experience, exploration, and analysis.

Spiegelman makes one small but framing statement regarding the black-and-white morality demanded by cultural mores, making the Germans - not just the Nazis, mind you - cats and the Jews, of whatever nationality, mice. Having thus framed the story with that moral questioning, he then faithfully transcribes his father's testimony with very little editorializing aside from commentary on his relationship with his father. That relationship indeed complicates things, including Spiegelman's moral valuation of personal history and its interplay with public history. Throughout the story the images of German cats with evil expressions and the innocent mice illustrate a key challenge in the history of morality. The drama of persecutor and victim as different species is an oversimplification, a cartoon, yet discovering the reality behind that cartoon in the genocide of the Jews is exactly what makes Germany under the Nazis, for so many people, the single most potent example of how a society should not be.

This is what packs the statement, "I'm not a knee-jerk anti-Nazi," with such a wallop. It's an almost insane sentiment. The implications are mind-warpingly complex. On the one hand, you can see why such a sentiment might be valid. Say a rabbi, a veterinarian, a chef, and a Nazi are driving from Salt Lake City to Des Moines in the middle of winter. The car breaks down. It's cold, and they're out in cornfield country without a cell phone. Turns out only the Nazi has any experience fixing cars, and she says she knows just what to do to get the thing running again. Are you going to say, "Hell no. You're a Nazi. You just step back and let's see if the rabbi can fix it?"

You could see where being a knee-jerk anti-Nazi in such a situation would be foolish.

Considering the statement in a broader ideological framework, though, highlights its absurdity. Why are you not a knee-jerk anti-Nazi? A Nazi would certainly be knee-jerk anti-YOU. The Nazis were the most aggressively knee-jerk-anti regime in history. And while I could imagine Del Close and Heinrich Himmler sharing an interest in esoteric mystical garbage, I could also see Del Close sitting around with a bunch of Nazis and blurting out, "Hey, I'm not a knee-jerk anti-Jew," just to break up the anti-Semitic monotony.

"I'm not a knee-jerk anti-Nazi." It's almost a Zen koan. It's like saying, "I'm not knee-jerk anti-getting-my-knee-jerked-away-from-the-rest-of-my-leg-by-a-shark" or "A cup of tea is not my cup of tea" or "I'd run twenty-five k to avoid participating in a marathon" or "I'm too stupid to enjoy the Three Stooges." All right, maybe it's not like any of those phrases. Maybe it's more like, "I'm not entirely against getting raped as long as it's by someone I know and trust." No, it's more like, "I prefer to go outside the family for incest." No. Maybe it's more like, "Pederasty is wasted on the young" or "No matter how hungry I was, I think it would be too gross to eat a cannibal."

Maybe there isn't an analogical example. There's something uniquely paradoxical and perverse about tolerating Nazis. Yet we do it all the time. We're an open-minded people, we global human beings. We don't want to discount anybody out-of-hand just because they're different. Let's wait and see how that difference manifests itself. Oh, you'd like to lynch my friend here? Why? Did he lynch someone you know? No, just because he looked at a white woman? Okay, now you're out of line.

Open-mindedness isn't necessarily a weakness. As long as it leads to examining primary sources, like eyewitness testimony and films and photos and documents and inventories and memoranda and confessions, I don't think questioning the Holocaust is anything to worry about. The evidence speaks for itself.

What's perverted and annoying and sickening is the bypassing of the evidence and just reading garbage by people whose opinions you already hold. Look what just happened in our country and Iraq because some people wanted to forget that invading Vietnam was a horrible disaster, and instead reiterated to themselves that it was the hippies' fault and all that was needed was enough resolve. Our national interpretation of the Vietnam War should never have veered away from collective shame and self-examination. It was a horrific, arrogant enterprise pursued by racists and greedy opportunists for whom massive numbers of American and Southeast Asian dead were just part of their way of doing business. Tom Brokaw was like a Holocaust denier when he said, effectively, "It wasn't the Vietnam War that was wrong, it was the Vietnam War generation." The difference between Brokaw and Holocaust denier David Irving is that at least Irving didn't help prepare the populace to accept a new Vietnam War in Iraq.

The Holocaust deniers who got together in Tehran did nothing but reiterate the lies that make them excited. They tell each other the same story over and over as if each time they tell it the story gets more true. Geobbels would have been proud.

Some were there just to be noticed. I'm sure you've seen pictures of a group of Chasidic Jews who attended the conference. Those are Satmars. Some Jews are Chasids for spiritual reasons. Satmars are perverts. They hate everything - women, gays, goyim, Israel, music, the human body, genitalia, other Jews - and they love inviting the hatred of others. Satmars are Satmars so they can hate and be hated. Obviously, walking around looking really really Jewish is a pretty good way to get hated. But it might not make other Jews hate you enough. That's something the Satmars have been working on. They claim they object to the nation of Israel on religious grounds, but anyone who's seen the way they act knows they're just trying to get people's goat. Can you imagine how psyched those Satmars were when they got the idea to go to the Holocaust deniers' festival? They must have been wetting their pants knowing that Jews all over the world would see them palling around with international Jew-haters. They certainly weren't there because they don't believe the Holocaust happened. To be honest, I think they were there mostly for the sponge cake.

And they're only the most perverse sector of a perverse population. David Duke was certainly there out of perversity. All those freaks. Wandering around in a big hotel, wearing name tags, eating sponge cake, giving papers, listening to lectures, milling around, networking, as if they were doing something mature and academically important. All they wanted was the world to see them crapping on six million graves. They're sophomoric perverts, circle-jerking on a cookie and eating it. Not unlike the PNAC neo-cons in the Bush Administration circle-jerking on the Iraq Invasion cookie, telling each other the same lies over and over again so they wouldn't have to know any better. Bush is still eating that cookie. He's a lot like David Duke in that way.

Back in the era of Dead Baby jokes, there was a Holocaust joke making the rounds: How many Jews can you fit in a VW? Three in the back, two in the front, and six in the ashtray. In retrospect, that sick joke bore a positive message: the Holocaust happened, and it was horrible, like loading a pile of dead babies onto a truck with a pitchfork.

A person telling that joke might seem uncouth, whereas Tom Brokaw might come off as a respectable author honoring an entire generation, many of whom certainly had their virtues. Yet the uncouth joker is in fact affirming a lesson our civilization clearly needs to be reminded of, while the so-called respectable man, seeking to honor a generation, muddles a lesson we ought to have kept in mind. He thus does a grave disservice to the republic, and ought to be reviled.

It's not simply that interpretations of history are important. Confronting and exploring the difficult truth, however inconvenient, is necessary to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the past, or creating entirely novel catastrophes in the future. We who remember the Holocaust as a warning of how horribly human beings can permit themselves and each other to behave, we want to prevent other Holocausts, and we want to bear it in mind when we see other genocides because, yes, it's happening again, and even in an intellectual world where we don't believe in pure evil anymore, it is unquestionably unconscionable and wrong.

The question we might ask the Holocaust deniers is, what historical lesson are you teaching yourselves? And what kind of human action do you wish to prevent or promote? And, more importantly, what exactly have you learned from history already, that you contend Anne Frank's diary is a fake and Holocaust survivors have conspired to invent a mythical genocide?

When in history has mankind suffered by believing in an invented genocide? Because I've read about wars and massacres. I've read about propaganda decrying the unholiness or unwholesomeness of others, and how that propaganda has fueled atrocities. But I must have missed when an entire people perpetrated a hoax, claiming to have been massacred, and fooling the world into shooting itself in the foot. Which empire fell because they believed in a fake genocide? I forget.

It's quite a coincidence that understanding what's real and true, to the extent reality and truth can be known, will also teach you valuable lessons for the future. If you touch a flame, it hurts, and you know not to touch it again. If David Irving says, "Oh, you're exaggerating, it didn't hurt that much," or if Tom Brokaw comes along and says, "Your grandfather walked through fire because he was told to, and saved the world. If you weren't such a spoiled brat you'd go into any fire your government told you to without asking questions" - well, those guys are just misguided, sick, untrustworthy perverts.

David Irving was jailed for denying the Holocaust. I'm not in favor of that. Incitement to riot is something else, though. That's what Tom Brokaw did, and I think he ought to be in jail for it, along with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Judith Miller, Robert Novak, et al. But to be jailed simply for denying the truth? Surely the truth can survive without the threat of imprisonment for denying it. In fact, it's probably more likely to survive if citizens don't feel they can't contradict it without being arrested. Especially when the truth in question is about tyranny and imprisonment and punishment of ideas.

If you threaten a knee-jerk anti-Nazi with prison for saying what he probably has no intention of saying anyway, he just might mistake you for a Nazi, and become knee-jerk anti-you. And then you probably deserve what you get. The problem is, a lot of other people will get some too, people who don't deserve it. You know, collateral damage.

This is where history differs from the Bible: we don't suffer because of the sins of our fathers; we suffer because of the ignorant blunders of those we permit to lead us.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

[You can read past Moments of Truth in the Moment of Truth Archives. Jeff delivers his commentary on "This Is Hell," a unique progressive radio show hosted by bitter, blind, gap-toothed Chuck Mertz, broadcast live from the campus of Northwestern University on the web at www.wnur.org every Saturday morning beginning 10am Eastern Time. The show is podcast, and its archives and the excellent website for the show are at www.thisishell.net]