Wednesday, June 27, 2001

The Holocaust deniers are at it again.
I’m not referring to the people - usually ignorant and evil, but sometimes sophisticated and evil - who after finding their “political agendas” terribly inconvenienced by the fact that Nazi Germany systematically murdered millions of people, including 6 million Jews, simply deny it happened. I get e-mail from these people all the time, and I haven’t a single good word to say about them, except - thankfully - they are irrelevant and, therefore, relatively harmless.
But there are other Holocaust deniers out there who, though not evil, are infinitely more harmful precisely because they are so relevant. These are the people who enlist the Holocaust into virtually every cause.
On Tuesday, Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he invoked the story - now subject to some historical revisionism - of Denmark’s response to the Nazi assault on the Jews. The way the story goes, Denmark’s king insisted that if Jews had to wear yellow stars, then so would he and all other Danes. Berwick summarizes the moral of the tale: “If some Danes are under siege, then all Danes are under siege. So, for now, we are all Jews.”
Berwick then seamlessly slides into the assertion “Now we all have AIDS” - and goes on to insist that the CEOs of the big pharmaceutical firms face the same moral choice as Denmark’s king, and, therefore, they should make AIDS drugs “free” to everyone. Whether you appreciate the well-intentioned stupidity of this idea, or not, is irrelevant. The fact is that a disease - any disease - is not the Nazi Holocaust.
The problem with such analogies - and they are very, very common - is a profound moral one. The essential fact of the Holocaust isn’t that large numbers of people died and the world did little to stop it. It’s that large numbers of people were murdered (in what was considered the most “cultured” and “advanced” nation on the most “enlightened” continent) and the world did little to stop it.
AIDS, however, does not murder people. Neither does typhoid, tuberculosis, cancer or any other disease. The moral context is completely and unalterably different. To equate the Holocaust with some cold, impersonal force removes the moral consequences for the murderers, the murdered and the bystanders. You might as well say Auschwitz was no different than a bad outbreak of influenza.
Or take a more famous example. In Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance,” he infamously compared the fight to help the environment to the fight against the Nazis. “As clouds of war gathered over Europe, many refused to recognize what was about to happen,” he wrote.
He then asserts, “Today the evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht is as clear as the sound of glass shattering in Berlin,” referring to the night when Nazis destroyed synagogues and Jewish businesses and murdered about 100 Jews. He went on to note that “much of the world closed its eyes as Hitler marched.” And those who disagreed with his global warming prescriptions were the equivalent of “Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Munich.”
To be sure, those who seek to use the Holocaust for their own purposes often have good intentions, but sometimes it’s simply an attempt to demonize the opposition and close off debate. Those who disagree with Al Gore about global warming aren’t merely “wrong;” they’re like people who stood by while Anne Frank was dragged to the camps.
Indeed, this abuse of the Holocaust is common and execrable. Jesse Jackson once observed: “In South Africa, we call it apartheid. In Nazi Germany, we’d call it fascism. Here in the United States, we call it conservatism.”
Congressional Democrats have a long history of comparing Republicans to Nazis. Take one typical example. During the debate over the Republican “Contract With America,” Rep. John Lewis read Martin Niemoller’s timeless speech about the Nazi takeover: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews …”
Then, with all the gravity he could muster, Lewis intoned: “Read the Republican contract. They are coming for the children. They are coming for the poor. They are coming for the sick, the elderly and the disabled.”
This sort of thing is a double slander. On the one hand, it suggests that a benign legislative agenda the majority of Americans supported was the moral equivalent of Nazism. And on the other hand, it suggests that Nazism was no worse than a program to limit the number of Congressional committee chairs and to reduce income taxes.
Here’s a hint to all people who’d like to use the Holocaust as a metaphor: If what you’re talking about doesn’t involve the organized murder of millions of people in gas chambers, then maybe you should look for something more apt.

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