Sunday, August 14, 2005

What do Woody Allen, Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte have in common with James Dobson? They all blur distinctions of the evil of the Third Reich, making exaggerated analogies in pursuit of a flawed political point — or in Woody Allen’s case, a crass attempt to be funny.

Harry Belafonte was asked the other day whether Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had raised black opinion of the Bush administration. He opened his mouth and let nonsense out: “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich. Color does not necessarily denote quality, content or value,” he told Cybercast New Service. This was both inaccurate — there were no Jews in the hierarchy of Nazi Germany — and it smacked of more than a little ethnic bigotry.

Dick Gregory, being a stand-up comic, was even more perverse. He observed at an Atlanta civil-rights rally that black conservatives “have a right to exist, but why would I want to walk around with a swastika on my shirt after the way Hitler done messed it up?” Blacks in brown shirts?

Woody Allen made a reach, too, in an interview with der Spiegel, the German news magazine, trying to level the killing field in the name of moral equivalence. “So in 2001 some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis,” he said. “And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other … History is the same thing over and over again.” Woody is often funny but sometimes he can be an oxymoron.

Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies rightly observes that “such analogies pollute public discourse by trivializing the brutal horrors committed by the Nazis,” but that doesn’t take us very far. Such remarks are less about the Holocaust than about the way the Holocaust has seeped into the vernacular as a pop comparison of no redeeming value. Since Mel Brooks produced the musical “The Producers,” richly satirizing the Nazis with a song entitled “Springtime for Hitler,” with leggy blonde chorus girls in thigh-high black boots giving the “Heil Hitler” salute as they kick in unison in a Busby Berkeley-like finale of a revolving swastika, it’s been difficult to push the envelope of bad taste. “The Producers” was funny because the irreverence was outrageous.

James Dobson, the director of Focus on the Family, belongs to another category altogether. He compared embryonic cell research to Nazi death-camp experiments: “Ultimately, one life will be sacrificed to benefit another. That’s evil.” It’s fair enough to think federal funding of such research is wrong; millions of Americans do. But the motives behind the research are not evil. Josef Mengele was evil. James Dobson is a decent and thoughtful man, but his exaggerated comparison is neither decent nor thoughtful, and merely demonstrates how difficult it is to argue hot-button issues in a reasonable and thoughtful way.

Stem cell research can and I think should be debated on moral terms, as a slippery slope for society. The issue is not whether stem-cell research should be done but whether the government should fund it. Researchers who work with private money to seek cures for disease are neither immoral nor monsters.

Hitler and the Third Reich have become the standard for measuring evil, but we easily and often turn them into abstract symbols lacking neither nuance nor moral subtlety. The president has said he would veto any legislation that provides federal funding for stem cell research, and this deserves full debate. Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bill Frist of Tennessee, both conservatives (and religious, too) are outspoken in support of federal funding. Surely Mr. Dobson does not mean to suggest that these two friends stand in the aura of the Nazis.

Recent portraits of Hitler, Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele have focused on them as human beings who lived ordinary lives before the Third Reich, fleshing out their biographies as men rather than abstract images of evil. How they became human monsters requires specific attention to detail, not distorting generalizations. When Robert Jay Lifton was researching his book ‘The Nazi Doctors Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide,” an Auschwitz survivor asked him: “Were they beasts when they did what they did? Or were they human beings?” Replied Mr. Lifton: “They were and are men, which is my justification for studying them, and their behavior.”

Because we’re human we have the capacity to make moral choices in heart and brain, tempering emotion with reason. Public issues require light not heat and arguments must be grounded in discriminations made in good conscience. The devil, after all, is still at home in the details.

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