You, Weird! You, Hitler! Or a Thinking Man’s Deconstruction of Hank Williams Jr

I’m just saying, you know, for the record, Obama is not Hitler. Neither is George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan. Or for that matter, neither is Jan Brewer, or Robert Bentley. Pick the worst person from the past 50 years and chances are good, that person is not Hitler either. And no, this time, it makes no difference what the meaning of ‘is’ is. Yet as USA Today columnist Michael Hiestand, people continue to land this simple syllogism, and each time it happens the speaker, writer, singer etc. falls flat on their respective face. This is because, to quote the sign suggested for Jon Stewart’s march, only Hitler is Hitler.

That said, there are perhaps people in the world whom it might be said are giving the legend a chase. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to believe it is OK to kill the people he was ‘elected’ to ‘serve,’ while seemingly planning ways to destroy entire nations. The Assad family remains particularly obsessive about destroying any glimmer of revolt inSyria. The recently deposed Muammar Gaddafi saw nothing wrong with hiring mercs to run rampage over his populace. Yet even these pale in comparison. Each of these men may drop the bodies, but inevitably the bodies are those of people intend in demeaning or destroying their power (or are members of another nation long seen as ‘enemies’ of the state). Not that this excuses mass murder, but it does stand in contrast to Hitler. That man came into power by blatant demagoguery.

In a post-war Germany which stood in the midst of a crisis of faith, and economy, Hitler stood up to tell his people that their problems were due to something. Now an honest answer would have been to say, “You know what we got cocky and arrogant and greedy. We decided to listen to a man who told us we could dominate all of Europe. The ensuing war piled up a lot of bodies and reinforced a lot of animosities. And when we lost, they took that out on us. We’re here at this moment, and we can decide to come clean, and attempt to recreate our country in a new image, and hope the rest of the world decides to allow us back into health.” Yet what Hitler said was, “You know what, the reason we are here is because of the Jews. They did this. Their presence in our country has ruined us, and in reward for that they are taking your jobs, your money, and your chance at the good life.” Let’s be honest there are people today that talk like this, and do just this type of thing. Rather than face hard truths they would rather demonize some other group, and blame them for the current problems. “Never mind the hard data that says otherwise, the reason that you, Mr. Middle Management do not have a job is the Latino immigrant has come into your country and stolen your job. The Latino immigrant with his anchor babies is the problem, not a malicious housing bubble. So if you want your corner office back, all we really need to do is get tough on immigration and presto chango, your under-qualified backside is back in that leather captains chair.”[1]

Yet while many today just use quasi-racist and overtly racist language simply to seem cool[2] or tough and hip.[3] Hitler kicked it up a notch and backed his crazy talk with tough laws that were designed to punish the offending class(es) of people. He primed the pump and then actually begin to run that engine. “Hey look at us, we getting all into these Jews business. First we insult, then we aggravate, and then the evil ones will flee in horror allowing the curse upon our land will be lifted, and then Germany is back, baby!”

True, we do at times see such laws passed in the post-war West.[4] Yet once again Hitler working that legal action into some ‘righteous’ but-kicking on Kristalnacht, and turned all those blind eyes to his final solution. Who cares about all that killing and stuff, we’re doing some real kick-a** science here experimenting all these ‘new’ subjects that really were only ruining your life before (and now look they can benefit society, scratch that last comment, they’re bad subjects, bad). It is just here that Hitler becomes, well, Hitler. True, we have seen some nasty genocides in the last fifty years,[5] and of course we have seen are share of mad scientists testing people in demeaning and immoral ways.[6] Yet no where else have we seen the systematic, callous, attempted destruction of an entire race of people. The man wiped out 6 million people in the course of 3 years give or take. True Stalin may have taken more people with him to the grave, but he had 20 years to do it, and really never seemed quite as committed to the crazy that Hitler and the SS did. Take Simon Wiesenthal’s account of a group of SS men rounding a group of Jews into a house, setting it aflame, then firing upon the un-burnt survivors fleeing, while letting the burning runners burn.

Hitler’s proficiency with evil has even translated to the big screen.[7] These small digressions and a host of other very real reasons reveal why Hitler stands in a group of exactly one. He is the crème-de-la-crème, the epitome of evil. That is perhaps why evoking his presence is such a tempting target. One can debate the merits of many such bad leaders, but no one can dispute the sinister nature of Hitler. To portray your opponent as Hitler is to take the moral high ground, and paint a picture of yourself as the guardian of all that is righteous and good. In this day and age of quick and dirty media blow-outs, it provides the ultimate sound byte moment and more than that it allows for a debate about an issue without ever really having a debate without the issue. Such a debate would decidedly bad TV, and besides a debate in which real facts and stats were laid out on the table, with both sides presenting nuanced arguments would be eminently losable.[8] Much better to cast your opponent as Hitler and let the 24 hour news cycle do its thing. From the standpoint of a political strategist this perhaps understandable and from the standpoint of a TV entertainer[9] this brings the ratings, which brings the advertisers, which means dollar, dollar bills ya’ll. At least until said entertainer creates the wrong syllogism at the wrong time creating the wrong controversy which sends the big money boys off to find a new wind-up toy for our viewing pleasure. If this assessment seems overly cynical, perhaps it is, but it’s hard not to be, isn’t it. It would be easy to laugh it all off, except for the damage it does our society. The unfortunate thing is that people emulate the behaviors that they see. As Steven Levitt aptly argues in his book Freakonomics everything we experience changes us and molds us shaping us into the type of people we become.[10] So it is that the person who spend his or her days watching Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann hyperventilate over the most recent opposition scandal feels its OK to stumble into the local used book store and drop all kinds of names and curses on the poor sales clerk that just sold the last copy of Great Gatsby or offered to pay too small a price for the tenth dog-eared and moldy copy of Twilight the store received that hour.

So, before we go off shaking our heads at the silly news people, we ought to ask why we tolerate and even support these shenanigans. The Christian theologian and philosopher Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace[11] argued that all this has to do with the way each of us individuates him or herself. As one begins to form one’s identity the easiest route is to look and see what one is not. For instance a young Matt Rickman looked at the world and noticed he was White so he was not black or brown. He liked the Tennessee Volunteers so he did not like the Alabama Crimson Tide. He liked the Democrats so he did not like Reagan. He believed in God and that He came to earth as Jesus Christ where he died for the sins of all so he was not Muslim. He believed that the Spirit still moved in the Modern Church so he was not Baptist.[12] On and on, it goes this strange and wonderful process of self-differentiation. Here the self practices exclusion of the other. Not like me, don’t knock and by all means never come in.

This is how the child sees his or her worth; yet, hopefully good mentors and plentiful life experience force this adolescent self to grow and mature. This mature self experiences the good in people it previously saw as different. It experiences mutual love and respect. It grows to see similarities where it only before saw difference. It becomes the type person able to honestly view differences and love the other not just in spite of them, but perhaps because of them. This is hard work. This takes longer than the No Spin Zone allows. This also requires that the person in question steps out of his or her comfort zone and experiences the world as it exists outside their own head. In a sense we need to step beyond the juvenile nature of our society into a mature world embodied by a kind of interdependent unity within our increasing diversity. Here the self practices a life of embrace. Like the Saint Francis[13], here the self shows its love by embracing the other, yes even embracing the disenfranchised leper in his path.

In the Kennedy White House, there was some great work done on the Civil Rights front. This work was done despite the interests and many reservations of Jack Kennedy. He felt these actions hindered the work he wanted to do. Yet he was pushed by his brother Robert to take a stand with the black community. One Kennedy biographer noted that this was because early experiences of Robert’s life. Both RFK’s alienation from his father, and his relationships within the community created a sense of commiseration with the civil rights pioneers. RFK didn’t just see the black community, he saw himself mirrored in them. Their struggles became his struggles. This rich white man identified himself with a group of poor black men and women. In this identification came a new sense of purpose not shared by his brothers or other family members.

An opposite reaction can be categorized by the experiences of a friend of mine who recently attended the movies with his wife. Three quarters of the way into the movie a woman walked into the theater, plopped down in the seats directly behind them and preceded to provide commentary on the film. As one character appeared on screen, she said, “who that, she weird.” This woman could not look beyond the blue skin of the sci-fi character on screen.[14]

In each of these incidents we see choices made. The choice to look beyond exteriors and see similarities where they did not previously appear to exist; or to sit back and be contend to stay at a superficial level. The ability to go beyond is a skill increasingly lacking in our society. We could debate the how’s, why’s and where-for’s. We need this debate actually. We need to become the kind of people that can seek (in the terms used by Volf) to be people who can embrace the other, even in a world that values exclusion above all else. To quote a man recently Hitler, we must be the change we need. Then we would be ready, not just for football, but to inhabit a world in which the hate and demagoguery of a Hitler can never and will never work: even or especially the syllogistic ones.

[1] Yes, Jeffco Manager Tony Petelos, I’m looking at you.  I watched you get yourself elected as mayor of our humble town, by promising to fix our fair town’s Hispanic ‘problem.’ True, you’re no Hitler, but just an honest Alabamian operating in that fine tradition we have of blaming colored people for all our ‘problems.’ I can probably also chose to look at your teary face, Glenn Beck, but then I would just gag.

[2] Here looking at you Alabama State Rep. Scott Beason. Next time you choose to talk dirty about African-American casino patrons, make sure you FBI wire is not currently taping your every word (and learn a more current slam than aborigine, next time).

[3] Or you Mr N—R Head Ranch leasee and Governor Rick Perry.

[4] Here’s looking at you Nicholas Sarkozy. How’s that hajib ban working out for you? Or you Jan Brewer was blowing $50 million out of you economy worth losing all those Hispanics?

[5] Take a bowSerbia,Uganda,South Africa, andRwanda, we’re all winners when millions die for no crime other than ethnic origin.

[6] Excellent work with those Tuskegee Airman, first rate science, boyos.

[7] Who among us can forget Christopher Waltz’s malevolent turn as Col. Hans Landa? In two short scenes he made Darth Vader look like Marty McFly.

[8] I mean other than Sen. Arnold Vinick and Rep. Matthew Santos whose memorable debate in West Wing episode 7.7 inspired many die-hards.

[9] Let’s not kid ourselves 90 percent of the on-air talent at MSNBC and Fox News are no more than entertainers paid by partisan interests to dance in front of us in hopes that we forget ourselves, stop asking questions, and no longer hold anyone actually accountable for the morass that is 21st century Washington.

[10] Steven Leavitt and Steven Dubner. SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Harperluxe:New York; 2009.

[11] Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Abingdon Press:Nashville, 1996.

[12] He believed that the Gospel worked in places other than his head so he was not Presbyterian. Sorry. Bad. Bad. Bad.

[13] For an excellent biography, see G. K. Chesterton, or watch the Film Brother Sun, Sister Moon.

[14] Thankfully my friend was watching the most recent X-Men movie, and not that other sci-fi flick with blue men, because then any telling of the story would be lost to laughter at his poor choice in movies.


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