Monstrous Labels, Part I: Springtime for Hitler
Prologue, quoting from a blog I wrote in the spring of 2009:
[Recently] I wrote a piece describing a particularly vociferous and opinionated group of education bloggers and commenters as "reform Nazis." As in--the Soup Nazi, so entertainingly depicted on Seinfeld.
My peace-loving friend and Daily Kos uber-blogger Ken Bernstein gently chided me for careless use of a pretty hard-core epithet, pointing out that such name-calling is not an invitation to thoughtful dialogue. It took me about five chastised-but-bristling minutes, back then, to admit that he was right: He who uses the most vile and inflammatory language is not the most influential. Loudest, perhaps--but not the most truthful or accurate.
Around the time of that exchange, the nation had the opportunity to hear a whole lot of specious, incoherent blah-blah about Hitler and health care--hunh?--and witness Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Obama adorned with a toothbrush mustache.
Ha ha. Not.
But --is this wrong? Does it mean that Jon Stewart should never do pointed satire on Hitler-mustache stickers (available for images of all the people you currently dislike)? Was Barney Frank out of bounds, when he compared discussing the health care bill with town-hall "Nazi policy" protesters to talking with his dining room table? As a person who includes The Producers among her favorite movies, should I be embarrassed by my reaction every time I see Springtime for Hitler: uncontrollable giggles?
Is it possible to let satire, over-exaggeration and post-modern irony dull us to the fact that some things are always deeply, inherently immoral?
Is it wrong to use historic, genocidal travesties or ruthless repressions as analogies for current events? Is it ever OK to pull out what Jon Meacham calls the Hitler card?
Not long ago, my 8th graders went on a kick where everything and everyone they didn't care for at the moment became "gay." He's so gay, her hoodie is gay, everyone who plays in the band is gay, the principal is really, really gay. And so on. One day, I called out some hapless kid who used the word in class, leading to one of those moments when the room goes breathlessly silent and everyone's focused on the exchange:
Me: Please don't use the word gay as a pejorative--which means a nasty label. Not in this classroom.
Kid: Unh. Everyone else says it (defensively).
Me: (silence, meeting his eyes--letting the inanity of that remark hang there)
Kid: Well, they do.
Me: And how do you feel when kids say that being in the band is gay--using that word to mean that you and all the other 65 people here in this room are uncool nerds and jerks?
Kid: I don't care (even more defensive).
Me: I can only speak for myself, but I care very much about that. I see the band room as a safe space for everyone who wants to make music. If we start calling each other pointless names, we won't care as much about each other. The class won't be as much fun, and the music will suffer.
Kid: But what if someone really is gay?
Me: Then that person needs to know that they're most definitely welcome in the band room.
At lunch, one of my colleagues said "I hear you had the gay talk in second hour today. I'm sick of hearing the word, too--good for you. I hope you don't get any phone calls." I didn't--but I wasn't worried about it. I doubted if any parent could muster much of an argument.
Ken was right. We attach monstrous labels to people with whom we disagree at our own peril, running the risk of weakening our resolve to see and resist evil--and muddying distinctions between right and wrong. Those of us who work with children, whose filters for irony, sarcasm and paradox in language are not fully developed, should be especially careful.
In the five years since Americans were first absorbing/rejecting the idea that reasonable health care coverage should be provided to every citizen, the heat and intensity of language, metaphors and analogies describing public policy-making has not abated. It's important to note that attacks on democratically instituted services or human rights have not abated, either.
We've had venture capitalists comparing the "threat" to our richest billionaires to Kristallnacht, the governor of Indiana comparing the Supreme Court ruling upholding the ACA to 9/11--and just about everyone (illogically) comparing just about everything, from the national debt to unions, to slavery.
Screaming, BuzzFeed-ish headlines get read, all right. But do these outrage-generating headlines illuminate real problems, genuine injustices? Do they help--or do they hurt?
In the next blog, one example: Is the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Michigan comparable to the Tuskegee Experiment?