Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Playing the Holocaust Card

It would appear that President Bush wanted to turn his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum into a rather broad variety of agenda items. Therefore, it pays to give the remarks he made after his tour of the site a close reading, rather than just another sound byte on the evening news. Fortunately, these remarks have been made available through the good graces of PRNewswire. I shall not examine them exhaustively, under the assumption that, if I have committed any serious sin of omission, some reader will be quick to inform me!

These affairs always begin by naming all the right names; but, even here, we can see Bush pursuing his own agenda:

I thank very much Elie Wiesel for joining us. He is a -- he's a big figure in the life of the world, as he should be. He speaks with moral clarity. And I can't thank you enough for being a leader of talking about what is right. And I'm honored to be in your presence.

This passage attracted my attention because of the way in which Bush made such a smooth transition from "moral clarity" to "talking about what is right." Morality involves far more than simply being able to classify everything as either "right" or "wrong" and then deciding upon one's actions according to what has been classified as "right." Wiesel does speak (and write) with moral clarity; but he applies that clarity to plummet the depths beneath superficial right-versus-wrong judgments. His is a keenly reflective mind that has elected to reflect on one of the most agonizing periods in the history of human behavior. Today he apparently had to endure the agony of having that mind trivialized, but he could probably endure it in his understanding of all the greater agonies he had previously confronted. As for the rest of the audience, I suspect that at least some of them could read the subtext: "Today there are far more important issues than the Holocaust that I need to discuss."

The first of these issues was the Virginia Tech tragedy. Bush was able to maintain his role of "chief mourner" due to the fact that one of the victims on Monday was a Holocaust survivor:

We meet at a time of sorrow for our nation. Our flags fly at half-mast in memory of 32 souls whose lives were taken at Virginia Tech on Monday morning. That day we saw horror, but we also saw acts of quiet courage. We saw this courage in a teacher named Liviu Librescu. With the gunman set to enter his class, this brave professor blocked the door with his body while his students fled to safety. On the Day of Remembrance, this Holocaust survivor gave his own life so that others might live. And this morning we honor his memory, and we take strength from his example.

My friend and reader David Berkowitz brought this to my attention as a nomination for this week's chutzpah award. My own reaction, though, is that Bush was grandstanding, letting us know that he has been following the news as it is played out to the rest of us and is sincere in his mourning rather than playing a role in an ex officio capacity. I suspect that there are a fair amount of folks out there who saw this a the latest effort to improve the approval ratings, and my guess is that most of them did not buy it.

After this gesture, though, we hear comparatively little about the Holocaust itself. Instead, the rest of the speech took on the broader concept of genocide, beginning with a minor linguistic exercise:

Today we call what happened "genocide." But when the Holocaust started, this word did not yet exist. In a 1941 radio address, Churchill spoke of the horrors the Nazis were visiting on innocent civilians in Russia. He said, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name."

This led me to make a brief visit to the OED, where I discovered that the word first appeared in the first volume of the four-volume supplement, a project that originated in 1957. I do not know whether or not OED policy has been to document the first known occurrence of a new word; but the earliest example they provide is dated 1944 (Lemkin's Axis Rule in Occupied Europe). My guess is that Lemkin was aware of Churchill's 1944 address.

The reason for the shift is that Bush wanted the opportunity to speak about genocide today, rather than genocide sixty years ago. In other words this was the forum for him to speak out about Sudan and the Darfur refugees. Now, in all fairness, this is part of the Museum's agenda, given special attention by virtue of their exhibit based on Google Earth images of Darfur (which, we have been informed, are more up-to-date than those of New Orleans). Once again one could hear the sound of sabers starting to rattle behind his voice:

If Sudan's obstruction continues despite these measures, we will also consider other options. Last week, I sent Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte to the region. He informed Sudan's government and rebel groups that our patience is limited, that we care deeply about the human condition in Darfur, that it matters to the United States that people are suffering. I have spoken in the past about the need to end Sudan's use of military aircraft to attack innocent civilians. We're also are looking at what steps the international community could take to deny Sudan's government the ability to fly its military aircraft over Darfur. And if we do not begin to see signs of good faith and commitments, we will hear calls for even sterner measures.
The situation doesn't have to come to that. I urge the United Nations Security Council and the African Union and all members of the international community to stand behind the Addis Ababa framework and reject efforts to obstruct its implementation. The world needs to act. If President Bashir does not meet his obligations to the United States of America, we'll act.

So everything looped back to Bush's opening misreading Elie Wiesel's "moral clarity." The ending message was the same as the beginning message: It is all about right and wrong. Somewhere along the line Bush seems to have lost track of the fact that the Holocaust was the product of some very strong minds with equally strong convictions of right and wrong and an even stronger authority to override any disagreement the rest of the world may have had about those convictions. I may be old-fashioned; but I always thought that we go to museums to learn. Did our President learn anything during his visit today? Perhaps David gave me the right idea for the wrong reason: To visit a museum devoted to one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century and then use that setting to back up a dangerously simplistic morality as an excuse for yet another threat of aggression probably can be classified as chutzpah!

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