29 August 2007

You Say 'Myth' Like It's a Bad Thing

Having tackled the most shocking thing zany Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ever “said” – that Israel must be wiped off the map – I will now move on to the second most shocking: his referring to the Holocaust as a myth. I am not going to do Nizkor’s job for them and dissect the IHR’s arguments, suffice to say, if any of history really happened, the Holocaust did. But then I remember an anecdote about JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and start to see Ahmadinejad’s point.

Tolkien described Christianity to his friend as “the true myth at the very heart of history”. So could we not also say the Holocaust is a "true myth"? We could certainly get away with saying it has mythical status. Myths teach us who we are, who we were, what people are like and how we should live our lives, whether fictional, like Oedipus, debatable, like the Tower of Babel, or true, as in this case. From the Holocaust, we learn the dangers of hyper-nationalism, the sheer cruelty human beings are capable of, the ease of committing atrocities against a dehumanised Other, the willingness of ordinary people to follow orders, the folly of racism and its 'science', the dangers of irrationality and Fascist anti-rationality, the banality of evil and, most of all, the thought and objective that dominated postwar Europe: that we should never let anything like this happen ever again.

And this is the point where I squint at Ahmadinejad in agreement, the pervasiveness of the Holocaust in modern Western thought. Considering how far I trust translations of his words, might this be part of what he meant, as well as or instead of “It didn’t happen and it should happen again”? Did he say a myth, a legend, or an untranslatable Farsi word somewhere in between, without the sting of scepticism in the English word? Did he say a parable or a fable? An instructive tale? Would 'The Legend of the Holocaust' have provoked half as much outrage?

But I digress. What we learned from the Shoah can be learned from other sources. Hitler's was by no means the only genocide, nor the only Jewish pogrom, nor the only industrialised slaughter of human beings, nor the only Nazi atrocity, nor the only Fascist government, nor the only atrocity based on 'racial science' or any perversion of a rational doctrine, nor the only example of human complicity. Denying it takes away the figurehead, the worst of all these things rolled into one, but it does not redeem them. There are two main schools of thought on dealing with Holocaust denial. The first is to ban a dangerous theory that hinges on an enormous racist slander. The second is to allow denial of the most rigorously-documented genocide in history and let the Neo-Nazis show their stupidity in public.

I propose a third – throw away our ideological crutch, or at least put it to one side every now and again. Whether it happened or not, we do not need the myth of the Shoah. The countless other atrocities they have under their belt give us plenty of sticks to beat the far right with. There is no longer a need for Eichmann to illustrate the Eichmann principle. The Stanford Prison study and Milgram’s Obedience Experiment that he inspired show us the evil ordinary people are capable of. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has easily reached mythical status for its dissection of totalitarianism. Of course the evil, the barbaric, racist, pseudo-scientific evil of the Holocaust should not be forgotten. But to limit ourselves to one instructive myth only makes us underestimate the evil behind it.

Worse still, it can make us blind, even complacent about racism and genocide that is not German-on-Jew. Many right-wing commentators, Richard Littlejohn, Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips and many others, rightly condemn anti-Semitism, yet are quite happy to take its myths of global conspiracies, ties to extremism and unassimilable minorities and retell them with different Middle Eastern protagonists. Rather than the Holocaust tainting all racism, for many it is OK so long as we pretend to like the Jews. In the case of Littlejohn, even genocide, when the Mbongo tribe slaughters the Mbingo tribe, is fine, so long as we learn the lessons of the Third Reich and make sure no Jews are harmed. The fact that so many disgusting forms of racism slipped through the net is the fault of those of us on the left who didn’t have enough examples of their sins to throw back at the hyper-nationalists and totalitarians, the anti-racists who lacked a sufficient variety of sticks to beat these intolerant morons with.

Let me provide some. The “historical” revisionist Harold Covington said: “Take away the Holocaust and Hitler becomes the greatest statesman of the twentieth century”.

I say, take away the Holocaust and the Nuremberg laws were still passed. Take away the Holocaust and Europe still has centuries of Jewish, queer, Roma and Sinti blood on its hands. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler still terrorised the German people, and ethnic nationalists still slaughtered civilians all over the world. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler and Mussolini still based their economies on slave labour, and other racialists and eugenicists still committed genocide in Africa, America and Australia. Take away the Holocaust and Hitler still bombed the people of Coventry and starved the people of Stalingrad, and mankind was still capable of the gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia. If we need the Holocaust to believe such things are bad, then it cannot help us anyway. But luckily for almost everyone, Covington was also wrong about Hitler’s statesmanship. Take away the Holocaust and he was still the idiot who went to war with most of the Northern Hemisphere and lost.

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