We Spoke in Hushed Voices

20 Dec

Yesterday was the day of the electoral college vote. Yesterday was also the day I decided to go to the National World War II Memorial here in New Orleans. This was premeditated.

***

I have been somewhat quiet these past few weeks on issues outside of my observations of life here in New Orleans. I’ve been mulling over a number of different things, unable to really put into words what was happening around me, around all of us, and how it has been making me feel. I cannot speak for anyone other than myself – did you hear that, Libby Chamberlain? – and so I will use this space, my space, to share with you, if you care to listen, about what’s been happening in this confused brain of mine.

I have felt silenced.

I am not entirely sure why this is. Is it because Tr*mp was elected? Is it because of all of the hate that he unleashed in this country over the past 18 months, give or take? Is it because I left my comfortable, knowable home in Brooklyn and moved South? Is it because I realized, once again, the seemingly unending depths of misogyny that exist in this world? Is it because I am Jewish and, for the first time ever, I feel markedly unsafe in my own skin?

It is, in a lot of ways, that last one. Although the other ones are notable as well. I have lived a privileged life, all things considered, and so I do want to underscore all of this by stating that I do know it could be worse. I am 33 years old. I have been Jewish for every single one of those 33 years. And now is the first time I feel unsafe sitting in my own reality. This has not been true for a lot of people. And so before I continue, I just want to express my knowledge about my own privilege and express my sadness about the world that so many people have occupied their entire lives, and my respect for them for getting up day after day and moving forward, and keeping on, and for writing and speaking and sharing and singing and for simply living. Being afraid sucks. And so with that, here goes.

***

Yesterday I decided to go to the National World War II Museum because I recalled an article I read in The Washington Post following Richard Spencer’s Nazi-inspired speech in DC. In it was a statement put out by the Holocaust Museum following the conference which read, in part,

The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.

Just to give you an idea of what exactly is meant by that, here’s an excerpt from the Museum’s piece on the Nazi rise to power.

Hitler was a powerful and spellbinding orator who, by tapping into the anger and helplessness felt by a large number of voters, attracted a wide following of Germans desperate for change. Nazi electoral propaganda promised to pull Germany out of the Depression. The Nazis pledged to restore German cultural values, reverse the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, turn back the perceived threat of a Communist uprising, put the German people back to work, and restore Germany to its “rightful position” as a world power. Hitler and other Nazi propagandists were highly successful in directing the population’s anger and fear against the Jews; against the Marxists (Communists and Social Democrats); and against those the Nazis held responsible for signing both the armistice of November 1918 and the Versailles treaty, and for establishing the parliamentary republic.

Sound familiar? Because it should.

Words and propaganda were what brought the Nazi party into power in the 1930s; they were what created an environment in which an entire infrastructure could be built with the express purpose of shuttling people to work and, ultimately, their deaths; they were what emboldened a population to exterminate 11 million people. The words and propaganda of Hitler and his Nazi Party were what led Raphael Lemkin to coin the term used to describe what had been done to the Jews and other groups during World War II. He called it genocide.

The article from The Museum came out around the same time Jessy and I were in Chattanooga, Tennessee, about 3/4 the way through our drive to New Orleans. We had spent a lot of time sitting in the car, in our Airbnbs and hotel rooms, walking through national parks all the while talking about the election, what it meant, how we felt, what world we were living in. It had all been sort of academic. Analyses of things we had read and heard, fears we had about how empowered some people suddenly felt to disempower others, how groups that had existed only in the deepest recesses of the Internet were suddenly mainstays of the news. But then, our first night in Chattanooga as we sat at the bar eating dinner and having a much needed glass of wine, it all became suddenly more real. I looked up at the screen and on CNN during primetime I saw the Nazi salute. And then I saw it again and again and again as it was played and replayed. And I watched as the hosts talked it down, rationalized it, normalized it, tried to make it less that what it is: an expression of unbridled hatred and antisemitism and an embracing of all that the Nazis stood for and did in the 1930s and 1940s. And it made me wonder. Have we forgotten our own past? Do we owe nothing to the 11+ million people lost?

There is a word that is used often when talking about the Nazi era. It is Gleichshaltung and is translated from the German as “coordination” but more often refers to the act, politically speaking, of getting in line.The political theorist Hanna Arendt, who escaped Germany in 1933 explained it well in one of her last interviews. She said,

The problem, the personal problem, was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did. Friends ‘coordinated’ or got in line.

Shawn Hamilton expannded on this idea in his article published by The Huffington Post.

People rejected the uglier aspects of Nazism but gave ground in ways that ultimately made it successful. They conceded premises to faulty arguments. They rejected the “facts” of propaganda, but not the impressions of it. The new paradigm of authoritarianism was so disorienting that they simply could not see it for what it was, let alone confront it.

This is what scares me. Every time an act of hatred or violence is talked down, is normalized or excused, those acts, and the people that carried them out, are empowered. The problem is that when we make concessions for the small things, we are accepting the larger message. Remember: before there were the camps, there were the words. The words prepared people to accept that which would previously have seemed unimaginable. In his book, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, Sebastian Haffner said,

Outside of Germany people often wonder at the palpable fraudulence of Nazi propaganda, the stupid incredible exaggerations, the ludicrous reticences concerning what is generally known. Who can be convinced by it? They ask. The answer is that it is not meant to convince but to impress.

It is not meant to convince, but to impress.

From where we sit in our discussions of history and in the comfort of our homes, Nazi propaganda seems utterly insane. How could this have come to pass? How could people have swallowed their morals, their ethics, their humanity and gotten behind such a hateful, murderous regime? A solution to all their problems. We are living it right now. We are seeing it again. Otherwise decent people willing to accept this lie of why we are where we are, and who specifically made it come to pass. And to then hold those people accountable for something which was not their doing. As Hamilton points out, it is not illegal immigration that is to blame for the downfall of the white working class, it is mechanization, globalization, the disempowerment of unions. Blaming immigrants is demagoguery, not reality. And deporting immigrants will not bring those jobs back. Those jobs are gone. But continuing to propagate this argument, continuing to excuse those who stand by it through silence or the ballot box, can only prepare us for words to become action.

***

Yesterday I went to the National World War II Museum because the Holocaust Museum is in Washington, DC and I am here in New Orleans. I went there because I wanted to be in a place where I was free to remember, to grow teary and tired, to educate myself. I know there was more to World War II than The Holocaust. But I needed to be in a place that actively recognized that The Holocaust happened, that was just steeped in an acknowledgment of what humans are capable of doing, of what we can grow accustomed to, of what we normalize. And I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be angry about all the lives lost and angry that, all these years later, all these lessons later, all these deaths later that we could still, as humans, Gleichshaltung. That we could, again, fall in line behind the propaganda. But instead of feeling angry, I felt physically ill when I saw a few swastikas on the side of the airplane of a Tuskegee Airman who had, as the tour guide explained to us, had “a few German kills.” Those swastikas almost made me vomit because all of a sudden they don’t feel like a relic of the past anymore, they are a part of our present.

Tearful I turned to a woman in the group who stood next to me. A woman who had family who had fought in all the wars starting with World War I. A woman who had traveled down from New Jersey with her family to enjoy New Orleans, to visit this museum and to remember. And, in hushed tones, we talked. We talked about Tr*mp and the election; about racism and sexism and antisemitism; we talked about our fears for the future of this country; we talked about all the lies, the propaganda and how people were just eating them up. It was good to have an ear, to have a conversation with someone who was feeling some of the things I was feeling. But still, we spoke quietly. And today I am forced to ask myself why.

One Response to “We Spoke in Hushed Voices”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New Orleans Diary: Week Four | franklyrebekah - December 23, 2016

    […] and the crazies and how much they hate the Jews. I am not going to go into it here though because I wrote an entire blog about it that I am really proud of and I would love it if you would go over there and read it and maybe […]

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