(JTA) — What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are not actual litigants. Nor are they participants. They just happen to be public figures who couldn’t resist making a Holocaust analogy.
Neither party has agreed to have their disputes heard here, in our forum, The People’s Court for People Who Make Holocaust Comparisons.
First, we have a case we’e calling,
“Why, Why, Little Sebastian?”
The facts are these: Sebastian Gorka, the White House aide with the strangely amorphous portfolio, told a BBC Radio 4 interviewer this week that President Trump had it exactly right when he said that recent nuclear weapon activity by North Korea would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
To explain why, Gorka recalled the advice he got from a Holocaust survivor.
“What is your one take-home? What is your one lesson learnt from the horrors of the millions killed?” Gorka said he asked the unnamed man. “And he said, ‘It’s very simple. When a group of people repeatedly says they want to kill you, sooner or later you should take them seriously.’ ”
When it comes to Holocaust comparisons, we’ve heard worse — from other members of the Trump administration, for example. In April, Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was worse than Adolf Hitler because Hitler had not used chemical weapons. For that glaring bit of historical revisionism,The People’s Court for People Who Make Holocaust Comparisons found Spicer guilty and sentenced him to three more months as White House press secretary.
Unlike Spicer, Gorka didn’t suggest that North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was as bad as Hitler. He was merely using a fairly well-worn trope to say that we should take an enemy’s threats seriously. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said similar things about Iran (although he was speaking specifically about the Jewish people). The trope is so well worn that it appears around the web as a quote attributed to the late Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “When someone says he wants to kill you, believe them.” Inconveniently, it’s not clear Wiesel ever said it.
For an expert witness we call Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who gave Gorka a pass. “I have no problem with Gorka’s reference to the Holocaust,” Foxman told Jewish Insider. “He is not comparing the North Korea situation to the Holocaust. He is quoting a Holocaust survivor — sharing a universal lesson of the Holocaust — when somebody threatens to kill you take him seriously. Too many people in Europe, including the Jews of Europe, did not take Hitler seriously. Gorka is saying, take a lesson from then and take North Korea seriously.”
Of course, Gorka might still be guilty of hyping the North Korea threat, or at least justifying his boss’ bellicose remarks, which a lot of seasoned diplomatic and military hands considered over-the-top and potentially dangerous. In the same interview, he seemed to question whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was qualified to speak about diplomatic affairs. (It’s a weird moment when you realize that the least objectionable thing in a Sebastian Gorka interview is what he says about the Holocaust.)
But did he trivialize the Holocaust and insult the memory of the six million Jewish victims of Hitler?
We find him not guilty.
On to our next case, which we’re calling,
“Dear Lord, Will It Never End?”
If CNN at times resembles professional wrestling, which it does, Jeffrey Lord was its designated “heel” — called on to defend the Trump administration from the “faces” — er, panelists — gathered around various desks and fielding questions lobbed by Wolf, Anderson, Don and Erin.
Lord liked to antagonize liberals and Never Trumpers (he and Republican strategist Ana Navarro could sound like the Sam and Diane of cable news). But CNN had enough Thursday when Lord, a former Reagan administration staffer, tweeted at the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America the words “Sieg Heil!”
“Nazi salutes are indefensible,” a CNN spokesperson said in a statement explaining why Lord was no longer with the network.
Maybe CNN had other reasons to fire Lord, and this gave them the opportunity they needed. Or maybe the executives felt they just didn’t need the headache.
But what’s clear from the context is that Lord wasn’t embracing Hitlerism, but rather accusing his opponent of being a fascist and worse. That morning, Lord wrote a column for The American Spectator calling Media Matters “Fascists” because they want Fox News host Sean Hannity off the air. By declaring what ideas are acceptable to be heard on a cable news network, Lord argued, Media Matters resembled Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture or Hitler’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
When Media Matters’ CEO complained to Lord on Twitter, he shot back “Sieg Heil!”
Lord later defended his tweet by saying he was “mocking a fascist,” and noted what he saw as the irony: “I am mocking people who are using bully tactics in the style of fascists and Nazis to take people off the air, and I am the one who gets taken off the air,” he told the New York Times.
Lord is certainly guilty of that sin of blustery punditry: racing to weaponize a Nazi comparison when a milder, and perhaps more effective, tool will do. Hell, even the United States government has passed ill-advised laws limiting free speech, like the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams. Tipper Gore was accused of censorship for her campaign against offensive rap lyrics.
If everything is potentially akin to Nazism, then nothing is.
If CNN is consistent in applying the rule that its contributors shouldn’t be calling people Nazis (except if they are actual Nazis), then Lord deserved to go. But it’s clear that Lord himself wasn’t declaring allegiance to Hitler, or dog-whistling to the far right.
That does it for this week’s edition of The People’s Court for People Who Make Holocaust Comparisons. But given the political climate that we’re in, we’ll be back, again and again.