Friday, June 22, 2018

Nazis and Cowboys at the Border

Americans, it seems, cannot help drawing analogies between current politics and Nazi Germany. The potential for similarities is on everyone’s mind, from the left to the right. We all grew up with the Allied defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of inmates from concentration camps as the keystone to America’s claim to hold a unique, higher moral position in world politics.  If pundits, politicians, and voters feel compelled to draw divergent analogies between current policies and German history, then we should all maybe take a class on the subject, read some books along the way. While we are studying German history, we should review our own. Given our current free-for-all with Holocaust comparisons, the need for basic humanities education in history and culture is more urgent than ever.

Nazi comparisons circulate as memes, without much historical analysis to back them up. For decades, Godwin’s Law was used by internet discussion groups whenever anyone hauled out the Nazis. The Law both predicted and regulated online discussions by stating that the longer any social media conversation lasted over time, the probability that someone would draw a comparison to Hitler became virtually assured, at which the point the conversation should be ended.  This rule kept dialogues within bounds and pulled the plug of crazy accusations. But recently, Mike Godwin has allowed for his Law to be suspended, with the important proviso that anyone making the Nazi comparison really needs to have the historical proof to back it up.

Earlier this week in response to the US policy of separating children from the parents who were attempting to cross the border, Holocaust survivors drew the analogy to their own treatment under the Nazis

By no means were only left-wing critics invoking the analogy.  On Twitter, Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, also compared the Trump administration’s border policy with concentration camps. his goal was to shock the public, then Hayden succeeded. The Nazi comparison became so convincing to many that Attorney General Sessions felt the need to respond on Monday by claiming that the difference between US immigrant camps and Nazi concentration camps came down to the notion that the US was trying to keep inmates from entering the country, while the Nazis were trying to prevent Jews from leaving, he made three mistakes.

A closer look at this argument raises a number of problems.  First, in the context of the immigration debate, Session’s distinction between using concentration camps to either expel or contain a population was trivial and missed the entire moral issue. Second, he essentially conceded the validity of the comparison by getting caught up in technicalities. By making minor policy distinctions, Session implied that the two policies really were somewhat similar; they just differed in terms of why people are being herded and separated into camps. Unspoken but plainly visible was the implication that both the Nazis and the Trump administration were acting out a racial policy; Third, even in conceding the comparison, Sessions demonstrated a fuzzy understanding of the Nazi past. In the 1930s, before the escalation of racial genocide, the Nazis were also expelling Jews from the German Reich, so long as they were stripped of any valuables or financial assets they might have possessed. The threat of incarceration in a concentration camp drove many to leave. Only during the Second World War as the Nazis began their industrial extermination of Jews, were camps used as a means of holding and killing. For Session’s distinction to make any sense, he would have had to be made some very detail arguments about Nazi concentration camp policy.  The one positive side to Sessions’ confused rebuttal: at least we all have returned to the belief that the Nazis were a horror, beyond acceptable. Not too long ago, even that universally agreed-upon principle seemed under fire.

Well into the 1980s, the Holocaust was considered such a unique calamity that no other event could possibly be compared to it, in part because it should never happen again. For the last thirty years, as the Holocaust has become the standard by which all other genocides are evaluated, its singularity gave way to a cautious examination of resemblances between atrocities.  But now we have moved into an entirely new kind of rhetoric, one that encourages analogies to how Nazi Germany as an unreflective short-hand for evil.  Now Holocaust comparisons do the work for Americans unwilling or unable to apply their own democratic principles to public policy decisions.  The automatic response seems to be: “Let’s turn to German history, because we can all agree on how awful the Nazis were,” rather than “Let’s make our own moral decisions, because we are a long-standing republic with an immense legacy of immigration.”

Unified Germany has since at least the second Iraq war, made a point of rejected US policies that contradict what its citizens believe to be their nation’s obligations after overcoming Communism and Fascism.  After Trump’s election these differences have become even more obvious.  If the Nazis are not scary enough, the current administration has added Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over a million refugees to enter Germany to the list of German policies to avoid. Current US border policy is explained as another attempt to avoid becoming Germany, except this time it is the democratically elected Christian Democratic coalition that is the scary foreign actor.  To reinforce this hyped scenario, the President trumpeted scurrilous fabrications about German crime rates and the supposed collapse of public order. Our European ally has been forced to deny these charges by explaining that their society is quite peaceful.

 Germans of course have responded to the Trump administration with their own analogies, which do not get much press here, based on their terrible history with a militarized border wall that tore families apart for decades. If Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall,” the mayor of Berlin was urging Donald Trump not to build one.

Quick comparisons with the Nazis all too often serve as a screen onto which we can project our fears while blocking us from examining historical connections much closer to home. Drawing half-baked analogies to Germany prevents Americans from making their own moral judgments. If Americans really want to learn something from the way that Germans dealt with the violent past, then we should also devote real effort and education to examining our own violent, racist history. Instead of worrying about how close we come to Nazis, instead of always basing our policies on which foreigner we happen to fear the most, could we not simply judge our own policies from our own history? For example, how does the administration’s current policy compare to the treatment the Irish, southern Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian Jews received at the border and in society when they emigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century? How does it compare to the incarceration and separation of Native Americans and African slaves? Forget the Nazis for a moment, talk about ourselves. In the current debate, they are just a distraction from our own incapacity for historical reflection.  Why not base policy on our centuries long experience with immigration? Drawing analogies to other countries’ history means we pass over our own.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Academic Colds

Academic Colds 

The undergraduate cold comes as the convulsive culmination of a five-week run of all-nighters, talking, reading, , finding previously undiscovered locations to have sex, drinking through the weekends, popping pills on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the soft easy chairs of the campus lounge. The undergraduate cold forces you to lie in your own dormitory bed alone, as you hack and sweat your way through two whole days of blurry solitude.  By the second afternoon, you wonder if you should give up smoking, by the next day you are willing to follow that hippy girl’s advice on how to eat healthy, but by the third day you are back outside sucking in the nicotine, cold breeze, ready for the next round.

The graduate student cold sweeps up on you unexpectedly as if you had no idea it was coming, at first you resist, confident that if you focus on your course readings you can shake off these minor symptoms, then the fever overpowers you, and you bike to the drugstore only worsening your condition, so that you can take too many pills that leave you head spinning as you coast down the hill to your apartment.  The loudest, nihilistic music fills your head as you sweat on your fake leather sofa, left over from a design era you thought had been completely superseded.

The dissertation cold comes mercifully just as you have finished your second chapter, but have no idea how to proceed. You have written all the new, original thoughts you could muster and you are barely halfway done.  Too exhausted to consider failure, you have no idea what could possibly exist outside completion, you collapse into your queen side bed as your “partner” decides to sleep over at her girlfriend’s apartment, so as to leave you more space to recover.

The untenured cold is like an on-campus job interview for which you prepare madly, only to have the opportunity pass away within a few days. You guzzle cold medicine like it has no effect. The head of the search committee runs into you in the bathroom sucking down Nyquil and just smiles. You sweat through your talk while the audience prepares their uncomprehending questions. You drive home alone in a blizzard that forces you to sleep on the side of the highway for the first time.

The tenured cold is like the tiresome colleague, who emphasizes his own grand accomplishments in relation to your minor successes every time you have a meeting. Tenured colds have to be tolerated with an air of Buddha, for if you are not sanguine enough they may dog you to the grave. The tenured cold may have no end, it may never leave you. It may embrace your being completely, until you submit to the dean’s retirement package, forcing you to vacate your office even as your brow sweats feverishly.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What's in a name

 Snowtheory: when a blanket of ice suspends normal operations, leaving us free to ponder what we will for a few hours before the everyday world recovers sufficiently to throw its old obligations on us once again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Everybody Knows

Everybody knows,
so we can all agree that Leonard Cohen was a careful student of modern song, as Bruce Springsteen is. When you sing a popular song, you want everybody to know it.

What does everyone know? Cohen tells us in detail, but so have earlier African-American songwriters such as Nat King Cole in one of the finest Christmas Songs—“Everybody knows” the standard elements of a white Christmas. He tells us, “Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe, Help to make the season bright.” And then he hones in on the real excuse for consumer Christmas, the kids, “They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh”
Indeed the line “everybody knows” is an acknowledgement of the specific features of mainstream culture, we all know, both children and parents with their knowing nod, even those who live outside Middle American, those who serve and entertain but do not belong wholly. Nat King Cole’s gentle acknowledgement of cliché and convention, a relatively quiet tip off that he is singing for an audience that has very specific expectations, a collection of listeners who want to hear standard references in their Christmas songs, we all know what they we are supposed to hear.

This acquiescence to tradition and hegemony is then given a more critical version in Nina Simone’s “Misssissippi Goddamn” where “everybody knows” refers to the universal understood news that this particularly retrograde state does unspeakably horrible things to black folks, which everybody knows, but which cannot possibly be stated in song directly. Common knowledge here is not about the comforts of a Christian holiday but the brutality of racism, The phrase always also means that we don’t need to express these things because they are already known, whether its Nat King Cole’s Christmas or the violence of deep Southern racism.  Simone sings, “And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam” to tell us that we have all read the newspaper and that both black and white people know what goes on, but the line implies also that there are distinctly different forms of knowing. Everybody knows what they know which means they surely disagree. Nina Simone elaborates, then in case not everyone in the audience knows what she does:
 Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last

Leonard Cohen expands on Nina Simone’s knowledge by listing off all the unacknowledged things that we know: that the dice were loaded, that the fight was fixed—for anyone who first heard the song, the list goes on to include more than civil rights politics to include our own personal, subjective delusions about ourselves.  When I first heard the song, I was thrilled that someone had finally spelled out –not just the fact that the world was crooked, but that we all knew it, despite whatever official optimism we Americans are required to project.

So when Bruce Springsteen sings the lines in “The Ghost of Tom Joad”:
Well the highway is alive tonight
Where it's headed everybody knows

He is turning against his own mythology of the promised land, even as he is echoing the lyrics of earlier songs. Springsteen borrows but only in order to acknowledge that his own hope of escape was false—a statement that may have surprised his fans but which he tells them they should have known of course.  In the end, they prefer the myth and not what everyone knows. Springsteen’s working class has abandoned his political viewpoint, and he is left with the cultured, academic crowd that studies the history of American song lyrics. Everybody knows now has been turned into a nasty revival of the violence coupled with political apathy—everybody always knew so what can we do? Thus, the phrase today has turned from a cynical critique of the system to a passive acceptance by working class voters who empower the wrong kind of boss because "everybody rolls with their fingers crossed."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

German and Visual Studies: New PhD program

German and Visual Studies
At Penn State University

A new Dual-Title Ph. D. Program

We are pleased to announce a new dual-title Ph.D. program in German and Visual Studies at Penn State University. This new doctoral degree provides students a formal curriculum to investigate the history of German culture in relation to the theory, technology, history, and dissemination of visual images as they shaped social relations and personal identities.

Penn State is teaching a new generation of German scholars with an integrated understanding of all media. The German department’s culture faculty are active scholars in Visual Studies and have as a group published extensively in the field, including such topics as advertising, art, cinema, photography, fashion, theory, and architecture, as well as on the relationship between word and image in traditional print and digital media.

The German department will continue to provide a comprehensive graduate education in the cultural history of the German-speaking world, while the new program provides additional courses dedicated to Visual Studies. All doctoral students are encouraged to develop their own interdisciplinary agenda with scholars throughout the university.

Penn State’s Ph. D. in German and Visual Studies also brings together faculty and students from the College of Arts and Architecture, the College of Communications, and the College of the Liberal Arts. Faculty teaching in Visual Studies come from a wide range of departments, including Art History, Comparative Literature, English, French, German, Spanish, and Media Studies.

Enrollment in this innovative program begins in Fall 2017. Students applying for admission may make their interest in the Visual Studies degree known when they apply to the German PhD program.  Their personal statements should reflect their interest in visual studies.

January 15, 2018 is the deadline for applications.  For questions and further information about Penn State’s German and Visual Studies Ph.D. program, please contact Professor Daniel Purdy or Professor Sabine Doran