Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My last word on Belafonte

After two appearances in a row of everybody's favorite undead Führer (also here) I thought that it was definitely time to give him a rest for a while. I hadn' t intended for him to take over again, but he has a way of thwarting even the best-laid plans and inducing political activists to even greater heights of ridiculous rhetorical excess. However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing (although, I admit, not all would agree that the Hitler zombie qualifies as a "good thing"). I had also thought that the whole Belafonte thing would be a one-off piece. I hadn't intended to follow up on it. I had had my fun, and lingering on the topic any further would serve no purpose. Indeed, I had in mind an entirely different topic for today.

That was until a commenter named Nathan said this, presumably to defend Belafonte's remarks:
Hitler did make use of some Jews in his government...
He referenced a post of his and then went on to point out a comment about Erhard Milch, a high ranking official in the Luftwaffe was supposedly half-Jewish because his father, Anton Milch, was rumored to be Jewish. Never mind that it's not entirely clear that Anton Milch was Jewish. In 1935, while Milch was still State Secretary of the Reich Aviation Ministry, his mother signed an affadavit claiming stating that Milch's biological father was in fact her uncle, Karl Braüer, allowing him to be issued a German Blood Certificate and prompting his boss Hermann Goering's famous quote, "I will decide who is and is not a Jew." Milch later became a Field Marshal after the fall of France.

Nathan then went on to attack a straw man, defending Belafonte thusly:
But if the comparison is metaphorically harsh, it's hardly inaccurate to refer to Jewish functionaries of the Third Reich.

The only inaccuracy in Belfonte's statement is "high up" in the hierarchy.

Unfortunately, it is quite true that quite a few Jews agreed to act as agents for the Third Reich in administering the Jewish ghettoes and executing Hitler's administrative orders among the Jews. Some may have thought they were doing fellow Jews a favor, by having it humanely done by fellow religionists rather than by the Gestapo directly, but there is no question that Jews were functionaries in the hierarchy of the Third Reich.
He then went on to discuss how some Jewish leaders collaborated with Nazi authorities for various reasons.

A Field Marshal who probably was half-Jewish (but may not have been and in any case did not view himself as Jewish) and Jewish collaborators are the best examples he can come up with to defend Belafonte's hyperbole, after being forced to admit that Belafonte was wrong about Jews being "high up in the hierarchy"? Rather thin gruel for a defense. Nathan's argument is a massive nonsequitur that nothing to do with what Belafonte actually said. Belafonte wasn't talking about "functionaries." He was talking about "Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich." There's a big difference. Forgive me if I interpret "high up in the hierarchy" to mean, oh, "high up in the hierarchy," you know, the guys who actually ran things and conceived the Holocaust. Jewish collaborators were low-level agents who had no real power in the Third Reich other than over their own subjugated people. They only followed orders and got their people to follow Nazi orders as well, whether out of fear, greed, a desire to "soften the blow" on their people, or a desire to save their own skins, motivations of collaborationists with conquerers since time immemorial.

Nathan concludes:
The point is not even that it shows that there were evil Jews, but that many people of a particular group collaborate with the enemy of that people for a host of mundane, careerist and other reasons. And they aren't sanctified by being part of the overall group that's being victimized.

Which I think was Belefonte's point. If you are going to justify Bush's policies towards black people, pointing to a few black faces in the administration doesn't prove anything.
Another straw man here. No one is implying that Jewish collaborators were "sanctified" by being part of the overall group being victimized. (Indeed, Jewish collaborators with the Nazis were and remain particularly reviled. Think Sonderkommandos working in the Krema and gas chambers at Auschwitz or collaborators in the Jewish ghettos persuading their own people to cooperate with the Nazis loading them into trains for transport to the camps for "special treatment.") Maybe Nathan's interpretation was actually what Belafonte meant by his remarks, but he chose such an intentionally inflammatory and offensive way to say it that the message was lost. In that light, Belafonte seems to view blacks in the Bush administration as being akin to Jewish collaborators in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, implicit in that metaphor is the assumption that the Bush administration must be perpetrating a new Holocaust against blacks. I'm not a big fan of the Bush administration, as anyone who reads me regularly knows, but equating its policies with regard to minorities to Hitler's policies with regards to the Jews by comparing blacks in the Bush administration to Jews collaborating with the Nazis is like comparing a firecracker to a thermonuclear device. Given the gross error in historical fact Belafonte made, he only made himself look foolish.

Any way you cut it, Belafonte joins the ranks of those guilty of rhetorical excess deserving of a fisking, courtesy of the Hitler zombie, ranks including James Dobson, Michael Ruse, and Charlie Rangel, among others. The Hitler zombie does not discriminate on the basis of race or political leanings, given that conservatives and liberals both like to use bad Hitler/Nazi analogies. Now, I'll conclude with the Arthur Caplan brilliantly summing up the problems with argumentum ad Nazium a couple of weeks ago, and his comments, although aimed at rhetorical excesses used in bioethics, also apply here:
Sadly, too often those who draw an analogy between current behavior and what the Nazis did do not know what they are talking about. The Nazi analogy is equivalent to dropping a nuclear bomb in ethical battles about science and medicine. Because its misuse diminishes the horror done by Nazi scientists and doctors to their victims, it is ethically incumbent upon those who invoke the Nazi analogy to understand what they are claiming.
Harry Belafonte clearly had no clue what he was claiming and just wanted to imply guilt by association. If Bush's policies are harmful to blacks, playing the Nazi card is not the way to demonstrate it.

4 example(s) of insolence returned:

At 8/10/2005 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, I never mentioned Milch, so I think you have me mixed up with someone else.

You can make your general point but when collaborators actually administered tens of thousands of other Jews, that puts them up there in a hierarchy.

We can parse "how high" but the reaction against Belfonte is itself rhetorically overblown. He made it as an offhand comment in the street and people are trying to parse it like a dissertation.

It's all about trashing the reputation of one of the heroes of the civil rights movement by rightwingers.



At 8/10/2005 4:31 PM, Blogger PZ Myers said...

I'm afraid the Hitler zombie never dies. He just ate George Gilder's brains.

In an NPR program this morning, Gilder rather incoherently babbled about how supporters of evolution (I think he specifically mentioned Mencken) were also supporters of Hitler. It was ugly.

Then the non-zombie Dawkins came on and swept up the spattered entrails and flushed them down the toilet.


At 8/10/2005 10:10 PM, Blogger Orac said...


Interesting about Gilder. I wonder if there's an online audio segment from the interview.


Yes, it does look like I made a mistake. It was someone going by the 'nym of "hardindr" who made the comment but he did reference your blog and mentioned Milch, which he got from your comments. Sorry about that. At least I hope you appreciate whatever traffic I sent your way. (Any publicity is good publicity, I usually say.

Nonetheless, I disagree strongly. The reaction is not overblown. Belafonte intentionally used a ridiculously overblown analogy to demonize his political opponents and demonstrated obvious ignorance of history in doing so. In this one case, he deserves all the criticism he's getting. Indeed, I'm surprised more "liberals" aren't more upset with him for making himself such a big, fat, juicy target by intentionally using such idiotic rhetoric.

The fact that Belafonte's defenders have to resort to lame justifications involving low-ranking Jewish collaborators and a single Field Marshall who might have been half-Jewish, that tells me just how specious his original analogy really was.


At 8/11/2005 12:20 AM, Anonymous chaperonin60 said...

I always wonder about the 1/2 Jew comments. Is the split midsagittal? Possibly in the horizontal plane? Maybe it's a MWF/TThS split with every other Sunday as a Jew.

For anyone out there reading this, a person cannot be 1/2 Jewish (irregardless of Adam Sandler's song). One is either a Jew or one is not a Jew - it's really a pretty simple concept.


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