Listen, if you want to know how to do propaganda right, you should visit the Museum of Tolerance next time you’re in L.A. My aunt and uncle took me, and we spent most of our time in the Holocaust exhibit, which, except for a few minor annoyances, was a good cursory introduction to the Holocaust. There were some arresting photographs and personal stories (the most horrifying of which was a story about Nazi soldiers tossing living babies into a truck from an upper floor of a hospital). I have, as I said, minor complaints about the way things moved and the superficial way in which some events were covered, but overall, not bad.
On the other hand, “tolerance” is apparently like obscenity: you know it when you see it. It was not defined, which made me wonder by what standard we should “tolerate” the victims of the Holocaust, and not the Nazis. (I have a standard by which the Nazis were evil; do you?) The exhibits were anything but tolerant toward the Nazis and Hitler, calling them monsters and speaking incredulously of the very possibility of the Holocaust. But here’s the issue: if the problem with the Nazis was that they treated their victims as sub-human and not worthy of life, what does it accomplish to make the Nazis sub-human in their actions? The Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals, and the rest should never have been dehumanized in order to facilitate their deaths. But if we concede that, and emphasize it by drawing attention to the inhumanity of the Nazis, what have we done but the same thing in reverse? And from there it is only a short step to being unable to believe that we ourselves are capable of such atrocities. No, the Nazis were not monsters; they were depraved human beings who did what depraved human beings with unchecked power do: destroy those they do not like, or those who oppose them, or those who believe in a God higher than the State. (Frankly, we are all currently sub-human compared with the Son of Man.)
But the Holocaust exhibit was really only the beginning. It was really only preparation for what, it seems, the museum’s designers really want you to take from it. And don’t they need a greater point? Because while there are still neo-Nazis (some of them actually dangerous), and there is anti-Semitism around the world (France seems poised to drown in it), there are very few places–certainly not in L.A.–where such prejudice is socially and openly acceptable. We have all been taught that the Holocaust was a Very Bad Thing, and whenever someone would like to take up the Nazi mantle, he or she is roundly and publicly denounced, whatever might be said behind closed doors.
No, the punchline doesn’t come until you enter the “modern” part of the museum, where it is not hard for elementary school to connect the dots: Holocaust: Very Bad = All Negative Statements About Anyone: Just As Bad. So you travel from the fruit of extremism during the ’30s and ’40s to modern day, where crazy religious extremists and misogynists and just all-around haters combine to make our modern world not too different from Hitler and Nazism. So on a video screen images of the planes flying into the Twin Towers are juxtaposed with the “God hates fags” folks and some pastor who said that Muhammad was a pedophile (how old does your wife have to be before you are not a pedophile?) Along with timelines and videos of women marching for the vote, and the formation of the National Organization for Women (obviously definitive of tolerance for women–except for the unborn ones), desegregation, etc., we are reminded that “Words Have Consequences.”
See, children: Nazis, racists, religious fanatics, and those who want to keep women from voting are all the same, and anytime you hear someone saying negative things, we are only steps from another Holocaust if we let such people have any political power. Forget nuance and distinction; they do not exist where tolerance rules. The key to propaganda is to narrow the vision so that the viewer or hearer never sees anything but what the producer of the propaganda wants you to see. (Quick, move along from those pictures of Jewish corpses to the story of Matthew Shepard, before anyone sees those burned and dismembered fetuses.)
And yet… The tolerant mind can only go so far. We were reminded numerous times that when we make people into objects (a strange picture of a Hustler cover, where they promise not to treat women like meat anymore–did someone tell Larry Flynt?), when we treat them as less than human, we are on the inevitable path to murder and genocide. Which, in itself, is true. But the logic never goes all the way: there was a surreal moment when a staff person said something to the effect that there is still genocide around the world, and even in the United States–from which she immediately backpedaled and said, well, not literally. Really? There is no example of people treating millions of other people like objects and less than human and a problem to be taken care of? No example of the taking of life considered unworthy of life, or, sadly, better off dead? No example of progressive thinking that progressively defines people out of the human race, all the easier to dispose of them in mass graves (or dumpsters, as the case may be)? Hm. Nope, nothing comes to mind.
That’s the problem with a general “tolerance.” It is always circumstantial and perspectival. You cannot be tolerant of everything and everyone, or you will be incoherent. The Nazis were tolerant–as long as you fit their narrative. As long as you didn’t try to interfere with their program. As long as you had the right genes. As long as you didn’t worship anything greater than National Socialism.
And you think you would nevertolerate a repeat of the Holocaust? Never tolerate the taking of millions of lives because they didn’t fit your personal or national narratives? Never tolerate the disposal of human beings because their genes weren’t perfect? Never tolerate the State as the Most High God?
Yeah, me neither.
P.S. I cannot wait for the first commenter who will be exempli gratia for Tolerance.