To Challenge Ignorance

From the Associated Press, October 30, 2018:

For months, the 46-year-old truck driver had been posting angry rants against Jews on the Gab social media site, to little apparent notice. He blamed Jews for plotting against society, contaminating it in order to destroy it.

Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel The Winds of War (it took him about seven years to write it) is (as you may know) one of my all time favorites and major writing influences. It is romantic historical fiction – meaning it is based on real events of 1939-1941. Some of the characters are invented, but those invented characters stay firmly within the parameters of the historical record. (A teen wizard doesn’t appear in Hitler’s chancellery to wave a wand and shout “Abbadoodlepoodle” to cast a spell transforming the Nazi dictator into a lap dog.)

Vaguely I remembered this scene and went looking for it yesterday. In a restaurant in 1939 Germany, thirty-ish American foreign service officer “Leslie Slote” and young American twenties-something expat “Byron Henry” – who had just returned from the chaos of Poland during the German invasion weeks earlier – fall into discussing anti-Semitism. It is worth reading in its entirety, so I’ve squared out the excerpt:

[The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk, 1971. Photo by me, 2018.]

Fast forward 47 years to 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Given his reported age, the 46 year old murderous idiot who opened fire on people in that synagogue because they were Jewish after he had somehow convinced himself those people were his enemy and deserved death simply because of how they worship God… was born around a year AFTER that novel was published and been a gigantic seller. Subsequently that future murderous idiot was probably about age 11 or so when, in 1983, that same novel was adapted into a US television network miniseries that became one of the most watched of all time.

Looking back, the year 1983 was also as we neared the end of US network television’s “golden era” – when “the entire country” still watched mostly the three (CBS, NBC, ABC) major networks on the living room set from about 7pm (when the national news was shown on all three) to 11pm (when local news came on), thanks to receiving them through a (now old-fashioned) roof antenna, or indoor “rabbit ears” (before the arrival of widespread cable and, of course, long before the internet), and even remote controls were newish, still rare and “high tech” (with someone often still having to change the channel by getting up and walking over to the set and turning a channel dial). The US total population in the early 1980s was about 230 million. The Winds of War miniseries on ABC averaged 80 million viewers each night during its February 6-13 broadcast.

I was one of those viewers – then a Long Island, New York high school student. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it and recall being fascinated by every second as I sat in my pajamas in the family den alongside my parents. I liked “Leslie Slote” – played by the now late actor David Dukes – a lot even though he was rather cowardly; I thought he would “braven up” if he had to. The commercial breaks were filled with discussion, including my parents telling me about my grandparents’ and other relatives’ (all of whom are now dead) lives before and during the war, and about what Jewish neighbors’ families in Europe had endured. (It may have been around that time also that my grandmother told me the story of my late grandfather and two cousins having a 1939/40 blowout argument over Italian dictator Benito Mussolini – my grandpa had hated him – in their then newlywed apartment in Brooklyn.) At that time also, I had never been to Europe. (It was after seeing the miniseries that I read the novel my mom had on a shelf.)

So chances are pretty good that murderous idiot’s parents or grandparents or other close relatives would have watched Winds too, or at least heard of it. That same murderous idiot was born also long after the Nazi extermination camps of the Second World War (1939-1945). Nazi Germany engaged in a chilling, systematic, industrial-like, assembly-line effort – starvation, forced labor, shootings, drownings, gassings, whatever they could come up with – at mass murder across Europe on a scale unseen ever before in human history: if you were a Jew, you had to die. Period. The Nazis attempted flat out to kill every Jewish person they could get their hands on, leading eventually to the murders of some 6 million people: men, women, and children. It was so bad, in 1944 a new word was invented for it: genocide.

It has been a crime for decades in many European countries to declare that genocide did not happen. For example, France was defeated by Germany in 1940 and was then under Nazi occupation until 1944-45. The main reason underlying its 1990 law outlawing “Holocaust Denial” is that the French state overseen by the Nazis between 1940-1945 had used French government resources, particularly military, police, and railroads, to help transport French Jews – French citizens – to extermination camps like Auschwitz, and it was too often not a matter of conquered French officialdom being forced at gunpoint by the victorious Nazis into assisting in the genocide: it became disturbingly clearer after the war that way too many French officials, rather than having tried to make it even a little bit tougher for Nazis to seize Jews, were actually independently enthusiastic and exceedingly helpful to the Nazis.

The issue was considered so serious especially given certain extremist/nationalist politicians’ and others’ increasing efforts to “question” that history, to try to minimize the scale of it all, to look to shift or muddy responsibility, or even to blame… Jews themselves for exaggerating. Freedom of speech was therefore NOT to be given equal weight in this singular instance: it was to be made absolutely legally clear that French government officials and resources historically participated in the deportations and murders of over 70,000 of France’s Jews (out of a total French Jewish population of about 340,000), and NO ONE was going to be allowed to argue publicly that that Holocaust did not happen.

[The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk, 1971. Photo by me, 2018.]

Yet despite all of that, and so much more that is appalling, sickening, and horrific, and which we KNOW about, that murdering idiot got through the US school system – where the events of the Holocaust are taught; where World War II is taught; where history is TAUGHT – and over time in his adulthood later SOMEHOW came to believe the absolute nonsense he does. And his views are worryingly not as uncommon or as isolated as we may hope. Clearly we have a problem with the teaching of history, too.

Such ugliness is even worse than just mere historical illiteracy. There was an episode of television’s The West Wing program (1999-2006) in which a character displays disdain for an ignorant major US politician who stated that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain led Great Britain during the Battle of Britain in 1940. It’s bad enough the politician hasn’t read a history book and thinks it wasn’t Winston Churchill, the character declares, but, geez, hasn’t he ever seen a movie?

As writers, as educators, as people, it is our duty to challenge ignorance in all its forms and from whatever quarter it comes. If the “crazy relative” makes an anti-Semitic comment at the dinner table, pull the person up on it. When someone blurts out an insult of others of whatever color, race, or creed, respond politely that you consider that talk unacceptable. You cannot argue with an idiot, but you may thoughtfully speak up and make it known – especially so others hear – that bigotry and stupidity will not be allowed to go unchallenged.