When I was in 9th grade, I was propagandized, and I don’t mind.
I was attending an all boys high school (the Gilman School) in Baltimore, and it was a pretty liberal establishment with a thoughtful and generally excellent management and curriculum, with some great teachers who genuinely loved what they were doing. There were a few things about it I did not like but even at the time I realized it was performative bullshit intended to help us fit in for a future of being cogs in the bullshit machinery of the US. At the time I was the founder/president of the computer club, and the “military history club” (AKA: the wargaming club) and life was generally excellent. My school had 2 requirements I did not particularly like: one was mandatory athletics, the other was “Chapel” The mandatory athletics bothered me more; I wanted to spend that time programming computers and playing Squad Leader. [Squad Leader was produced by Avalon Hill, a Baltimore company, and I used to bicycle down to their HQ on Read St near Charles on saturdays and play-test] I got around the athletics requirement by taking karate classes 3 nights a week at a local dojo, and bicycling everywhere.
Chapel was not really a religious thing – it was just when the whole grade-set would get together at once for whatever reason, or the whole school could be pulled together for a discussion or news. This was not a huge school. The assembly hall was pretty big but not cavernous. Every week there was usually something special – someone demonstrating something, or discussing something important, or whatever. It was the usual stuff: try to socialize the little bastards so they don’t grow up to be a bunch of sociopathic capitalists. I don’t know about the other kids but I had a vague feeling that was what was going on: they brought in the chorus from one of the other area schools and they got a gig and we got a chance to discover that black people can sing., etc. These were important experiences and I gave the example of the Polytechnic vocal squad because we got a good chance to rub shoulders in the cafeteria and maybe a bit of culture rubbed off and the wealthier kids in the school got to notice that some people have to take the public buses to get around town. Writing that down like that, it sounds awful, but you have to understand that 2 years before, I was in the public school system when they integrated it, and suddenly our whitey white local school had a large black population and some of the parents flipped their shit. That was memorable: I got to see how embarrassing racists are. I was switched from the public schools because I was acting up out of boredom; I was running a pretty profitable poker game and hanging out with bicycle thieves, teaching them how to pick locks. High school boredom. So when I wound up at Gilman, I realized it was a place full of great opportunity and I discovered quickly that good teachers are not there to torture you for some weird, unexplained reason: they actually want to share their knowledge because seeing young people have “aha!” moments is what gets them off.
I was not particularly interested in politics because my earlier experience with parents getting racist at my then-friends had left a bad taste in my mouth. But there was a lingering sensation that something important needed to be taught about this stuff. Third Reich was a staple of our gaming library and we all knew that the Holocaust was connected to WWII and the Third Reich and the USSR. I was, what, 16? I was not going to go grab a copy of The Theory and Practice of Hell [Eugene Kogon] My understanding of all this stuff was sketchy, except inasmuch as the Holocaust seemed to me to be a pointless digression from the military functions of the war.
Then, we had one chapel session that was announced as being special; it was going to extend before and after the normal time and we were going to watch a movie and there was going to be a speaker who was a Nobel Prize winner: Elie Wiesel. I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t care much. So, when the time came we all shuffled in and sat down and they spooled up Night and Fog. Looking back at it, I think that might have been a bit inappropriate for kids our age. Remember: this was back in the day where you had to own a movie projector or viewer and film if you wanted to see live-action stuff. Of course there were documentaries about WWII and I had seen a few of them, but you didn’t just pop open some app and watch The World at War – you had to wait until some theater showed it, and mostly the theaters were showing crap like Hellraiser. I did not own a TV because I was growing up under a mandate that my parents weren’t going to waste their money on a TV and if I wanted a TV I had to waste my own. Books were better, so I grew up without a TV, mostly. Anyhow, I had seen the usual stuff you might see at a friends’ house – the Cebra boys and I used to watch Star Trek when the new episodes came out, on their TV. But I hadn’t grown up seeing people, actual people, shot to death on film. I hadn’t seen piles of bodies being moved with heavy machinery. Such piles of bodies. What the fuck? I don’t have any idea what my classmates thought, but I was glued into my chair with horror that people would waste their time being so mean to eachother. I could understand how you’d have great piles of bodies after a battle like Cannae, but it was all intellectualized.
After the movie, Elie Weisel spoke. He was really good and very passionate. Looking back at the whole thing, I suspect that nowadays we’d say Weisel was suffering from extreme PTSD. He was “driven.” I mean, there were demons behind his eyes, haunting him every moment of his life. He was there to teach us snotty privileged kids what “never again” means. I was OK with that. I got that point nearly instantly. But Weisel hammered on for a bit and then made a few assertions that surprised me. He said that the allies bore some responsibility for the Jews being killed, because they didn’t expend any resources to try to rescue anyone; they stood around pretending not to see, then were “shocked” when the camps were discovered. Now, even as a kid, I interpreted that as bullshit. But now as an adult I realize that Weisel was somewhat right, but was working at the wrong level: the problem was the allied powers that stood around and negotiated with Hitler to try to keep from having another big war like WWI, because they were frankly tired of fighting Germans. That allowed Hitler and Stalin to partition Poland and that allowed Hitler and Stalin and the people of Poland to enact their anti-semitism and go full-bore genocide in order to free up land for christians. I didn’t realize most of that until I read Bloodlands [wc] because most of my life I was more interested in the grand strategies of warfare than the details of massacres. Especially after watching Night and Fog and seeing what a lot of dead people look like. Anyhow, when Weisel said that the allies bore responsibility for not interfering with the Holocaust, the example he used was “they could have bombed the railways that were being used to ship Jews to the camps.” That? Really?
Things wound down with a Q&A period and nobody had any questions. I think everyone was in shock. But, since I hate silence, I raised my hand, was recognized, stood up, and said something like, “I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the allies of inaction; bombing the railways would have just resulted in the nazis machine-gunning people by the side of the tracks. Maybe it would have been possible to to commit troops with an air assault like operation Market/Garden but that didn’t work very well – the Germans were still very powerful…” or something like that. I got partway into it and was trying to figure out how to turn it into a question when Weisel flipped his shit. Suddenly he was yelling, “this is the kind of anti-semitism I am here to fight!” and pointing a rage-shaking finger at me. The Dean of Students, Mr Gamper (we were all scared of him but he was really a sweet guy) stood up like a turret machine-gun, locked his eyes on me, and pointed to the back door of the room and mouthed, “NOW.” So I walked. Dead silence. I was thinking “that did not go well.”
So I found myself in the dean’s office and dad was called. I was sent home for the day. I was branded an anti-semite. But, really, I was just talking about military strategy, damn it. I didn’t say “it would have been good for the Germans to…” it was just simply obvious that anyone who was willing to get as down and dirty as the Germans and Poles would not have been concerned with the niceities. Apparently, though I only heard bits of the story, my dad went in to talk and soothe ruffled feathers and found that actually, it was Mr Gamper’s thought that getting me out of the situation was doing me a big favor and he wasn’t mad and nobody except Elie Weisel thought I was anti-semitic. Well, a couple football players who rustled me back in the locker room called me “fucking nazi” and gave me a bloody lip (size matters) but that was about all the fallout from that. Apparently my dad had said, “Marcus is interested in military history and probably was dealing with Weisel’s comment in terms of whether his strategic advice was valuable.” Exactly, thanks dad. Then apparently he asked, “do you think Marcus was correct?” Dad has a way of dropping the flummox on people that I have never managed to learn.
That was the end of that. I came out of the experience with complicated mixed feelings. For one thing, I saw the incredible psychological damage that something like the Holocaust causes, and I understood why. When Elie Weisel said “never again” he fucking meant it. Weisel was a propagandist and he was deliberately being so, but I’m not sure what he taught me. Some of the things that came out of that experience stayed with me until, let’s say, about a decade ago: I made the oft-propagandized connection between Zionism and WWII. As I have mentioned in this blog before [stderr], Zionism and the Euro-colonial project in Palestine started in the 1890s and was triggered by French anti-semitism more than German (at the time) – the flood of Jews to Palestine had more to do with the things documented in Bloodlands than the Holocaust. But the Holocaust had become a convenient propaganda-point for Zionism. So, about 10 years ago I started looking back at Weisel as an impassioned but poor propagandist. Although, another way of looking at it is that he made his point in a manner that was absolutely unforgettable. I am sure that, after what happened, none of my high school class wanted to be denounced as anti-semitic. I still think it’s vicious and immoral to attempt to silence political criticism (or criticism about military strategy) by calling someone anti-semitic: it’s a powerful accusation and making it lightly too often pulls its teeth.
I had another interesting and thought-provoking experience regarding the Holocaust back in the 80s. My dad was the chair of the History Department at JHU and for some research thingie or other, we wound up hosting Axel Von Dem Bussche, who stayed at my parents house for a week or so while being interviewed about something or other. [wik] I remember a lot about Axel, who laughed long and hard when I told him I was majoring in Psychology, then got serious and said dismissively (of Psychology, not me) “if they ever figure anything out, let me know.” He had a way of smoking and waving his cigarette. He had a wry smile. I didn’t really know who he was but I knew he was a WWII veteran on the German side. I asked him about his war experience and he said “I’ll only tell you one war story.” And he did: he said he was at a big battle and they shot at Russians all day until their guns were failing and they were running out of ammunition. Axel was an officer and he said he had “a useless little Walther PPK” which he emptied at a human wave attack. Then, he and the Russians ducked when some artillery came in. He stood up and there was a huge Russian standing looking at him. Axel picked up a small rock and threw it, and it pinged off the Russian’s helmet. Then the Russian laughed. Then Axel and the Russian were both sitting in the churned mud of this great big shell-hole laughing at each other, whooping for air, and laughing some more. Then the Russian saluted him and walked off. Axel was the antithesis, for me, of Weisel: he was thoughtful, clearly regretful, and seemed to be trying to see everything from many angles. He was not a propagandist. I mentioned to one of my classmates that we had this interesting house-guest and their eyes got big, “A nazi? Your parents have nazis as house-guests?” I said “I don’t think he was exactly a nazi.” Remember: when that happened, I did not know who Axel was; you can read the wikipedia page about him if you like. I remember his wry smile and how he spoke respectfully to a snot-nosed kid who was trying to transform into an adult.
When we took him to the airport, the security checkpoint had a problem. The metal detector went apeshit when Axel tried to go through it. The security guys asked if he was carrying any metal and Axel suddenly straightened to the height of a full colonel in the panzergrenadiers and said loudly, “American machine gun bullets installed in a German leg by Russians at Kursk.” He rolled up the bottom of his trousers and his leg looked like it had been mauled by a tiger. The security guards waved him through. I never saw him again. He had always been living on borrowed time.
I guess that what I’m saying with these stories is that I learned to hate in detail. You know the expression “don’t hate the player, hate the game”? I modified that: “hate the game and hate the hateful players.” I don’t hate Elie Weisel; you watch his movie and you can totally understand how traumatized one can be, to ream out a high school kid like that. Or maybe Weisel was acting cooly and deliberately and it was all an act. Shit, for that matter, Axel could have been, too. So it was that I decided to judge people by their actions and to separate a person’s public persona from their inner self, if they even actually have one. I guess I stopped assuming the latter point, until I’d get to know a person better. Is Joe Rogan saying what he says because he’s a racist, or not? Who gives a shit? He is saying what he says in order to amuse racists. I’d rather know what Elie Weisel thinks. But years forward there have been times I have been critical of the political actions of Israel, and I never think to criticize Israel without thinking of that angry old man yelling and pointing his finger at me. I wish I could have sat down in friendship with him, and explained that I understand the difference between Israel and Israelis, and that Israelis are not a unified thing that all believe and act the same, any more than nazis are. Judge Israel for its political actions, and judge Germany for its. To the extent that a nation’s political actions are an emergent property of its people, then we can talk about the morality of the decisions its people are making. The attempt to conflate the two is the essence of totalitarianism: you must agree with the state. Fuck, no.
Shorter me: Fuck Maus and show kids Night and Fog. Maybe then they won’t grow up to be authoritarian jackboot-wishing thugs. I think the reason adults don’t want their kids exposed to that sort of thing is because it shows what bastards adults can be. You can’t grow up respecting your parents if you think there’s any chance they’ve been involved with or supporters of heavy machinery moving around piles of starved corpses. Hey, maybe that’s why some white people don’t like CRT? CRT me a river, parents.
John Dewey was a very influential philosopher who had a lot of interesting thoughts about how public education should be done. Gilman, the school I attended from 8th->senior high school, was built along the lines Dewey suggested. I think it was a great school, though I had the pro forma high schooler’s hatred for school in general. Dewey’s eminently sensible ideas went rapidly out of style because he was … a socialist. Can’t have that. I’m mentioning this because I think that reactionary politics’ effect on education has been consistently bad for a long time, now. It’s sad because the US actually had a great educational system for a while there, thanks to Huxley, Hopkins, Dewey, and others – but ultimately the country’s adults would rather raise generations of racist, imperialist chucklefucks than educated and interesting human beings.