Friday, September 11, 2009

The Expressive Function of Flak 88

For someone who blogs as much as I do about issues of anti-Semitism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I think I've shown admirable restraint in the amount of ink I've spilled over the various Human Rights Watch controversies that have sprung up of late. I believe I've written but two posts: about Joe Stork's past, and about about how they pitched themselves to various potential Saudi funders.

The latest of these is reports that a former analyst, Marc Galasco, for HRW doubles as an avid collector of Nazi war memorabilia. He specializes in "flak badges", which he literally wrote the book on, and this provides the muse for his internet handle: "Flak 88" (the Nazis operated an 88mm flak cannon during the war). Garlasco has relatives who fought both for the Nazis and the Americans during the war.

There are, as always, a lot of things to be said here. The first is that I really do not believe there is any ill intent behind the "Flak 88" moniker. The objection is that 88 is symbolic for "Heil Hitler" in Nazi circles. Perhaps I'm too credulous though, but that a specialist in flak guns naming himself after a prominent flak cannon seems more likely than closet Nazi sympathies. At worst it is insensitive and stupid, but those are qualities which are alas not in short supply in the world.

And in general, that's my view on Garlasco. It's a bit weird to be a collector of Nazi medals, just in general. It's not necessarily a sign of Nazi sympathies, and it doesn't mean that Garlasco cannot be an objective human rights analyst. The "positive" information we get out of Garlasco's hobby is very little.

But -- and this is what I want to focus on -- there is an expressive dimension to what Garlasco and HRW did that I think is disturbing. When the story broke, HRW responded in what is rapidly becoming typical fashion: accusing critics of being motivated solely by the desire "to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch’s rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government." You know Jews -- they're only after that one thing.

Human Rights Watch is an NGO that does incredibly important work. It is absolutely critical that it comport itself in a manner that does not even give the appearance of partiality. This is a high standard -- behaviors and practices that do not actually lead to biased reporting can nonetheless undermine a perception of impartiality. Maybe giving millions of dollars to your judges re-election campaign won't influence his vote, but the Supreme Court was absolutely right, in my view, to say recusal is required anyway. The appearance of a potential source of bias -- the nagging doubt, the voice in the back of the head -- is sufficient. Without a commitment to that sort of standard, the entire edifice upon which the judiciary's legitimacy is built upon -- trust -- comes crashing down. And same with an organization like HRW, that likewise casts itself as a neutral, dispassionate judge on the state of human rights worldwide.

HRW seems to be losing sight of this. In it's haste to deflect any and all criticisms as the workings of bitter pro-Israel partisans, it is forgetting that it's job isn't to flash how independent it is from the influence of pro-Israel supporters -- it's job is to be a trusted and neutral arbiter on human rights. And, hard as it might be, that means that no matter how loud NGO Monitor shouts, they cannot be seen as enemy nor friend. Groups who take it upon themselves to be adjudicators don't have the luxury of friends or enemies -- only an interest in fairness and justice. The minute they forget that is the minute the cease to be a useful resource in the struggle for human rights.

The problem is that, even if everything Whitson and Stork and Garlasco has ever done is entirely above board, the expressive message HRW is sending out is that it does not particularly care if Jewish persons and organizations find them biased, unfair, or hostile. The behavior may be facially innocent, but it is of the sort that leads to legitimate suspicion -- all the more so when it becomes a pattern -- and that in turn is at odds with HRW's mission to be a trusted and dispassionate resource for human rights advocates.

It does creep me out that somebody focusing on Israel's human rights record is a collector of Nazi paraphernalia. I'm sorry, but it does. It's not like descendents of slaves collecting tokens of racism, because Garlasco is not a descendant of Holocaust survivors, he's the descendant of a German soldier. He is George Allen in this story, not Bill Cosby. I am no more sympathetic to the claim that it is unfair that victims of oppression can collect mementos of their oppressors, whereas perpetrators (and their progeny) cannot than I am to complaints that White folks can't use the n-word.

I'm not sure that I'd go as far as this CST post, but it is very true that promoting a marketplace for Nazi mementos is an act that has consequences no matter how innocent the motives. It has real effects on the survivors, and it has real effects on the climate that Jews (and other victims of the Holocaust) have to live in. We say the same thing about Southern good ol' boys who love flying those Stars and Bars. Maybe it is about heritage for them. But there are other people to (not) think about. At best, Garlasco didn't consider that. And what message does that send?

This is not paranoia. These are fair concerns. And they are exacerbated when HRW's response is that as far as it's concerned, any and all Jewish complaints can be dismissed with a wave as pro-Israel posturing. Why on earth would we trust an institution which is transmitting these messages?


PG said...

I agree with your overall point that HRW is destroying its usefulness and reputation as a neutral arbiter through its insensitivity and indifference toward Jews.

However, I don't find Garlasco's hobby, at least as you've described it here, very creepy. Probably to some extent that's because I'm not Jewish and don't have that particular perspective, but someone who's merely a collector of essentially military memorabilia doesn't strike me as doing anything terribly creepy. The people I find creepy with regard to the Confederacy are those who lionize it or treat it as something to be proud of or put its memorabilia on public display (why is there a rebel flag hanging from the statehouse wall?). The people who are just historically interested in how the Confederacy ran a short-lived government and fought a war don't bother me. I would think Nazi memorabilia that is not specifically connected with the Holocaust (e.g. I concede your point if Garlasco's got a fetish for Dachau guards' uniforms) could get the same treatment: it's a fascinating historical moment of interest to military buffs. Certainly many American and British men who themselves served in WWII took an interest in the memorabilia from the war, and they don't really fall into either the oppressor or oppressed camp.

ModernityBlog said...

Creepy is a bit of an understatement?

PG said...

Garlasco has relatives who fought both for the Nazis and the Americans during the war.

A little bit of a biased way to put it. As I recall, the country was still called Germany, and Garlasco's grandfather was drafted; he was not a voluntary recruit into the Nazi Party.

David Schraub said...

"Fought for the Nazis and the Allies". That's more parallel, but I don't think it changes the tenor at all, so I think you're nitpicking a bit.

PG said...

No, it's not a nitpick; you are implicitly characterizing Garlasco's grandfather as "a Nazi," when in fact he appears to have been a German male of the age range to be drafted into the German military 1939-1945, regardless of how he personally felt about Hitler, Jews or anything else.

ModernityBlog said...

Equally, how do we know that the Grandfather *wasn't* pro-Nazi in someway or other?

It cuts both ways.

PG said...


Personally, I adhere to the theory that one shouldn't assume Nazism (or any other wicked ideology) without evidence. Simply defaulting to "All non-Jewish Germans 1939-1945 were Nazis" is stupid.

ModernityBlog said...

Oh yeah, nut I forget how many Germans/Austrians did they find were complicit with the Nazi war crimes during WW2?

There was a figure around Nuremberg, I believe, it was 7-9 millions, alive in 1945.

PG said...


Could you (a) provide a source; (b) define "complicit; and (c) explain to me how Nuremberg was an instance of dispassionate fairness and justice?

The fact that a large percentage of a group has been "complicit" in a wrongful act doesn't mean that you can rationally label all members of that group as having committed that act. An awful lot of men are "complicit" in sexual assault (all the guys who watch their frat buddies get a girl drunk and take her upstairs when she can barely walk), but most people don't consider it rational to label all men as rapists.