Saturday, October 15, 2005

Should Virginia Execute Hitler?

The Virginia Gubernatorial race gets a little bit uglier. Godwin's law aside (does that only apply to internet posts, by the way?), I really dislike this ad. In my opinion, the Holocaust should be used to influence one political issue and one political issue only: genocide. Since the chances of mass murder breaking out in old Virginny are relatively slim, and since neither Kaine nor Kilgore will have any influence on American policy regarding the current genocide in Darfur, the Hitler reference is exploitative and entirely inappropriate.

A few thoughts. First, according to The Washington Post, Jewish leaders share my outrage by the usage here:
Adolf Hitler became a central character in the Virginia governor's race this week as Republican Jerry W. Kilgore's campaign used the Nazi leader's name in an emotional ad on the death penalty, prompting an outcry Friday from some Jewish leaders.
Such references are inappropriate and insensitive, and, as part of a discussion of the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia, trivialize the horrors of the Holocaust," wrote David Friedman, a regional director for the group.

While most Jewish groups lean Democrat (making some conservatives suspicious), it appears that this is not a partisan issue:
Holocaust references have become almost off-limits in American politics as Jewish leaders have begun to pounce on what they say are cynical attempts to capitalize on the emotional power of the genocide.

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was chastised for accusing Senate Republicans of acting like Nazis. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan was taken to task for comparing the Terri Schiavo case to the killings at Auschwitz. And in Virginia, state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) was reprimanded for comparing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to the Holocaust.

It's very frustrating to me to see non-Jewish politicians (especially non-Jewish politicians who take positions at odds with the majority of the Jewish community) co-opt one of the most horrifying events in our history without our consent. The fact that this ad ran without any apparent consultation with the Jewish community is appalling. It doesn't matter whether the ad matches some hypothetical situation where Kaine would have to pass judgment on Hitler (and even the accuracy in this respect is disputed). The Kilgore campaign should have consulted with the Jewish community before invoking a man who's very name has a powerful psychological effect on Jews around the world. It just lends more credence to my hypothesis that the Jewish identity is rapidly devolving into nothing more than a political football for non-Jewish activists. There is no examination of Jewish perspectives on the death penalty (which admittedly is a very complex issue). The impact is a very powerful silencing effect on the Jewish community, as its views on its own identity become irrelevant and pass out of the public debate. This is marginalization personified.

Second, Kaine's opposition to the Death Penalty comes out of his sincere religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic. Recall that Kaine has said that he will enforce Virginia's death penalty law because it's the law--his anti-death penalty position is a personal belief, nothing more. Imagine the outrage if a liberal candidate attacked a conservative candidate for just holding conservative religious beliefs. Hell, you don't even have to imagine it--we know what would happen, because we've been hearing for several years now Republicans blasting Democratic Senators for asking conservative judicial nominees if their sincere religious beliefs will prevent them from upholding the law. "Religious discrimination!" they cry. "Stop persecuting people of faith." But what the Democrats are doing is asking the perfectly legitimate question about whether these potential judge's personal faith will conflict with the rule of law. The Kilgore ad attacks the belief even after being assured the rule of law won't be implicated. There is a difference here, to be sure, but the GOP comes out far worse.

I haven't been following the VA race that closely, but from what I've picked up it seems that Kilgore is running a paradigmatic nasty campaign. Ads like this are maybe the most visible instances. However, I also heard that as he got pummelled in the debates, he resorted to old conservative stand-bys of "TAXES WILL RISE TO THE HEAVENS!!! AAAAAAHHHH!!!!" In other words, what we've seen out of the Kilgore campaign is what we see out of far too many campaigns in America today: lots of inflammatory rhetoric, precious little substantive debate. I won't say I think this is worse than gratuitous Holocaust references. But it is something we should oppose.

One final (brief) note on Jewish views on the Death Penalty. In Judaism, the commandment is "Thou Shalt Not Murder" (as opposed to "Kill"), and the Death Penalty is not considered murder if judicially imposed as punishment for certain crimes. However, Talmudic interpretation has severely limited when it can imposed--placing extremely high procedural hurdles before the state can justly take a life (to the practical effect that it could never be imposed at all). So while Jews don't subscribe to the Roman Catholic model which is inherently opposed to the Death Penalty, a Jewish perspective would be appalled by the broken, unjust, and frankly racist freight train to the Electric Chair that personifies Virginia's Death Penalty system. Which is roughly my position as well: The Death Penalty may be alright in theory, but in practice it is broken beyond repair. That these nuances were again, entirely ignored by the Kilgore campaign as it sought to exploit Jewish tragedy for electoral gain, is icing on a bitter cake of Jewish political expendablity.


Cathie said...

It's almost as if Kilgore's campaign is forcing a negative campaign because that is what the party does. For a race as big as this, his side is doing a poor job with the ads. I have been pleasantly surprised with Kaine's ads, which are to the point and mostly about Kaine, except the ones in rebuttal. What I find most interesting about this race is that it feels like it is setting the tone for the campaigns of next year, an election which may very well change the political landscape of the country (hopefully.) I've had enough of mudslinging, and Kilgore's is a desperate attempt to keep the practice alive.

All my opinion, of course.

N.S.T said...

Let me add some extra reinforcement to what follows. I have a slew of Jews in my background; my dad's family all emigrated from Europe, and half of them were jews. I support Israel almost unconditionally, in short I'm not an anti-semite at all. All of this being said...As horrible and incomprehensible an event in human history as the holocaust was, it's something shared by all human beings, a part of everyone's history. Jews do not "own" the memory of the holocaust; everyone does. Thus I don't think it's fair to give Jews total control over the normative justice of various uses of the holocaust.

jack said...

I actually agree with Nick here. You start out fine talking about how the term Holocaust should never be used as a political tool except when discussing present day genocide which I think is exactly right. But then you start talking about how he should have consulted the Jewish community- I don't really understand how even having the consent of the Jewish community (however the hell you determine that) would make the word's use in an add like this any more acceptable.

Isaac said...

Yeah, a third on that Jews "own" the Holocaust. That is singularly odd to claim. It's more that you don't want to cheapen the metaphor, as you rightly aruge, than that it should be limited to a certain group.

Dan Nexon said...

"So while Jews don't subscribe to the Roman Catholic model which is inherently opposed to the Death Penalty"

Not true.

Anonymous said...

fourth... the inhumane event was a human one. Leaving it to the unfortunate race it happened too only leaves a wider door for another. I may agree it has been bastardized in usage but every detail and small historic event that led up to it should be scrutinized as part and parcel of the final outcome.