Friday, October 15, 2021

Justifying the Holocaust is a Small Price to Pay for Abolishing CRT

You've probably seen by now the story about a Texas school administrator suggesting to teachers that, in the wake of recent supposedly "anti-Critical Race Theory" rules demanding that teachers provide "both sides" of contentious or controversial topics and not in any way proffer sweeping denunciations of anyone or anything as "systematically" racist, they must provided a "balanced" account of the Holocaust. To be clear, it seems apparent that the administrator is not happy about this, but rather viewed this as the inevitable consequence of following the rules that have been laid down (and she indicated that there may have, in fact, been parental complaints before about the Holocaust being taught in an "imbalanced" fashion).

The small but vocal Jewish contingent which has been pushing the anti-CRT hysteria, suddenly aware of the leopards hungrily eyeing their own faces, was thrust on the defensive. Do they have regrets about the obvious and inevitable consequences of their own actions? No. And incredibly, they seem willing to allow for renewed debate over the very morality of the Holocaust if that's what it takes to oppose critical race theory:

“The dispute about the interpretation of events is completely legitimate, but the dispute about the existence of events is either dangerous or stupid or both,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “You can, for example, argue endlessly about the effects and causes of slavery but to argue that slavery didn’t happen is idiotic, or pernicious, and the same thing is true with the Holocaust.”

It is not an accident that Rabbi Wolpe, and the other anti-CRT voices quoted in the article, frame their disclaimers as opposing Holocaust denial -- a purely factual stance. Because let's be precise about what Rabbi Wolpe is suggesting here at applied to Holocaust education. He's saying that it's stupid to debate the "existence" of events, whether it's the Holocaust or slavery, but we must be "balanced" as to the dispute over their "interpretation". And perhaps "balance" isn't meant to apply to the raw existence of historical fact. But that means "balance" is applied to matters of normative assessment. The real potential "balance" in the Holocaust context is not denying that it happened, but suggesting that it was justified, or at the very least wasn't as bad or unjustified as "critics" suggest. Making sure we provide "diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective" means we have to dispassionately present the Holocaust from the point of view of the Germans just as much as the Jews.

As with slavery, where the "dissenting" narrative is that slavery's evils were overstated, many masters were kind, most White people were innocent, and in any event none of it has anything to do with the present day, the Holocaust too has alternative perspectives, where unflinching presentation of the Holocaust's horrors now must be "balanced" with narratives emphasizing "good Germans", the "innocent Wehrmacht", legitimate German grievances, and Jewish aggression and exploitation (both before and after the event). We would hate for any White people to feel "demonized", after all.

This was entirely predictable. As much as folks like Wolpe and David Bernstein loudly proclaim to be shocked -- shocked -- by the reach of the formal anti-CRT legislation they purport to "oppose", such legislation is the tangible manifestation of the anti-CRT campaign, which never had anything to do with CRT to begin with. It was always a backlash against teaching unflinching and unblinking history in the context of systemic oppression, dressed up in a sloppy "liberal" appeal to "both-sidesing". Once you do that, of course it's going to apply to the Holocaust too.

The thing is, whether we're talking about the Holocaust or about Jim Crow, I concede it may not always be fun to learn their your "group" or your ancestors were the villains of a particular chapter of history. Nonetheless, the purpose of the educational practice is not to "demonize" any student on basis of their identity, and the ancillary effect of generating feelings of "discomfort" is not something that likely can be avoided without utterly neutering the value of the lesson. The Holocaust is uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable in terms of what it did to Jews, in what it says about the moral fiber and moral foundations of a modern European state, and in what it implies about contemporary politics (about Jews and otherwise). Same with America's history of racial apartheid. It simply is discomforting, in terms of what it has done to people of color, in what it says about our collective national conscience and our foundational creeds, and what it implies about present day injustices and inequities.

Nonetheless, Holocaust education is not and should not be agnostic as between whether the attempted extermination of Jews was good or bad, and is not and should not be studiously indifferent over drawing lessons on how to head off similar atrocities in the future. When Texas demands that agnosticism and that indifference under the patina of both-sidesing, then it is impossible for contemporary Holocaust education to function as it should. But these are indeed the wages of the anti-CRT campaign it has embarked on.

To some extent, then, we can perversely admire the principled decision Wolpe, Bernstein, et al are sticking to here. In their view, raw facts may be sacrosanct, but "interpretations" must always be open. And so, in practice, their view is that while Texas schools should not teach outright Holocaust denial, they can and must be more open to debating the Holocaust's merits -- the German side and the Jewish side, presenting is neutrally and dispassionately as possible. White Supremacists should count themselves lucky to have such tenacious advocates. The rest of the Jewish community will unsurprisingly remain appalled.

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