Tag Archives: Holocaust

What’s Old and New about these Book Bans

6 Feb

Luis Alvaz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it wasn’t the best book I read as a teen, Richard Peck’s 1995 young adult novel about a suburban town’s attempts to shield its teens from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll certainly had the best title summing up the whole idea: The Last Safe Place on Earth. The 1990s are often thought of as a more placid era in America in contrast to today. After all, no politician from an opposing party angrily denied Bill Clinton’s electoral victories, let alone urged a mob of violent citizens to stop the congressional counts of the election results. 

But right-wing extremists embracing both anti-government and white supremacist ideologies bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people including 19 children. A total of seven women’s health workers were murdered and 13 more were injured by shootings, stabbings, bombings or acid attacks perpetrated by anti-abortion terrorists over the course of the decade. (That’s not counting attacks before or after the 90s.) I distinctly remember the day my schoolteacher wrapped up a debate about the death penalty and then soundly refused a student’s request to hold a debate on abortion. “Now way. Grown-ups can’t even handle that debate without resorting to violence,” he declared. In the 90s, the culture wars were raging as we, the kids of the Baby Boomers, sat in schools and parents fought over whether or not we should be allowed to learn anything from the feminists or the gays who had fought and were fighting for liberation. If you ever heard about a proposed book ban in schools or libraries, you could be fairly safe guessing it came from the Christian Right, opposing anything that didn’t portray premarital sex as sinful, feminists as destructive or queer kids as sick. 

The current calls to remove certain books from school libraries are novel only in part. The American Library Association provides statistics on the most frequently challenged books since 1990 and some of the titles and many of the topics on this year’s list remain the same. In 1990, Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal was the villain of the hour, while today it’s Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is A Funny Word. Comprehensive sex education has been attacked ever since it was first proposed in America and 19 states still mandate abstinence-only lessons. Last year’s miniseries Mrs. America deftly showed how Phyllis Schlafly used the power of an enormous mailing list to unite diverse conservatives and religious groups across the country in their staunch opposition to gender equality and make them into the massively powerful political force they have become. Judy Blume, who has long been the most challenged author in the United States, wrote about her experience in 1999:

There was no organized effort to ban my books, or any other books that I knew of anyway. The seventies were a good decade for writers and readers. Many of us came of age during those years, writing from our hearts and guts, finding editors and publishers who believed in us, who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world. Kids with real feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were. And young kids gobbled up our books, hungry for books with characters with whom they could identify…

Then, almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. It was the beginning of the decade that wouldn’t go away, that still won’t go away…

But the calls to remove books about the Holocaust and Ruby Bridges today are something new. I can’t speak to the experience of students in the Southern states, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought successfully 150 years ago to expunge discussions of slavery and human rights from school history lessons about the Civil War. But in the 1990s, it was very easy as a white teen living first on Long Island and then in an Upstate New York town with minimal racial diversity to think that racism existed but was mostly a problem of the past. I learned in school how heroic American soldiers had liberated the concentration camps and how heroic Northerners had helped Dr. King end segregation through non-violent resistance. Both stories had happy endings. I never learned about the U.S. government rejecting a ship of Jewish asylum-seekers during the Holocaust. Or about any of the Americans who supported fascism or antisemitism, or the two-thirds of Americans who said German Jews were either fully or partly to blame for their own persecution. Or about violent reactions to racially integrating schools in the Northern states. Or about white flight, past or present. The Oklahoma City bombing was taught as tragic, militia groups were framed as crazy, but there were no lessons about these groups’ ties to white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan faded from our history books after we finished the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.

I knew homophobia was everywhere – from my classmates (and the occasional teacher) who used slurs regularly, to national figures who called lesbians degenerate, to the outrage in the local papers over an attempt to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school. Such viciousness regarding race seemed to exist only far away. A friend and I were wide-eyed when we found violently racist graffiti on our playground. And when my mother bought a subscription to the newsletter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned there were hate groups around the U.S. But such statistics were not taught in school and they did not make the front page of mainstream papers, which made me subconsciously wonder how big of a deal they really were. No mainstream sources were asking me to question why all the neighborhoods I had lived in were all-white, or where those who had so viciously opposed Dr. King had gone.

In the 90s, intersectionality and Critical Race Theory were around but never afforded attention outside of academia. Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth called out the left for having gone soft on human rights and taking Black voters for granted, but it attracted little more than passing popularity among my classmates for its brazen gangsta talk. We wouldn’t have been allowed to watch it in high school on the grounds of foul language.

At the same moment in modern history, my partner was across the Atlantic, sitting in a Catholic high school in Germany, learning in no uncertain terms that his country was responsible for the Holocaust. Here in Germany, book bans have widely been condemned since the 1960s to be the work of fascists, as memorialized by Berlin’s Empty Library, seen in the photo above next to the plaque reading, “Those who burn books are capable of burning people.” Susan Neiman’s excellent book, Learning from the Germans, outlines how U.S. municipalities and schools could teach about our own history of racism, sexism, ableism and human rights crises in a way that precludes complacent self-congratulation and nationalism. Proposals echoing such suggestions are the target of so many of the book challenges and vitriolic debates in schools today.

The rise of voices calling out modern racism in the U.S. began in the 2000s when I was in college, where many of my fellow Millennials embraced Michael Moore and John Stewart. Such voices were regularly dismissed as fringe by the mainstream media, and you were easily dismissed as a crazy lefty if you mentioned them around certain neighbors or relatives in the post-9/11 era. A college course in genetics confronted me with the faulty science of The Bell Curve, a book I could barely believe had become a bestseller in the 90s. Barack Obama’s first run on the campaign trail left me shocked at how many white voters—both Republicans and Democratic feminists alike—openly used racist arguments to attack him and his family in support of their preferred candidates. Discussions of racism in the mainstream appeared to gradually increase over the course of his presidency.

In 2015, the year after the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the New York Times revealed in a front-page story that the village of Yaphank, a 10-minute ride from my childhood home, was once the site of Hitler Youth camps and still had a whites-only housing policy on the books. In 2018, an in-depth, 10-part report featured in Newsday revealed that Long Island’s four counties—Suffolk, Nassau, Brooklyn and Queens—top the list for the most racially segregated counties in the United States. Such mainstream media attention to racist policies that have been there all along is new, and if students in school today are not learning about it, they should be.

Even John McWhorter, a frequent critic of today’s human rights activism, has lauded this mainstream shift as an improvement:

I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism. Despite my alarm at the excesses of today’s progressive politics, I’ve never argued the simplistic notion that racism boils down to cross-burnings and white people saying the N-word. I recall sadly a conversation I had, when I was a grad student, with a white woman who was an undergraduate. She said, roughly: “So today, Black people can go anywhere they want, they can do anything they want — what’s the problem?” And she wasn’t terribly interested in an answer. Her question was more of a declaration, what she regarded as just facts, and she felt no civic impulse to even consider otherwise.

Of course, her perspective, then, is alive and well now. Yet an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids—upper-middle-class New Yorkers—casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept. I was hearing no such thing in my grad student days. Gallup polling asking “Are Black people in your community treated less fairly than White people?” in situations involving the workplace, shopping, dining out, interactions with police and access to health care, shows that from 1997 until 2021, white Americans and Americans overall became more aware of racial disparities.

Whether it’s a backlash to more probing lessons about racism or a decades-long effort to marginalize queer citizens, restrictions on libraries always threaten democracy. The current efforts to curtail human rights discussions by removing resources on history in schools in the United States is a crisis. But we should never ignore the proof that the seeds for this crisis were sown long ago.

Degenerates, Nazis, & the U.N.

16 Dec

(Via)

 

A reaction to last week’s post about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities sparked a behind-the-scenes discussion about whether or not I should allow name-calling in the Painting On Scars comments section.  I like to engage with almost anyone who disagrees with me, but online I know I also tend to only comment on sites that have strict no-drama policies because discussions can become pointless and boring really, really fast when there’s nothing but insults and exclamation points.  I ultimately decided that, for now, any rude behavior speaks for itself: Commenters can name-call all they want regarding people they dislike or say absolutely nothing, because in both cases they’re not going change anyone’s mind.

That said, I will always tell any supporters if they adopt tactics I want to have nothing to do with.  And it’s important to call out invectives that are particularly malicious in a way some might not be aware of.  The comment in question last week referred to the U.N. as “a bunch of degenerates, throat cutters, and other trash.”  Using the word “degenerate” in a discussion about disability rights is exceptionally insensitive, if not mean-spirited.    

The first time I read the word out loud to a friend here in Germany, his eyes shot up and said, “Be very careful with that word.  It immediately makes everyone think of the Nazis.”  And by “Nazis,” he meant the actual, goose-stepping, genocidal nationalists who tried as best they could to make sure disabled people either died off or were killed off.  Not “Nazis” in the Internet-temper-tantrum sense of “anyone I disagree with.”  The word also evokes the brownshirt term “degenerate art.”  Modern German sensitivity to the term is the result of looking honestly at the nation’s history of ableism.

Action T-4 was the first genocide program ordered by the Nazis, calling for the extermination* of those deemed by doctors to be “incurably sick.”  Between 200,000 and 300,000 disabled people were killed, though many were used for scientific experiments first.  *And by the way, I DETEST any use of the term “euthanasia” in this context.  “Euthanasia” literally means ending life to end pain, and for this reason I find it applicable where patient consent has been given or where pets are concerned.  But to imply that what the Nazis did to disabled citizens was anything other than murder is to dehumanize the victims.

The forced sterilization programs of disabled people in Nazi Germany, meanwhile, were modeled after American laws.  The very first forced sterilization law in the world was introduced in Indiana in 1907, and 30 states followed suit.  The Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s eugenics program in 1927 and it remained on the books until 1974.  Oliver Wendell Holmes summarized the Supreme Court’s decision thusly:  

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…  Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

The Nazi poster featured above focused instead on the expense: “It costs the German people 60,000 Reichsmarks to keep this genetic defective alive.  Fellow German, that is your money!”  After World War II, the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial and the resulting Nuremberg Code discouraged ableist politicians from openly promoting eugenics on either side of the Atlantic.  But it wasn’t until 1981, the year I was born, that the disability rights movement in West Germany came into full swing and sought to combat ableism head-on. 

Almost every human rights movement is said to have a trigger moment when oppression went a step too far and the people fought back.  For the American Civil Rights movement, it was the death of Emmett Till.  For the gay rights movement, it was the Stonewall Uprising.  For the German disability rights movement, it was the Frankfurt Travel Ruling of 1980, brought about by a woman suing her travel agency for booking her in a Greek hotel where a group of Swedish disabled guests were also vacationing.  She claimed that having to see and hear disabled people had ruined her trip and the judge agreed with her.  Protests exploded across the country and the next year, which the U.N. had declared the Year of the Disabled, several West German disability rights groups organized and formed agendas.  They used the U.N. events to draw attention to the dire situation of disabled citizens in the country.

Two years later, the Green Party entered the Bundestag for the first time and was the first to voice support for disability rights as a human rights issue.  The Greens were born out of the 60s student movement in West Germany.  The movement was famous for protesting what most young activists across the Western world opposed at the time: the Vietnam War (and war in general), traditional gender roles, consumerism, pollution, etc.  But first and foremost, the West German 68ers were young people demanding the nation come to terms with its dark past, decrying that an overwhelming number of the nation’s leaders and officials were former Nazis.  Their commitment to human rights was inspired by an unfaltering awareness of how horrific things can get.  Their actions led to the passing of anti-discrimination laws and an amendment to the German Constitution in 1995, modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another result of the students growing up and entering the government came in 1983 when conscientious objectors to the draft were no longer required to argue their motivations before a board for approval. This made it far easier for young men to opt for a year of community service in lieu of military service.  By 1991, half of those drafted became conscientious objectors.  For over 30 years, scores of German 19 year-old boys worked with mentally ill children at the Red Cross, in nursing homes, as assistants for physically and mentally disabled teenagers, and for Meals on Wheels.  This has created generations of men who often speak fondly of the experience and who are usually less fazed by disabilities or dependence, demonstrating a tolerance and openness that seems extraordinary for their age. 

The draft was discontinued last year and since then the community service option has been suspended.  Military debates aside, I agree with conservative politicians who have called for preserving the community service requirement and expanding it to women because it is an excellent government tool for combating both ableism and social segregation on a personal level.  Ableism is still a tremendous problem here in Germany, but in three generations, the country has changed from one of the most ableist societies on earth to one of the least.   The word “degenerate” signifies humanity’s capacity for cruelty and sensitivity to the word signifies our commitment to never repeat it.

To be fair, the word in last week’s comment was not aimed directly at disabled people but at the U.N. members working for disability rights.  And frankly, I’m a little insulted.  Because if anyone’s a degenerate here, it’s me. 

I am scientifically a mutant by virtue of my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3.  (Yes, yes, my genetics professor explained that technically all of us are mutants, but mostly just in boring ways… )  I am a semi-invertebrate now that pieces of my backbone were removed six weeks ago.  And I don’t take the last empty seat on the subway and request my friends slow down to my pace when walking for nothing.  So if anyone’s gonna go calling the organization that sprang from the Nuremberg Trials and founded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a bunch of degenerates, they gotta get through me first.  I’m a degenerate living in Germany and proud of it.