A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004 :::
While this was being written, Mr. Frum published a fair selection of criticisms of his comments. Go to http://www.nationalreviewonline.com, and click on “Frum” in the navigation bar.

When david Frum asks a serious question, it should at least be considered carefully. Surely the number of foreign nationals who have served as speechwriter to the President of the United States is small, and his internet column has become something that this writer clicks on instinctively. Mr. Frum has returned to Canada, and has his own permanent button on NRO’s website navigation bar. It is well-deserved.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mr. Frum found his way to the only insightful comments that this writer has seen yet about the portrayal of Pontius Pilate in The Passion of the Christ. This writer has pulled 85 pages of reviews from the Internet, and will publish a full analysis of them by the weekend. The best by far is Roger Ebert’s print review for the Chicago Sun-Times. There are many that compete for second worst—second worst, as a young Catholic woman was able to commit the worst, because it was frivolous. Nearly all of them seem simply unaware that 95 percent of the people portrayed are Jewish, and none of them seems to know what to do with Pontius Pilate.

Mr. Frum found a statement by a Christian that gives a very quick but thorough analysis of the theology behind the film, and it is the only statement in recent reviews that even engages the significance of Pilate’s washing his hands of the whole situation. For shining light into the critical fog, Mr. Frum deserves our thanks.

What troubles Mr. Frum is something else, and it deserves reasoned consideration. Does Mel Gibson believe the Holocaust happened? Mr. Frum quotes Mr. Gibson’s replies to Peggy Noonan and Diane Sawyer, and he is troubled by them. He ends up concluding that Mr. Gibson denies being a Holocaust denier, but then uses language “very close” to that used by actual Holocaust-deniers. This writer disagrees, but getting there takes a moment.

The problem is the advantage that Mr. Gibson’s father has taken of the controversy surrounding his son’s picture. The elder Mr. Gibson is a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite of spectacular shamelessness. There was no Holocaust at all, according to him. “They all moved” is his explanation, to New York City, of course, where they are continuing their plot to take over the world. This writer has only glanced at books by Holocaust deniers—he would certainly never pay for one--but he has read enough otherwise to know that this is the stock in trade of people who think that way.

When asked point blank by Ms. Noonan and Ms. Sawyer if he believed the Holocaust occurred, Mel Gibson said “Yes, of course.” So what is Mr. Frum’s problem?

The words Mr. Gibson chooses, and the context his gives to the Holocaust.

Here—as quoted by Mr. Frum--is what Mr. Gibson said to Ms. Noonan: “Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century 20 million people died in the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Frum is troubled, first of all, that Gibson gives figures for the Ukrainian genocide of the 1930’s—though the figures he gives are on the low side—and no figures for the Holocaust. Is he denying the number of Jews that were killed? This writer suspects not.

Something else is probably animating Mr. Gibson’s comments, and it is very simple: the chattering classes—the ones who are climbing all over him—refuse to show a similar shock at the crimes of the Russians as they do at those of the Germans. The 6 million figure is well-known, but if you ask the average college undergrad fresh out of a survey of 20th Century History how many died in the Ukraine, the chances are very, very good that his leftwing teacher will have either ignored it or denied it. And many, if not most, of the victims of Stalin’s own genocide—for that was what it was—were a relatively unknown group called the “Ukrainian Greek Catholics.” That is, they observe the Eastern (Byzantine) Rite, but are loyal to the Pope. Mr. Gibson is entirely right in being offended by the refusal to acknowledge that very great crime against humanity. If he cites that crime, that is almost certainly what he means.

A very important point: it would not be possible to slander Pius XII--one of the 20th Century’s great heroes, who inspired Germans and Italians to resist Fascism against all odds and try to save as many Jews as they could--were it not for the historic amnesia of the Left concerning the genocidal atrocities of totalitarian socialism in all its forms. Admit those, and Pius quickly becomes a hero, because he fought the Soviets and the Fascists bravely throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. (There is another aspect to the slander of Pius XII, and that is what can most charitably be described as raw distortion: Apparently we now have the documents proving that he intervened to stop the slaughter of Roman Jews in 1944, and so you will notice that that horrifying night and day has dropped from the indictment of Pius. No one who cited it has ever come forward to apologize. They just move on to other charges, equally unsubstantiated. Shame, shame, shame.)

Mr. Frum, of course, is the kind of person who is front and center in acknowledging all the crimes of totalitarian socialism, so it may not have entered his mind that this was exercising Mr. Gibson. But he probably also is aware that most of Mr. Gibson’s critics deny that crime, or minimize it. The Catholic dimension is probably news to all but the most careful student; this writer really only know about it because he used to teach a bunch of Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminarians. (Yes, there are such folks.) But there can be no doubt that the belligerent, working class, (spectacularly well) self-educated Mr. Gibson would see no harm in going, “Yeah, what about our genocide?”

That does not mean that Mr. Frum is wrong is asking if Mr. Gibson will declare clearly and simply that he believes 6 million Jews were killed, just as Mr. Frum would have no trouble, and indeed has never had any trouble, proclaiming the reality of the Ukrainian genocide. Mr. Frum would be well within his rights to say, “I gladly join with you in condemning the slaughter of Catholics, simply and with no qualification. Will you join with me, simply and without qualification, in condemning the slaughter of Jews?” And he is probably the right person to ask that question. (One of the letter writers quoted by Mr. Frum pointed out that Ms. Sawyer included the figure in her question, a context that makes his answer considerably clearer.)

If Mr. Gibson could not answer that question, you can just skip the rest of the stuff here, but this writer thinks that is not the case.

The point is simply that, to date, Mr. Gibson’s argument is with people who would in fact deny the earlier crime. (The Ukrainian famine was in the 1930’s.)

More perplexing is Mr. Frum’s demand that Mr. Gibson use the word “murder” rather than “atrocity,” and here this writer would like to ask if Mr. Frum is not falling into a trap.

Years ago, this writer made a point of absorbing all he could about the Holocaust. There is a lot to absorb, and it is all difficult to face, even the selfless acts of heroism of those who fought the unstoppable. The context of the heroism is horrifying, even as the heroism is inspiring and humbling.

Twenty years ago, the entire discussion was framed in terms employed by the late Lucy Davidowicz, the greatest historian of the Holocaust. Her magnum opus is entitled ‘The War Against the Jews.” Within the vocabulary of war, “atrocity” has a special meaning: if one goes beyond what is necessary to secure one’s objectives and takes random delight is torturing and maiming people before killing them, one has committed an atrocity. “Atrocity,” so far was this writer has ever seen, within the context of war, has always meant savage killing, a denial of the humanity of one’s victims, a violation of the laws of war. Way beyond murder, which can be committed by a desperate starving person looking for bread.

This idea of the “murder” of the Jews seems, to this writer, like a new concept, one imported from the insistence that the best way to handle terror is as a legal matter. Atrocities were committed on a grand scale in Rwanda and Burundi, and the UN has insisted on taking control of the investigation of the war crimes. It wants to treat them as a legal matter. Virtually no one has been brought to any form of justice, exactly because the millions of atrocities are being treated as so many “murders.”

Mr. Gibson uses the word “atrocity” about the treatment of the Jews. That is correct. One wonders why he does not use it in reference to the slaughter of the Ukrainians.

And one wonders why Mr. Frum wants the weaker word applied to the Holocaust.

And one should point out that Mr. Frum is entirely wrong in stating that “The trouble is that Gibson’s words, whether carefully considered or not, bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to those deployed by genuine Holocaust deniers.” Holocaust deniers deny that there were camps, or atrocities.

Is Mr. Frum therefore wrong in wondering if Mr. Gibson will acknowledge that there was something unique about the Holocaust?

No, he is not.

The Holocaust has one unique dimension: Hitler sought territory simply to eradicate the Jews. Plenty of benighted people have been in the way of megalomaniacs who wanted more territory, and they have been eliminated from history solely because there were in the way. Looked at in terms of any recognizable morality, Julius Caesar is one of history’s great criminals. He subdued Gaul (modern France) for no other reason than doing so would add to his “dignitas.” To get that dignitas, he committed crimes of staggering cruelty, and wrote about them with bored accuracy. Henry V of England slaughtered thousands for an obscure legal claim and because of a personal insult. The Ukrainian Greek Catholics resisted Stalin nobly, but if they had gone along, many more of them would have lived. As slaves, as half-human, but alive.

No Jew could survive Hitler.

Hitler, almost alone among history’s monsters, wanted to take every piece of land where one race lived in order to destroy them.

And Catholics need to be especially careful about how they talk about Jews, Judaism, and the Holocause because of the dismal record of some of their spiritual siblings. There were heroic bishops in the Middle Ages who resisted anti-Jewish legislation, but the people promoting the legislation were just as Catholic. Pius XII may have saved the Jews of Rome, but other Popes persecuted them. And so, yes, special care must be taken by any loyal Catholic in discussing the Jews.

Mr. Gibson’s instinct to not spontaneously articulate the unique character of the Holocaust may stem from any number of sources. This writer determined, at the age of 18, to not be a deadweight in solving the racial problems in this country. He has been, and has been proudly, a conservative Republican during all that time. But from that age—when he lived in an African-American dorm in college—he has noted two things: the racism of many liberals, and the indifference of many conservatives.

Liberal racism will await discussion until a further day, but conservative indifference is relevant here. Many conservatives will look within themselves and find no racism. Thus, when an issue comes up such as the proven tendency of employers to discount resumes with distinctively Black names at the top, they will say something like, “give your children boring names” instead of “be the guy in the office who argues for ignoring the name and looking at the qualifications.”

And so with Mr. Gibson: he has seen anti-Semitism up close and personal, and—by all accounts except the most partisan-- he certainly bent over backwards in The Passion of the Christ to accentuate the Jewishness of the heroes (who number three—Jesus, Mary, and St. John the Evangelist) and the villains and spineless wimps—nearly everyone else. The role of the Romans, historically, was ambiguous but cowardly and despicable, and one can argue over how he has portrayed them. (This writer has not yet seen the movie.)

Having done the best he could, Mr. Gibson may, mistakenly, think he is free to relax on other issues. But one who dares to portray the most important event in history has only one option, to be perfect. And so, while the film may represent his best effort, his attitudes and off-hand comments may not. The questions Mr. Gison must face may be a mortification of the attitudes, if that is a category of mortification.

And Mr. Frum is exactly one of the people to pose the necessary questions. The questions should come from various perspectives, but Mr. Frum’s is one of them.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 5:49 PM



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