The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, suggested this week that President Bashar Assad of Syria was a bigger monster than Adolf Hitler.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Mr. Spicer said. “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”
Instead of collecting himself at this point, Spicer seemingly doubled down on his Hitler analogy.
“I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using gas on his own people the same way Assad is doing,” Spicer continued, before mentioning “Holocaust centers” — an apparent reference to Nazi Germany’s death camps.
The facts obviously refute Spicer’s assertion that Hitler, during his reign of terror, had not used chemical weapons. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 160,00 and 180,000 Jews killed by the Nazis were German citizens.
Facts aside, however, Spicer’s blunder highlights the much more concerning, and decidedly bipartisan, rhetorical trend of appropriating unfathomable crimes against humanity, like the Holocaust or slavery, and using them as political metaphors. In attempting to contextualize current ethical and geopolitical conflicts, we have developed a bad habit of referencing these catastrophic periods more as broad theory than crimes with individual victims.
The victims of the Holocaust and slavery were individual human beings. They were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were individual people whose suffering we cannot even begin to imagine.
Given Spicer’s position as the White House’s chief spokesperson, his reference to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust is certainly worthy of his resignation. But the ease with which the reference seemed to roll off his tongue is undoubtedly reflective of our society’s perspective.
Spend five minutes on any social media platform. The penchant to opportunistically reference events like the Holocaust, or slavery, or 9/11, in order to draw some metaphorical urgency to a modern cause has become an all-too convenient, and frankly grotesque, appropriation.
Photos, imagery and accounts of horrific periods in human existence are often used as reference tools in attempting to vitalize current political and sociological debates. Not all of these references are ill-intentioned or purposefully disrespectful, but they certainly lack perspective.
The biggest problem with Spicer’s fumbling metaphor was not his failed grasp of the facts — his biggest problem was that he used a “Hitler” analogy to begin with.
We live in a time where ideological noise rages all around us.
It's so loud that silence has become altogether unsettling. The word “hyperbole” has lost all meaning. We have become ideologically tribal in this country.
The proliferation of media and 24-hour news has not only made it easier to cloak ourselves in dialogues that are frighteningly fanatical, our growing narcissism has corrupted our sensitivity — and perspective — for the individuals who suffered during slavery and the Holocaust.
Those periods have become broad theory, used to gain rhetorical leverage and appropriated to establish moral high ground.
The crimes against slaves and German Jews were countless. Dehumanization was only one of the abhorrent results of those crimes.
But in reducing those victims to nameless images on Facebook, in broadly conceptualizing the Holocaust and slavery, in appropriating these unfathomable periods in human history for our own consumption, we have once again dehumanized, this time in the afterlife, the individual victims of those periods.
Chris Spatola is a West Point graduate and former captain in the U.S. Army. He currently serves as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and is a host on SiriusXM radio.
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