Theodore Adorno wrote in 1949 that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” To a generation of Europeans, to make light of the victims of the gas chambers was beyond all human comprehension. But to a generation of Americans, millions of dead are nothing more than pawns to throw away in minor political spats. Adorno might have found poetry of any kind barbaric in the 40s, but if he were a modern pundit he would have no problem writing cliche prose that cheapened the name of Auschwitz. Don’t like pro-choice protestors? Call them Femi-Nazis! Opposed to Guantanamo Bay? Call the methods used by our soldiers Nazi-like! Did Obama pass a bill trying to give insurance to people with your tax dollars? Slap a swastika on a picture of his head and go off to a Tea Party rally!
This is a convergence of two troubling trends in modern America: historical illiteracy and a pre-teen level of argumentative skill. I came to the conclusion a while ago that most Americans cannot name a Nazi other than Hitler nor can they describe the major tenets of National Socialism (or know that Nazi actually means “National Socialism” for that matter). That, of course, does not disqualify them from deciding that any politicians who want to balance a budget in a politically sensitive area might as well be running Treblinka, because mass murder and the average piece of Congressional legislation might as well be the same thing for all they care. Is gaining an understanding of the horror of the Final Solution so that it can never be repeated of any concern to them? Not in the least. Nazism means nothing in America except an easy source of video game villains and terms of slander to hurl at those you don’t like.
The far right, however, is not the only side of the spectrum that people have problems understanding. Witness how many times “socialist” or “communist” comes up on the average right-wing blog. The reasoning is typically that government-run health care is an insidious step in order to take over more things and then put all industry in the hands of the government. Now, besides the fact the precursor of Obama Care was proposed by that well-known Communist sympathizer Richard Nixon, any Communist that actually is aware of his own doctrine would tell you the eventual goal of Communism is to abolish the state. To Marx, after the proletariat seized control of the state apparatus they would eventually dissolve it and live free of any sort of government. Permanent increases in the size and power of the capitalist state (a state that would inherently exist to protect the interests of big business) would be a disaster to the traditional Marxist. But that would assume that one should actually have a basic understanding of Marxism before accusing our President of being a Marxist, which is a bit much to assume these days.
At least with Nazism we have the decency not to try to peddle swastikas on T-shirts, or Hitler’s face on handbags. The same cannot be said of the urban hipster with the ubiquitous Che T-shirt and those horrendous Mao Zedong bags that say, “Serve the people.” With generations that never knew the Cold War becoming adults, Communism has become the laughable evil. The hammer and the sickle no longer mean gulags where life expectancy was counted in months, but instead a cool decoration for your Tea Party rally poster.
For James Joyce, history was the nightmare from which we are trying to awake. For America, it seems only the nightmare that we awoke from and forgot about after we had some morning coffee. The way forward in our political discourse is not lousy historical references.