There Was Only One Holocaust: Why the Misuse of Political Language Matters

May 09, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

California Attorney General, Jerry Brown, who is seeking to return to the Governor's office in Sacramento, has shown he can take care of himself in the rough and tumble of the political arena, dating back to the days when some critics dubbed him, "Governor Moonbeam" in the 1970s. Even so, the recent attack on him by two publicity-hungry LA talk radio shock jocks (who shall go nameless here) as akin to Hitler for proposing a tax to reduce carbon emissions that they liken to "The Final Solution" is a new low that demands broad rebuke. It's no excuse that some people on the other side of the debate, concerned about global warming, sometimes themselves resort to the term "holocaust" to describe its possible effects.

This President's Day we will be celebrating the birthday of Abe Lincoln (born February 12) who--even way back then--knew political potty talk when he heard or read it. In 1855, when politicians belonging to the Know Nothing Party attacked the loyalty of immigrants and patriotism of Catholics, Lincoln complained in a letter to a friend: "Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid." Old Abe was lucky he didn't live in the age of cable television, talk radio, and the Internet.

Soon after World War II--on the basis of poisonous propaganda by both Nazi and Stalinist regimes--George Orwell wrote that "political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." Soon, television sets entered every living room, and
this degrading process accelerated. In 1954, during the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings attorney Robert Welch rhetorically asked irresponsible red- baiter Joe McCarthy: "Have you no shame, Senator?" Of course, McCarthy had none. Unfortunately, neither do an increasing legion of media and political types who are competing with each other to make the twenty-first century the most shameless yet in terms of the degradation of public discourse.

Internationally, it's become the new gospel in much of Europe and throughout the Arab and Muslim world that a joint U.S.-Israel conspiracy engineered the 9/11 attacks, while Iranian President "Wipe Israel From the Map" Ahmadinejad continues to repeat his claim that the Holocaust is "a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim."

In this country, high school students who often graduate with only the vaguest notion of who fought WWII are frequently indoctrinated as college freshman by professors who teach them that Israelis are "the New Nazis." The twenty-first century is still young, but we've seen former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney equated with the Nazi high command, former
Governor Palin's family libeled with gynecological smears that not even the supermarket tabloids would not stoop to print, General Petraeus mocked as "Betrayus," and President Obama likened to Hitler or Stalin and subject to denials that he's a U.S. citizen by loony "Birthers."

During the torrid Health Care debate last year, there were some over-the-top critiques from the Right deploying outrageous Holocaust imagery in denouncing Obama Care. And who can forget the Democratic Congressman still refuses to apologize for suggesting that the other party wants "sick people to die early," and that their opposition to health care reform amounts to "a holocaust." The fact that this Congressman is Jewish compounds his offensive chutzpah.

Perhaps the war against sensationalism and bad taste have been lost, but we still ought to try to draw the line against those who refuse to accept that the terms Holocaust and Final Solution should only be applied to the mass murder of six million Jews during World War II. In today's menacing international context when the President of soon-to-be-nuclear Iran denies the historical reality of the Holocaust while threatening to finish Hitler's genocidal work, political terminology really matters.

And it also matters here at home. Take Californians for example-- we are facing all the economic and social challenges confronting other states-- only more so. Candidates like Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have all sorts of ideas and plans to fix what's broken. Their rhetoric and merit the closest scrutiny debate and at times, even derision.

But when these lines are crossed in this country whether on Capitol Hill, Cable TV or talk radio we need to echo Joseph Welsh's ringing condemnation of Senator Joe McCarthy: "Have you no shame?"

Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, contributed to this essay