Email To The Editors

Remembering the Holocaust

A Fine-Tuned Instrumentalization

Editor’s note: What follows in an exchange between Peter Novick, author of The Holocaust in American Life, and James Young, one of the participants in last week’s “Book Club,” in which Novick’s book was discussed. Both letters are reprinted with the authors’ permission.

Dear James,

I am appealing to James at leisure to overturn the judgment of James in haste. I apologize for the fact that, as with many appellate briefs, detailing the grounds for the appeal will require a fair amount of space.

In your exchange with Philip Gourevitch about my book The Holocaust in American Life, you wrote the following, apropos of what you termed “the so-called ‘lessons of the Holocaust,’ or why we recall the Holocaust at all”: “I would suggest, contra Novick, that not every institutional memory of the Holocaust is a deliberate instrumentalization of it toward cheap and self-interested ends.” You add that I am “actually quite good at ferreting out many of the instances where this is, indeed, the case.”

I’m not sure what the word “institutional” means here–i.e., how an institution remembers. Holocaust memory, of course, becomes “institutionalized” in curricula; in a “canon” of Holocaust literature; more diffusely, institutionalized in popular–particularly Jewish–consciousness. Let’s turn to “instrumentalization”–a word which appears to carry a strong negative charge for you. As you know, I never myself use that word (or its cognates) concerning collective memory. The reason, made clear more than once in the book, is that I think collective memories that really take hold always do so because they serve a present or continuing purpose. That is to say, memories take hold to the extent that they are–if one wants to use the word–“instrumental” for some purpose. As you will recall, I make a partial exception for certain forms of religious (or civic-religious) commemoration at the very beginning of my chapter on “lessons”: “Remembering the Holocaust, especially for Jews, needs no pragmatic justification. It is an act of piety analogous to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish on the anniversary of a relative’s death, to the remembrance of war dead on Memorial Day.” In the introduction, I point out that historically, Jewish memory–even religious memory–has been selective: Events that seem to contemporaries to point up a useful contemporary lesson are incorporated into collective memory; those that don’t seem to teach useful lessons recede, though they may be recovered later, as perceptions change about what lessons are useful. And, a fortiori, this is true of secular memory. Thus, for me, to say that a collective memory is “instrumental” is to say nothing that isn’t implicit in its being a collective memory. For me, to say that Holocaust memory is “instrumentalized” says nothing worth saying, and certainly nothing invidious or discreditable.

For you (and others) “instrumentalization” is invidious–and discreditable. By not explaining why it is invidious–simply taking this for granted–and saying that I treat Holocaust memory in America as all “instrumental,” you attribute to me the view that American Holocaust memory is somehow discreditable. I think we ought to explore how you use the word, and thus the view you’re attributing to me. Are you saying that memories in general, or memories of the Holocaust in particular, are “instrumentalized” when they are used for unworthy, or at least inappropriate purposes? Let’s consider those purposes for which the memory of the Holocaust has been invoked, which are the ones I discuss most in my book. These include both “Jewish-specific” and “general” purposes:

  • To rouse the conscience of the world about perceived threats to “the Jews Hitler missed” in Israel.
  • To reinforce Jewish solidarity, so that having survived Hitler, Jews will not disappear through assimilation.
  • To warn Jews to watch out for early warning signs of rising anti-Semitism in America–signs that were ignored in Germany.
  • To urge that the United States intervene against atrocities abroad which are said to resemble the Holocaust.
  • To teach tolerance and brotherhood–especially in schools.

Can we agree that these are the “lessons of the Holocaust” to which I devote the most space in the book? Which of them do you think unworthy or inappropriate–and why? I wouldn’t myself describe them that way–and in the book I don’t. To be sure, in invoking the Holocaust for these (to me) worthy and appropriate purposes, those doing so were often led to excess: for example, exaggerating Israel’s peril or American anti-Semitism. But that was my point. As I wrote in the book, “Once one starts using imagery from the Holocaust–that most extreme of events–it becomes impossible to say anything moderate, balanced, or nuanced; the very language carries you along to hyperbole.” But the ends for which the Holocaust was (to use your word) “instrumentalized” seemed to me then and seem to me now both worthy and appropriate.

Or perhaps, for you, “instrumentalization” hinges on motive: Perhaps you believe the Holocaust was invoked for these ends “cynically” or “insincerely”? This may, in isolated instances, have been true, but I can’t recall ever either saying or implying that this was the case. Certainly, overall, I repeatedly underlined the sincerity of those who have invoked the Holocaust. Indeed, I extend this to some of the less “mainstream” invocations–those that many, perhaps including yourself, think unworthy or inappropriate. As you may recall, I underlined the good faith of those who saw an analogy between the denial of the humanity of the fetus and the Nazi slogan “life unworthy of life.” I am myself conventionally “pro-choice,” but I would think it a dubious procedure to make that the criterion of when it was illegitimate to invoke the Holocaust, reserving the mantle of legitimacy for causes–like humanitarian intervention, or the promotion of brotherhood and tolerance–of which I approve. If you differ with me on this, it would have been appropriate for you to say: “Novick is excessively tolerant of invocations of the Holocaust which I and many others think quite intolerable.” But you didn’t say that: You said that I believe that “every institutional memory of the Holocaust is a deliberate instrumentalization of it toward cheap and self-interested ends.”

Let’s turn to “cheap and self-interested.” There are indeed invocations of the Holocaust to which I’d apply this description. In a section devoted to miscellaneous ways in which the Holocaust had entered American discourse, I listed a few cases in which I thought this was so, mentioning Hillary Clinton, Woody Allen, and a handful of others. To this one might add the single paragraph I devote to the origin of the Washington Holocaust Museum, which, as you wrote in your Holocaust Memorials in History, was “proposed by then-president Jimmy Carter to placate Jewish supporters angered by his sale of F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia.” In all, two pages of the 281 pages in the book.

You write that I am “quite good at ferreting out” instances of “instrumentalization of [the Holocaust] toward cheap and self-interested ends.” Ferret that I am, I indeed accumulated quite a collection of such instances, along with instances of what you elsewhere term the Holocaust’s “commodification.” There was Judy Chicago, selling Holocaust jewelry to raise money for her (stupid and vulgar) painting cycle on the subject. There was–my personal favorite–the travel agency advertising a “Jewish Singles Weekend,” the high point of which was a visit to the Washington Holocaust Museum. Of these, or the many other similar examples I’ve collected, there is no mention in the book. The reason that I didn’t mention them was that to do so seemed to me “a cheap shot”–concentrating on the ephemeral and the inconsequential–the scummy froth atop the waves of any discourse.

There are real differences between us in interpreting the rise of Holocaust memory in the United States. As an alternative to my approach, in which the growth in Holocaust memory is to be explained by the contemporary purposes it serves, you suggest a focus on the Jewish tradition of remembering catastrophes. These traditional reasons, you say “explain its significance for many [Jews] at a preconscious level, whether we like it or not.” I think there is something to this, which is why I discussed it, albeit briefly, in the book. For various reasons, I don’t think this explains much about the evolution of American Jewish memory of the Holocaust. Still, yours is certainly an arguable position, which we can discuss sometime. If you’d said in Slate that you thought I didn’t talk enough about this, that would have been a reasonable comment. But you went way beyond that–counterposing your traditional/cultural hypothesis to my alleged view that “every institutional memory of the Holocaust is a deliberate instrumentalization of it toward cheap and self-interested ends.” Is that the only possible alternative to your view?

I can suggest a possibility about how such an unjust and demonstrably false characterization of my views came to appear in your message to [Philip] Gourevitch. That possibility has to do with the rapid-fire e-mail exchange format of Slate’s “Book Club” in which it appeared. You wrote in response to an e-mail by Gourevitch “postmarked” just two hours earlier. You were in fact offering it, as you’ll see if you go back to the original, not as a considered characterization of my views, but as a way of introducing your own “traditional/cultural” explanation.

But of course, once made, and available for excerpting, it became a (highly quotable) characterization of my views. The “conversational illusion” that e-mail promotes seduces us into the kind of careless hyperbole common to conversation. In real conversations, a raised eyebrow can be enough to make us backtrack. Something like this happens in private e-mail exchanges. I can’t count the occasions on which I said something in a message that my correspondent challenged. In the next message I’d find myself saying something like, “Of course, you’re right. I overstated. What I should have said, meant to say, was …” But in your e-mail exchange with Gourevitch, your characterization of my views wasn’t challenged. And unlike hyperbolic remarks in private exchanges, buried in the innards of our computers, this one went out to God-knows-how-many thousands of “eavesdroppers.” Can you have any doubt that given your reputation as a fair-minded and circumspect commentator on these matters your characterization will be widely quoted as an authoritative summary of my views?

If you want it to be so quoted, you’ll of course let it stand. If, on reflection, you want to withdraw what I hope you’ll acknowledge was a hasty and careless characterization, you can do so here.

Peter Novick

Professor of history

University of Chicago

Dear Peter,

Given the narrowness of both my hasty characterization of your position (vis-à-vis “instrumentalization”) and of your own objection to my characterization, I’m glad to be able to come back and say now that my words were unfair to your much more complex approach to “the uses of the Holocaust.” It was especially unfair to put a word in your mouth, “intrumentalization,” which you have taken pains to avoid–and for very good reasons. I’m sorry.

At the same time, I wouldn’t characterize my own position as reflexively knee jerk against instrumentalization, in that I find every memory, institutional or otherwise, “instrumentalizes” to some degree. Which is partly why you wisely dispense with the term.

In this, it would be a little too easy to blame the rapid-fire format for my misstating of your approach to the “instrumentalization” (my word, not yours) of the Holocaust. I take responsibility, apologize for my haste, and accept your raised eyebrow. As a format, I think Slate’s Book Club can provide just the kind of fresh first-response to books and ideas that the editors had in mind. But along with these rewards come risks in such a rapid exchange, something both the “reviewers” and readers need to keep in mind.

The conversation continues … Until next word, I send

–Very best wishes,

James E. Young

Race Matters

I found Michael Brus’ comparison of racial profiling and affirmative action (“Proxy War“) simplistic and misleading. He fails to provide a realistic definition of affirmative action and does not address the issues that would provide a context for it.

Affirmative action allows that, given two candidates of equal qualifications, an institution may favor the candidate that helps it achieve its affirmative action goals. The legitimacy of these goals comes not only from notions of “social justice” but also from the desire to offer a more effective educational environment, a more hospitable workplace, or a more effective school system. In public schools, for example, the effectiveness of offering students role models with similar ethnic or racial backgrounds is widely accepted.

But the defect in Brus’ article is not that he fails to recognize these benefits, or even disagrees with them, but that he never gets to how this reasoning is implemented in affirmative action programs in a manner that is quite different from what goes on with racial profiling.

Racial profiling (as practiced in New Jersey) simply singles out people of color for harassment by police. It is a convenient way to select drivers for traffic stops that happens to accord with the racist notions that seem to flourish in law enforcement.

Affirmative action celebrates the cultural diversity of our country and seeks to create a more inclusive economy and public life. It recognizes that talent and ability are distributed across the population and that it requires extra effort to avoid excluding parts of the population that have traditionally been excluded. Racial profiling is merely a way for racist police officers to express their bigotry at the expense of our civil rights. It doesn’t stop crime and it doesn’t build community. That Michael Brus can find no difference between these practices–or that he is willing to attribute it all to the “fudge factor”–shows he doesn’t get it. He does us all a disservice by offering up this superficial comparison.

Rick Pressler

New Brunswick, N.J.

Blasting Bloat

Well, Shuman must have got his Ph.D. in B.S. from MS, if “The Love Bloat” is his typical output. I assume his purposes were to keep ingratiating himself with the big boss as well as getting a lot of reader feedback.

I have been on quite a few development teams and was waiting for a few honest comments. They were there but buried. The truth, as I have seen it, lies in the SWAT team that tried to keep code trim, combined with the greedy rush to keep ahead of competitors’ introductions.

Given enough skill and time, good programmers could write much, much smaller programs with the same or more features, including backward compatibility with older products. It is rushed, lazy, or incompetent coding that takes the easy ways out.

These programs are flabby only partially because of their feature sets. Marketing-driven decisions and programming shortcuts are the road signs to Flabby Software City.

Mike Ball