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Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Self-Inflicted Wound

I had a uncle who was one of the, who was part of the first American troops to go into Auschwitz and liberate the concentration camps, and the story in our family was is that when he came home, he just went up into the attic and he didn’t leave the house for six months, right. Now obviously something had really affected him deeply but at that time there just weren’t the kinds of facilities to help somebody work through that kind of pain. That’s why you know the, this idea of making sure that every single veteran when they are discharged are screened for post traumatic stress disorder and given the mental health services that they need, that’s why its so important.
-Barack Obama, Memorial Day 2008

Turns out that wasn't 100% true. It wasn't Auschwitz, which was liberated by the Soviets, but Buchenwald. It wasn't Obama's uncle, it was Obama's great uncle -- which of course, is like calling your second cousin your cousin. I called my Great Aunt Lula my "Aunt" Lula, even though she was my grandmother's sister. Maybe it's a midwestern thing, but I'm guessing it's a pretty common familial shorthand nationwide.

So the big deal is that Barack Obama said that his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz. As "gaffes" go, this is nowhere near as glaring as confusing Sunnis, Shia, Iran, and al Qaeda might be. In terms of which is more topical, politics and religion in the middle east rate a little higher.

In fact, the Democratic National Committee's put together a list of John McCain's "Top 10 misstatements and outright deceptions." The list is weighted heavily toward relevance.

1. McCain doesn't even know who is in charge in Iran.
2. Iraq/Iran, Sunni/Shia: McCain doesn't know the difference.
3. McCain still thinks Czechoslovakia (which split into two countries in 1993) exists.
4. McCain wrongly claimed that Baghdad was mostly normal.
5. McCain called Baghdad market safe.
6. McCain can't even remember how little he knows about the economy
7. McCain falsely claimed he never requested pork.
8. McCain falsely claimed that tax cuts increased government revenues.
9. McCain's claim to be untainted by special interest money is false.
10. McCain wrongly claimed he never supported amnesty.

The "pork" referenced is porkbarrel spending -- the practice of attaching spending for constituents on federal spending bills -- and the "amnesty" refers to illegal immigration.

Of course, this hasn't stopped the Republican National Committee from jumping on Obama's mistake. It's almost hard to blame them, they've got so little going for themselves. "Barack Obama's dubious claim is inconsistent with world history and demands an explanation," the RNC said in a press release. "It was Soviet troops that liberated Auschwitz, so unless his uncle was serving in the Red Army, there's no way Obama's statement yesterday can be true. Obama's frequent exaggerations and outright distortions raise questions about his judgment and his readiness to lead as commander in chief."

About those "frequent exaggerations and outright distortions" -- the RNC sent a list to NBC News' Mark Murray, who called them "minor misstatements." Apparently, they've got nothing.

But, in diving on Obama's Auschwitz statement, the right has shot itself in the foot. When it comes to the Holocaust, people tend to take things pretty damned seriously. And those who know the facts aren't happy. They aren't unhappy with Obama, they're unhappy with the right.

Menachem Rosensaft, head of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors, "Using the Holocaust to Smear Obama":

I never thought I'd see the day when the Holocaust would be used as a tool for "gotcha" politics. But over the last two days, we have seen John McCain's supporters at the Republican National Committee and at FOX News launch tasteless attacks on Barack Obama. In their attempt to score a few political points, they have diminished the experience of those who suffered and died at Buchenwald, and disrespected the service of the heroic American troops who liberated them.

There are some things that you can get away with politicizing and distorting to gain advantage in an election -- the greatest crime of the twentieth century isn't one of them. In fact, in doing so, you're likely to say things that are much, much worse than the original statement you're ridiculing. After all, if the distinction really is minor, you're going to need to exaggerate that difference to inflate it to relevance.

Rosensaft gives us an example of the right doing just that. FOX's morning news show Fox & Friends -- a show I've described as being such bullshit that you wish there were a stronger word for bullshit -- decided it would be a good time to make a big deal out of what turns out to be a very minor distinction. "It wasn't Auschwitz. It was a labor camp called Buchenwald," one morning Foxbot said. "It wasn't Auschwitz, it was a labor camp. You would think you would want to be as specific as possible if you are telling one of these anecdotes." The news crawl at the bottom of the screen repeated the distinction, "work camp, rather than an extermination camp."

"Here are some facts about Buchenwald, which is one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps," Rosensaft writes. "At this 'work camp,' prisoners were often worked, starved, tortured, or beaten to death. Sometimes they were simply murdered. Roughly 250,000 people were imprisoned there between 1937 and 1945, many of them Jews. Over 50,000 people lost their lives."

This is Buchenwald:

The man in the hat was Senator Alben W. Barkley, who was investigating Nazi atrocities, he found one at Buchenwald.

How far off the moral and ethical beam do you have to be to downplay a damned Nazi war crime? Evidence at Nuremberg showed lamps made from human skin and "medical experiments" that amounted to nothing more than sadistic mutilation with no real scientific value at all. Yet, on Fox & Friends, Buchenwald was "just" a labor camp -- as if nothing more outrageous than slavery had ever happened there. And, of course, there's the unspoken implication that slavery's not all that bad in the grand scheme of things. Dwight Eisenhower, who had visited the camp, said it was "beyond the American mind to comprehend." Ike made the people of the neighboring town, Gotha, tour the camp, to see what had been done in their name. Afterward, the Mayor of Gotha and his wife committed suicide.

But it's just a work camp. Ask FOX.

I suppose it's a measure of just how desperate the right is now. Political Wire recently reported that two GOP analysts explored "the reasons that the Republican brand is at such a low standing" and found that "Democrats have successfully equated President Bush with the word Republican." This, according to the analysts, could very well mean "the Party will be in the minority for the next ten years and could lose between twenty to thirty House seats" unless they distance themselves from Bush.

For his part, President Bush didn't get the memo and has promised to do as much campaigning for McCain as he can. My local paper, The Capital Times, responded to this news with, "Wow! George Bush must really despise John McCain."

When you're going down fast, you grab onto anything you can. In their desperation to find some way to hurt Barack Obama, they grabbed onto an issue that could only hurt themselves.


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