If you’ve been following the news coming out of Michigan lately regarding the COVID-19 shutdown and demonstrations against it, you may have seen some strange signs and concerning photographs from the protests at our state Capitol in Lansing. This has alarmed a lot of people around the world, but it has been particularly concerning to me.
For one, I live in Lansing, just about a half mile from the Capitol. On the first big protest, the one called “Operation Gridlock,” some of the protesters spent an hour or more driving bumper-to-bumper through my neighborhood revving their engines and making a nuisance of themselves. While protesters swear that their actions didn’t stop any ambulances from getting to the hospital, many of us who live here know of people — including cancer patients — who weren’t able to get to the hospital for treatment. And of doctors and nurses who couldn’t get to the only hospital in the region treating COVID patents to get to work (correction – see note at end on Sparrow and McLaren Lansing hospitals).
For two, I used to work for the Michigan House of Representatives. For seven years, the people who you may have seen yelled at for being “redcoats” were the same people who checked my employee badge every day and looked in on us if there was any security problem. The angry bald you likely saw spit-yelling in the photograph taken outside the House Floor? He was yelling at them, my former co-workers, who never had anything but a kind word for people and who never wanted anything but people’s safety. So yeah, this is personal.
And last, if you read a story lately about a Black legislator in Michigan who requested an armed cadre to escort her into the Capitol so she could safely go to work? That’s my state representative, Sarah Anthony. If I still had my former job, chances are I’d be her writer. I know of at least a few Democratic representatives who carried a firearm to work with them — or, in Rep Anthony’s case, requested an armed guard accompany her. I don’t personally like it, because I hate guns in general. But that said, I also can’t judge a Black or Hispanic lawmaker for thinking they need to go to some unusual lengths to protect themselves when protesters are dragging confederate flags and nooses and swastikas onto Capitol grounds.
It’s that business with the swastika though, and the persistent comparisons being made between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Adolf Hitler, that I want to address today. Because it seems a lot of you gathering at these protests have your minds utterly befuddled and you need some help.
How can I tell if my governor is Hitler?
Here are some questions to consider that will get you pointed in the right direction. Ask yourself each of these points one-by-one, and answer them honestly, and you are sure to arrive at the only correct conclusion:
1. Am I hiding for my life?
During the Holocaust, Jewish families in Germany and German-occupied Europe rightfully feared for their lives. Millions of them were rounded up and forced to live in overcrowded ghettos, which were eventually emptied out at gunpoint. The families were sent to camps — some who seemed stronger to work camps; those who looked weaker, the elderly and children to death camps to be murdered immediately. To avoid this, many Jewish families hid for as long as possible. Some managed to ride out e war this way. Most others — like Anne Frank and her family — were found out and eventually slaughtered.
Are you and your family hiding for your life from your governor? If you are not, your governor is probably not Hitler, and you are probably not living through the Holocaust.
2. Am I able to protest in public?
Nazis were incredibly thin-skinned about dissent and allowed for no public demonstrations against their authority. Even private disobedience to the regime was illegal, and children were encouraged to inform on their parents if they heard them voice anything other than adoration for Hitler. Political dissidents were frequently sent to concentration camps, and even death camps where they were murdered.
Have you gone to a “Operation Gridlock” or similar protest against your governor’s COVID-19 executive orders? If so, did you bear any serious consequence for it, such as prison, being forced from your job by the state, being sent to a work camp, or a death camp? If you were able to protest and suffered no consequence for it, your governor is probably not Hitler and you are probably not living through the Holocaust. Make that doubly so if you could do so with your favorite firearm in full display as you did. Make it a trillion times so if you can do the above in your state Capitol carrying your assault rifle in plain sight.
3. Have I smuggled my kids to Switzerland or England?
Jewish parents during the Holocaust understood what they were up against. Thought they may not have known exactly what was in store, they knew lives were endangered. Like all good parents, they wanted to save their children. For many, this meant getting their sons and daughters to any nearby safe haven, even if they had to send their kids on alone to a foreign country. About 10,000 children were sent to the UK in these Kindertransport, and another 5,000 to Switzerland.
Have you given serious thought or even followed through on smuggling your children unaccompanied out of your state because of the hellscape your governor has created? If not, perhaps your governor isn’t actually Hitler, and maybe you’re not actually living through the Holocaust.
4. Has my family sold all our worldly possessions in order to buy fake exit documents so we can escape or gain favor to stay alive?
When possible, Jewish families under nazi rule would often risk everything to save their lives. This often meant giving up fortunes in order to stay alive and stay together. For instance, in Amsterdam, where many Jewish families worked in the diamond trade, nazis needed to keep this skilled workforce in place to polish diamonds for the German economy. So, the nazis made a deal: turn over so many carat-weight in diamonds per each Jewish life — only to see those workers and their families shipped off to the caps when their labor was no longer needed. Sadly, their wealth often made them targets for scoundrels who took all their money and valuables and then turned them over to the nazis for an additional bounty.
If you haven’t sold your home, cashed in your retirement savings, sold your car, emptied your bank account, pawned your jewelry and liquidated everything else of value to keep your family alive or get them out of your state, maybe you should rethink comparing your governor to Hitler and yourself to Ann Frank.
5. Are physically infirm people being euthanized**?
Nazis didn’t focus solely on Jews. The Holocaust saw somewhere around 11-12 million people murdered, of whom Jews were about half. Other groups, including people with disabilities, Rrom, gay and lesbian people, communists, trade unionists, political dissidents, pacifists, Jehova’s Witnesses and other groups were also persecuted. People with disabilities, either physical, intellectual or emotional, were labelled “life unworthy of life” and singled out for sterilization or slaughter in the death camps.
Are people with disabilities, “pre-existing conditions” or the infirm being singled out for poorer treatment than “healthier” people and/or euthanized? Or are they prioritized and protected, declared especially vulnerable, given special shopping hours when they are less likely to encounter people with viruses or virus-contaminated items, have rules at nursing homes intended to protect them from COVID-infected people, etc.? If weaker people aren’t being singled out for poorer outcomes, perhaps it isn’t your governor who is acting like Hitler, and maybe it’s not your governor who is making you feel like you’re living through the Holocaust.
6. Has your place of worship been burned to the ground, its texts trampled upon and destroyed and you forbidden from rebuilding it?
Kristallnacht happened on the night of Nov. 9, 1938 and is considered the start of the Holocaust. Staged to be a spontaneous people’s uprising, it was, in fact, an Astroturf event — a political activity carefully planned and executed by political operatives. During that night, synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were targeted for destruction and looting. As many as 2,000 synagogues were burned down while people delighted in trampling on Torah scrolls. Fire departments were instructed not to put out the flames unless they threatened nearby, non-Jewish-owned buildings.
Has your place of worship been burned down by the state? Have your Bibles been desecrated? If damage has been done to your church, are you allowed to repair it? On the other hand, perhaps your governor specifically exempted your place of worship from “do not congregate” orders, as happened in Michigan — in which case you’ll have to ask your priest or minister why it is they value human life more than poking a stick in your governor’s eye. And anyway, maybe your governor is not literally Hitler, and you have not just lived through Kristallnacht.
7. Is your governor making you wear a distinctive garment?
Jews under nazi rule had to wear a yellow star, an insult that hearkened back to badges Jews were made to wear in many places during the Middle Ages as well. The purpose of these stars was to make Jews visually distinguishable, so that their rights could be easily denied. For instance, even simple things like sitting on a park bench or using public transportation — much less holding a government job or owning a business — were prohibited to Jews.
Are you being told you have to wear a certain garment? Say, a mask? Ah, yes, you say! Very well. Is the purpose of the mask to distinguish you as someone who has fewer rights than someone who does not wear one? No, you say someone who has no mask actually can have a harder time entering some places? But that’s the opposite of the gold star, and it was your choice whether to wear it or not. Are people wearing masks more likely to end up dead at the hand of the state? What, the governor has people wearing masks to save lives? Huh. Then maybe your governor is the opposite of Hitler, and what you’re in is a pandemic and not the Holocaust.
Stop prostituting the Holocaust for political gain
Now that there’s clarity and perspective on what is Hitler/the Holocaust and what is not, let’s think a moment about why it matters. Political communication is rife with metaphor. After all, even the most mundane legislative debate is cast as a “battle,” controversial issues are a “third rail,” and wielding one’s political power strategically is playing “hardball.” What would be so wrong with adding the Holocaust to the roster of political metaphors?
There are still people alive who remember standing on the platform as they got off the train at Auschwitz and seeing the rest of their family marched off to the left, to death, while they were spared. There are people still living who feel the loss every Passover when they look around the table to places where their sisters and brothers should be, and the nieces and nephews who never got to be at all. There are millions of people today who never got to know their grandparents, their bubbe and zayde, because of the Holocaust. In short, it is not yet the past.
And even if it were, it is not to be invoked lightly. In a world rife with despicable and evil acts, the Holocaust stands out uniquely as one of the worst. There have been genocides before and since, but few if any practiced on such a grand, efficient and ruthless scale. It deserves to stand apart, just as we in America treat 9/11 with a certain kind of reverence. Otherwise, the Holocaust would become normalized, and we would lose sight of the ways in which it was uniquely abhorrent. And the last thing the Holocaust should ever become is normal.
One of the worst insults to the memory of the lives lost in the Holocaust is to turn their murder into nothing more than a piece of political rhetoric. What a base and selfish way to abuse and cheapen their memory — to make their suffering all about you and what you want. Don’t do it. Not ever.
That is not to say that you are not suffering now. I know that people who were promised unemployment aren’t getting it. I know that people who have small businesses have lost them or are afraid they will. In a country where 40 percent of people couldn’t come up with $400 if they needed it in an emergency, these kinds of financial considerations are painfully real.
That doesn’t make a governor instituting social distancing measures intended to save lives during a pandemic “Hitler.”
After all, Hitler was trying to murder millions. Your governor is trying to save them.
*Correction – The Operation Gridlock protest on April 15 in Lansing hindered access to Sparrow Hospital, the only Level 1 trauma center in the region. Sparrow, however, is not the only hospital in the area treating COVID-19 patients, as McLaren Lansing is also providing treatment. I misunderstood a comment made about treatment and apologize for the error. However, it is accurate to say that the protest did delay and/or stop people from reaching Sparrow that day.
** A commenter posts: “reconsider the use of the term “euthanized” when referring to the murder of people with disabilities. You may not be consciously aware of it, but by using this language, you imply that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living and that by killing them, the Nazis were “putting them out of their misery.” You equate people with disabilities to animals who are “euthanized” when they are sick. This language is dehumanizing and does not reflect the reality of living with a disability. Just as you wouldn’t imitate the actions of the Nazis, you should avoid using their language.” See comment below.