Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

As the Führer Dies Down

We've been watching a very interesting series on the Hitler History Channel this afternoon - David Halberstam's The Fifties, based on his book. Fascinating series, at least the majority of it that we've seen. Halberstam, a prolific author and historian, is interviewed a lot during the series, to great effect. So far we've seen the last four episodes: Let's Play House, which looked at suburban life through Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place"; The Rage Within, which spoke of black invisibility in mainstream society and things that helped spark the civil rights movement like the Emmett Till murder and the Little Rock Nine; then The Beat, which examined youth culture (Kerouac, Elvis, Ginsberg, Brando, etc.); and finally, The Road to the Sixties (McDonald's, Harley Earl, the real Ralph Nader, the start of the space race, finishing with Castro and Kennedy).

The problem came during the commercials. You see, it's also Barbarians Week at the HC, and like just about everyone else lately they can't resist the temptation to compare apples and oranges. So not only do we get interesting historical overviews of actual races which were called barbarians in the past (yer basic Vikings and Goths and Monguls and Huns), some of which we watched and it was more or less interesting, but we also get the incessant trailer for "the worst that human nature has to offer" - Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden and - surprise! - Hussein. Oh yeah, and I kid you not, Targeted: Pineapple Face. I give them credit for starting by saying "Any boss will tell you, his worst enemy is a disgruntled former employee. General Manuel Antonio Noriega was on the CIA's payroll long before becoming Panama's strongman," which it would have been nice of them to lead with that about "our bastards" bin Laden and Hussein as well, but it's this apparent desperate (for ratings?) need to conflate selective still-living tyrants with historical dictators that I find rather disconcerting and not a little jingoistic (particularly during such a politically-charged week).

But that's how we seem to understand history, isn't it? We're slaves to analogy, even implied comparisons. We grasp at the familiar to explain the surreal. 9-11 felt like a movie. Ashcroft's America is reminiscent of 1984. And of course, all the Hitler-flinging that's been going on lately from both the right (mostly, it seems, rhetorical exaggeration for comedic and nastiness effect) and the left (mostly, it seems, perceived comparisons between current policies and classic Fascism). It's like if we can't say "what we're doing now is like something we've seen or read or experienced before," current events of major emotional and psychological importance become too new to comprehend and digest in and of themselves.

I'm not sure whether this concept of reaching for analogy in order to explain the terrible or unthinkable or unimaginable is a good or bad thing. It's probably a bit of both. History grounds us, gives us a starting point. Our national psyche seems to go in cycles (insert mandatory pendulum analogy here), and the more we know about and recall and discuss what's happened before, the better we can interpret the signs when it looks to be happening again. On the other hand, as Halberstam said at the end of The Fifties docu series, the decade "is not now and never was what it used to be." And there's also the danger of what the late Sam Phillips evinced when he observed "there will never be another time like it." How do we know this sort of thing in advance? We need to be open to any possibility, any newness, the idea that there will never (for good or ill) be another time like this one either, and work our way through that now and worry about slotting it in and judging it later, when we have the luxury of hindsight.