Hitler is all over the news again. These past few months, you can’t throw a rock without it careening off the head of a public figure who put his/her foot in it by saying something about Der Führer—often something surprisingly complimentary, which only increases the Ick Factor for much of the general public.
Some of the more newsworthy examples:
For the heterosexual males in the audience, John Galliano is a famous fashion designer. He is currently being tried in France for an incident in which he drunkenly slurred “I love Hitler” to some random bar patrons for no discernible reason and went off on a subsequent tangent of racist and anti-Semitic insults. He appears to have had not one but two separate incidents of the same nature. The diminutive fashionista now faces a €22,500 fine for “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity.”
The actress was allegedly fired from her job on the set of the new Transformers movie after Steven Spielberg objected to her comparing director Michael Bay to—you guessed it—Hitler. I hate to make light of such a lapse in taste, but this would appear to suggest that Spielberg is the last person on Earth who hasn’t been notified that comparing bossy and dictatorial people to Hitler has been commonplace for the past, oh, five decades. (Why is it invariably Hitler? Why never, say, Nicolae Ceausescu? What’s Ceausescu—chopped liver?)
LARS VON TRIER
Von Trier had already made a name for himself not only as a director of difficult films but also as a wind-up merchant even before this year’s Cannes-troversy. Having previously been accused of fairly routine stuff such as misogyny and anti-Americanism, and perhaps sensing that these first two accusations weren’t nearly inflammatory enough to garner further media interest, he took a stab at praising Hitler during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. After a bizarre, rambling, and seemingly tongue-in-cheek monologue which culminated in the statement, “OK, I’m a Nazi,” he was banned by the festival and declared persona non grata. The festival organizers then issued a press statement that outdoes Von Trier’s original outburst for sheer incoherence:
The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation…[and] profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the Festival.
Got that? The Cannes International Film Festival defends freedom of expression and is deeply distressed to see that Von Trier has used the festival to express himself freely. Or as The Clash more succinctly put it:
You have the right to free speech/
As long as you aren’t dumb enough to actually try it.
So is the problem that there’s suddenly an inexplicable resurgence in Nazi chic rearing its swastika-tattooed head in the entertainment industry? Or is it that people who would ordinarily take a rather blasé attitude toward darker verbal provocations suddenly turn very serious when Hitler is the subject?
The answer may be somewhere in between. Don’t assume that I’m trying to defend Hitler, who caused so much devastation and misery. Von Trier’s comments were ill-considered and rather stupid. The only thing that might possibly be said in his half-hearted defense is that the director speaks English with all the ease and comfort of an amputee trying to use a prosthetic limb for the first time, so it’s possible that this was a case of black humor being lost in translation.
But I suspect that if he had spoken well of almost any other mass-murdering maniac in history—Stalin, Ted Bundy, Vlad the Impaler, you name it—the board would have defended the Danish enfant terrible on free-expression grounds. Perhaps they would have even lauded his commitment to being “transgressive” or “edgy” or some other fashionable buzzword that invariably gets trotted out when an artist does or says something indefensibly dumb.
But as with Cameron Diaz’s Mary, there’s something about Adolf, isn’t there?
A little perspective is in order. Mao Tse-Tung is believed to be responsible for the deaths of anywhere from 40-70 million people. Even assuming that the lowball figure is correct, that’s quite a feat. In whatever corner of hell he and Hitler are currently breaking concrete with sledgehammers, Adolf is probably either feeling like an underachiever or giving Mao a fist bump and a “Respect, G.” Yet praise for Mao as a great visionary leader has been weirdly commonplace in recent history, notably in the figure of former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. Admittedly, she was forced to resign after she praised Mao during a high-school graduation ceremony. But the fact she ever thought it remotely appropriate speaks volumes about our inequitable standards in deciding which mass murderers are acceptable to praise. Try to imagine giving a high-school graduation speech that mentions Hitler, even ironically, as an inspiring figure for young graduates to emulate. Even G. W. Bush wouldn’t have been that tone-deaf to common mores when speaking in public.
American academic and standup comic Noam Chomsky has notoriously defended Pol Pot’s genocidal regime on a number of occasions. (This would appear to have some strange self-flagellating wish-fulfillment subtext for Chomsky, seeing as the Khmer Rouge was known for slaughtering intellectuals, academics, and even anybody who merely looked smart by virtue of wearing glasses). Che Guevara didn’t live long enough to achieve the impressive Stalin/Hitler body count he was probably gunning for, but he still killed enough people that you might be forgiven for wondering why every Hollywood hunk from Benicio Del Toro to Gael Garcia Bernal seems to be lining up to play him in ponderous biopics.
Examples of the public’s indifference toward fawning praise of homicidal maniacs doesn’t end with epic-level political murderers. Axl Rose used to wear Charles Manson T-shirts in concert and got his band to record one of the cult leader’s tunes. But so far as I know, the only thing that killed Axl’s career was the fact that he looked even stupider in cornrows than any other white person in history who’s looked stupid in cornrows. His open admiration for a man who convinced his followers to stab a pregnant woman 16 times and slosh around in her blood like demented kindergarteners appears to have had little to do with the matter.
It’s too early to tell if the likes of Von Trier or Galliano will suffer from permanent reputation demolition as a result of their ill-considered outbursts. But in the meantime, it seems reasonable to demand that there be a coherent punitive standard applied to those who say dumb things in defense of murderers, tyrants, despots, cult leaders, or sundry resentful short men with complexes. Either singing killers’ praises (ironically or not) is deeply immoral or it isn’t. And either free speech protects the right to say irresponsible and unpleasant things or it doesn’t. If nothing else, having a solid rule in place about this sort of thing might help prevent the Cannes Film Festival board from uttering any more idiotic public statements.
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