Among all the instances of elite projection and cynical opportunism over the past few years—the censoring Left sees fascism everywhere; the concept of systemic racism offers a blessed distraction from the purges of #MeToo; the agenda-driven media deplores Donald Trump’s bending of the truth—Joe Biden’s demagoguery has got to be the most glaring. It’s bad enough that the self-appointed savior of indebted students is the same man who, as a U.S. senator from Delaware, was instrumental in passing legislation that made it impossible for students to discharge student debt through bankruptcy; Delaware, after all, is where the credit-card empires have their headquarters. Now we have Biden decrying the country’s “divisions,” even as he multiplies them himself. He has gone from disdainful opponent of busing—Biden in 1975: “I oppose busing, it’s an asinine concept”—to bold defier of “Jim Crow 2.0.”
The latest example of truth-bending and rabble-rousing comes from deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates. Bates was responding to a comment by Greg Gutfeld, a Fox News host who was discussing a section in the Florida Standards for Teaching Black History that addresses, as the Standards state, “various duties and trades performed by the slaves.” The Standards advise teachers to instruct students in “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Referring to Viktor Frankl’s classic work on the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, Gutfeld said, “Frankl talks about how you had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills. You had to be useful. Utility! Utility kept you alive.”
The Biden White House/campaign apparatus leaped. Bates thundered to CNN: “What Fox News allowed to be said on their air yesterday—and has so far failed to condemn—is an obscenity. In defending a horrid, dangerous, extreme lie that insults the memory of the millions of Americans who suffered from the evil of enslavement, a Fox News host told another horrid, dangerous and extreme lie that insults the memory of the millions of people who suffered from the evils of the Holocaust. Let’s get something straight that the American people understand full well and that is not complicated: there was nothing good about slavery; there was nothing good about the Holocaust. Full stop. Americans deserve to be brought together, not torn apart with poison.”
Never mind that by raising the specters of racism and anti-Semitism where they did not exist, Bates himself was spewing poison while making his condemnation. The Florida Standards for teaching black history describe the horrors of slavery; they also describe the character and dignity and resilience of many slaves. It is a simple, uncomplicated fact that the skills some slaves learned were those that they used to make a living after emancipation. The College Board’s AP curriculum for black studies, which Florida governor Ron DeSantis rejected, happened to make that same point. You would have to be operating far beyond the boundaries of reality to believe that the Florida Standards portray slavery as a great vocational opportunity. (And no sane person who actually thought that would say it.)
But what is truly galling about Bates’s calculated outburst is that it is entirely divorced from historical truth. By the standards of today’s group solipsism, I may not have the bona fides to talk about being black, or gay, or transgendered. I can, however, talk about being Jewish. My Jewish relatives, on both sides of my family, were killed by Ukrainians in the Odessa pogrom of 1905—the Soviets had unsuccessfully tried to stamp out anti-Semitism in Ukraine—and then by Nazis, aided by Ukrainians, in 1941.
Bates seems to be confusing the historical fact of slaves acquiring a skill while they were enslaved that they relied on to make a living after emancipation, with Jews using a skill that they already possessed to survive the Nazi death camps. For years, when I lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I went to a barber named David who bore numbers tattooed on his arm and told me that he had survived Auschwitz because he knew how to cut hair. Primo Levi survived Auschwitz partly because his training as a chemist allowed him to obtain a job working indoors in a rubber factory. Anyone who has read anything about the Holocaust knows that prisoners who could make themselves useful to their German captors had the best chance of continuing to live. To state that dehumanizing historical fact is hardly to say something “good” about the Holocaust. Does Bates also mean to imply that by discovering meaning in his ordeal in a concentration camp, Frankl was saying something favorable about the Holocaust?
Usefulness was not the only way to survive. Levi retained his kindness and humanity in Auschwitz. Many prisoners did not. People did what they could to spare themselves. This included having sex with their captors, stealing food from other prisoners, informing on other prisoners, killing or torturing other prisoners at the behest of their guards, cannibalizing other prisoners, and serving as “kapos,” figures who aided the Nazis in overseeing forced labor and herding captives into the gas chambers. The French resistance fighter David Rousset, interned at Buchenwald, called this l’univers concentrationnaire, which he defined as “a world set apart, utterly segregated, a strange kingdom with its own peculiar fatality.” I hope that Bates does not accuse me of desecrating the memory of Jewish concentration camp inmates by describing the bestial state of nature that they were reduced to.
Many black slaves also did whatever they could to survive. So did some American soldiers on Normandy beach, some of whom shot themselves in the buttocks in order to survive the unspeakable carnage around them. Life is messy, chaotic, incalculable, and precious. No one can judge how people behave in extremis in situations beyond comprehension.
The sickness at the heart of liberal culture now is the compulsion to lie about human nature’s complexity in order to impose desired social and political objectives. You must think the worst of everyone in order to achieve the best social order. In this upside-down universe, telling the truth about historical nightmares makes you a willing enabler of them. Imputing the basest motives to your enemies in order to dehumanize them and contrast them with your own noble sentiments—that is the real “obscenity” and “poison” here.