Friday 17 February 2012

Worse Than Hitler

One - Off Topic

So. The context thing. Again. It’s a tricky one. Take this for example; a travel article by a travel writer in the travel section about travelling to Hiroshima. Unless the entire anglosphere has decided, overnight, to redefine the word ‘travel’ without telling me, most of the comments below the line are a little off topic.

It’s entirely predictable though. Absent the bombing, Hiroshima is a fairly unremarkable Japanese city. There’s always the other World Heritage Site, but pretty temples are ten-a-penny over here. The bombing is really what defines the city in the eyes of the outside world, and as such is the main reason for wanting to visit. It’s perfectly understandable that talking about the city and its various memorials provokes discussion on the wider issues.

I’m not so sure it’s always appropriate though. Not least here as, with tedious inevitability, ‘discussing wider issues’ immediately descends into sketchy moral relativism, knee-jerk belligerency and borderline and/or straight up racism.

Taking in the bigger picture sometimes blinds us to the details. You can spend so long looking out for the woods that you ignore the tree right in front of you, walk straight into it, and end up with a broken nose.

It’s the usual problem with scale. We’re bad with very large and very small numbers. Getting smacked in the face hurts, regardless of any mitigating circumstances. I’d hope that’s not a controversial assertion. But scale that up, scale it up by many orders of magnitude, and we just can't process it. Suddenly it's up for debate. Broken nose: bad. Tens of thousands of people dying hideous nuclear deaths: arguable.

“But a conventional land invasion would have…”

Stop it.

“They’ve never really apologized for…”

Just stop it. For every ‘but’ you throw out, there’ll be an objection, and a counter objection, and a turtle and another turtle, all the way down. It’s endless. Before you know it you’re arguing about the failure of men on another continent to get awards, because apparently that’s more worthy of comment than tens of thousands of people dying hideous nuclear deaths.

I first visited Hiroshima’s A-bomb museum about a decade ago. Apparently it’s changed a bit since then, but I was struck by how superfluous much of the commentary was. Something about ‘children stopping smiling’ at the exact moment the bomb was dropped. Hard to smile if you’ve got no face. This is not a lily which needs any extra gilding.

I'm not sure it wouldn't be better to strip out all the words and commentary completely. Maybe keep the eye-witness statements and time-stamps, but let the pictures tell the story. Whatever you say, however you try to provide context, it’s going to get someone’s back up and distract from the reality. The documentary evidence is horrific enough; adding to it is unnecessary and, again, because this is key, distracting.

You start with the hibakusha, and then you’re on to Nanking and Pearl Harbor and Dresden and Auschwitz and then it’s HITLER HITLER HITLER and you’ve Godwinned it all to fuck, and the tens of thousands of people dying hideous nuclear deaths are suddenly a minor point. Even when talking about WWII, Hitler’s sometimes a step too far.

Two - Off Course

In the course of my job, I sometimes have to advise on and judge speech contests. It’s always quite an interesting experience, and goes some way keeping the flame of hope alive that it is possible to learn to speak English well over here. Not often, but sometimes. It is, however, a bit tedious to listen to endless ruminations about ‘Peace’ or ‘What I Learned About Peace’ or ‘My Hope For World Peace’ or ‘How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.’

I guess the demographic which tends to enter English speech contests (bookish teenage girls) has a bit to do with the constant stream of optimism and rosy-hued idealism. But it can get a bit Stepford Wifey. Which is why, a year or so ago, I was intrigued to notice something of a fashion for Hitler.

Not in a, ‘must never be allowed to happen again,’ sense, but in a, ‘good orator,’ or, ‘strong personality,’ sense. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t eulogizing him, but they weren’t using him to be deliberately provocative, either. He was just there, as another example of a person who did a thing. So you’d get a list which went, ‘Martin Luther King, Barak Obama, Adolf Hitler.’

One of these is not like the others.

Hitler is never an appropriate example of anything. If you’re looking for an exemplar of something positive, best not to choose a man who murdered millions of Jews and plunged an entire continent into war. Equally, because he’s such an extreme example of the worst of human nature, in the popular imagination the most extreme example, if you use him to exemplify something bad there’s a real risk you’ll sound like you’ve lost all sense of proportion.

As a doorman I often got accused of being a fascist or Nazi. Comes with the territory. Usually it was for such heinous acts as refusing admission after closing time, or not letting a punter take a drink outside.

“You fucking Nazi cunt! I paid for this fucking drink!”

“Yes sir, the drink. The glass is still ours, though. This would be like genocide how, exactly?”

They at least had the excuse of being drunk twats speaking in the heat of the moment. These students will have spent hours preparing with their teachers, and will in all likelihood be sober. If the above factors weren’t enough to restrain the Hitler epidemic, you’d think that some thought about the fact they were giving a speech in English would lend a bit of restraint. Every English speaking country fought against the Nazis, and so if there’s a native speaker on the judging panel, they probably won’t have a particularly forgiving view on Adolf’s gentler qualities. Know your audience.

But more than that, just expend a bit of fucking effort to consider the bigger picture.


  1. Great post.

    Hitler was one of the most "Charismatic Leaders" of the 20th century on a recent NHK program....that's a publicly supported They were all gushing about his ability to lead with a cult of personalities. They made mention that he did some bad stuff but most of the program was about brutal murderers responsible for milions on millions of deaths. I don't know if they mentioned Tojo?.....the guy who's genius helped make the Hiroshima peace park possible??

  2. Nagasaki is much the better museum. Both museums gloss over Japan's aggressions: Hiroshima does and plays the victim-Japanese card*; Hiroshima does to focus on the sufferings of civilians Japanese, Korean-forced labour, and Dutch POW. Anyone offended at Nagasaki simply isn't a human.

    All saturation urban bombing, and both urban nuclear attacks, are war crimes. There is no intelligent argument to say otherwise. Now, can you ever condone a war crime? Well... even if you can, 'terror bombing' was never shown to be effective, so then you have a war crime on your hand without 'the ends to justify the means'. Japan's war was finished, whether America nuked them, dropped one for a demo in Tokyo Bay, made a naval landing on the 'Home Islands', or simply starved them into submission. Whether or not it was a demonstration for Stalin isn't relevant: once you build a new weapon, you're going to use it on people.

    *To be fair, I saw Hiroshima's in 1995 and it may have changed. I saw Nagasaki's in 2011.

  3. Replies
    1. Nope, you've been getting caught in the spam filter a bit recently though. Not sure why. I'll play with the settings and give you both better responses over the weekend.

  4. I went to the killing fields in Cambodia and that was made to be so pretty. I was in two minds about going anyway because I feel there is something wrong with "atrocity tourism".

  5. One more thing, for your consideration. one of the Junior High textbook had (has?) a section on Hiroshima. The opening line of which is, 'One day, a bomb fell on Hiroshima.'

    A know a few American ALTs who have a problem with this. I get where they're coming from, but the counter argument is that you need to simplify the language for the students.

    Why bother? Discussing the intricacies of nuclear warfare in JHS level English is like trying to draw the Mona Lisa using finger paints. Neither the time, nor the place, imho.

    Chris - I saw a travel programme a couple of months back extolling the tourist opportunities of Burma. Lovely weather, apparently. It wasn't NHK, and Japanese TV in general is awful, but you'd still expect more from a publicly funded station.

    Ant - I have it on good authority that it's been updated since I visited. Still didn't stop a friend from Hong Kong getting very pissed off when he went a couple of years ago though.

    Kathryn - 'Atrocity tourism' is a nice turn of phrase. I think there's some merit to it though. Stuff like the bombings and the killing fields shouldn't be forgotten. And as the kids with the shaky grasp of Hilter show, there's merit in looking at it in situ so you can grasp what it actually means to you, instead of what you've been told it should mean. It's only a problem if you get a kick out of it.