Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.
Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.
But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.
Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.
I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:
The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.
New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."
The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:
However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.
Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?
The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.
At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.
What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.
Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?
For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.
When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment. Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power. Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.
It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.
Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:
First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?
Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.
In an era defined by pervasive mass mediation, what role might intimacy—a relation of closeness and familiarity with another person—play in the realm of politics? Most of us are familiar with the town hall meetings, living-room campaign events, and other highly publicized yet simultaneously face-to-face interactions that now play a prominent role in this country’s electoral campaigns. Most of us also recognize the ways that Obama and other recent Presidents have presented the nation with stories of individual tribulation in order to “give a human face” to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the spiraling costs of health care, or the most recent school shooting. To be sure, cynics might argue that political figures stage such moments of (supposed) intimacy merely to evoke and harness constituents’ sentiments in the service of their policies—or to lend themselves an air of human approachability. There is probably some truth in these claims. But I believe such skepticism also underestimates the varied motives that prompt leaders to mobilize the rhetoric of intimacy. It also skirts the diverse reasons why ordinary citizens might seek out—or refuse—those leaders’ expressions of empathy and solidarity.
I was led to these reflections by last week’s meeting between German Federal President Joachim Gauck and the relatives of the ten people murdered by the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, between 2000 and 2007. The NSU was a small but committed group of violent neo-Nazis that initially coalesced in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, over the course of the 1990s. In the years that followed, the NSU’s core members ranged across the Federal Republic of Germany to target and fatally shoot nine small business owners of migrant backgrounds (eight of them Turkish, one of them Greek). They also shot two police officers, one of whom later died of her injuries, and injured twenty-three additional people in two separate bombings.
The NSU managed to evade detection and arrest for years due to competition between German law enforcement and security agencies, structural barriers to communication, and the evident negligence of investigators on the local, state, and national levels. Perhaps most egregiously, the Federal Office of Constitutional Protection sought to avoid public scrutiny and censure of its actions in late 2011 by deliberately destroying files that documented its long-standing contacts with another right extremist group closely related to the NSU. During these years of bungling, many of those in law enforcement and public security failed to take the possibility of right-wing political violence seriously. Instead, investigators long operated on the premise that the victims had died at the hands of relatives, drug dealers, or other criminals in the underground immigrant milieu. In this manner, law enforcement officials wittingly or unwittingly bought into reductive stereotypes that link people of migrant backgrounds with violence and crime.
On February 18th, Federal President Gauck invited the victims’ families to his offices in Berlin to express his commitment to the full investigation of the murders and the institutional shortcomings that failed to prevent them. This meeting was a particularly delicate one for Gauck since he has struggled to strike a consistent and publicly palatable tone on matters of immigration. In 2010 he awkwardly defended the anti-immigrant populist Thilo Sarrazin and his book Deutschland schafft sich ab, and later that same year he distanced himself from former Federal President Christian Wulff’s claim that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Gauck also appeared distinctly ill at ease during an earlier memorial gathering with the victims’ families in 2012. On the whole, Gauck’s public statements have tended to emphasize the “foreignness” of Muslims and post-war migrants, not their integral and self-evident membership in German national life.
Perhaps in response to his earlier public statements, last week Gauck promised the families that he would invest his full “personal involvement” in the ongoing government-led inquiry. This striking formulation implied a level of engagement on his part that extended beyond the strictly “professional” concern that might be expected of him as Germany’s Federal President. In addition, Gauck insisted ahead of the meeting that it would be small in scale and familiar in tone, and members of the press would not be allowed to attend the proceedings. These conditions would allow him, he contended, to hold personal and private conversations with all of the attendees. In short, Gauck set considerable store in interpersonal intimacy as a means to engage with the surviving family members, acknowledge their loss and mistreatment, and restore at least some of their confidence in German legal and political institutions. He probably also hoped to rehabilitate his own public image to some degree, but I suspect that this motive was not the overriding one during this particular meeting.
Many of the surviving family members accepted Gauck’s invitation, and several of the seventy total attendees contributed in their own fashion to this performance of political intimacy. Ismail Yozgat, father of murder victim Halil Yozgat, arrived with a photograph of his son as a six-year-old hung around his neck, and when he tearfully called on state authorities to “give me my son back,” Gauck wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
But many of the other attendees pointedly refused to speak at length with the Federal President, and some later expressed irritation that Gauck had not lingered with them, but had instead departed promptly at 2 p.m. to attend to other business. Others were troubled by the fact that Gauck had shared his opening remarks with media representatives rather than reserving them for the families alone. And still others had not accepted the Federal President’s invitation at all and remained distant from the gathering. One family worried that the group would actually be too large for Gauck to have a personal conversation with them. A few others, meanwhile, justified their absence on the grounds that the Federal President’s office had not honored their requests for their lawyers to be present. In the words of Angela Wierig, representative for Ayşen Taşköprü: “true empathy would have recognized that my client would have liked me by her side.”
In short, the families of the NSU murder victims were well aware of the intimacy that Gauck had hoped to invest and mobilize in their meeting with him, and they negotiated his framing of the event in diverse ways. While some consented to the terms of Gauck’s invitation, others detected a distinct lack of sincerity in his proclaimed “personal involvement.” Others feared that the gathering would not in fact be intimate enough, while still others refused the offer of intimacy and instead sought to place the meeting on a squarely legalistic, guarded, even confrontational footing.
All of these responses point to the ways that human closeness is not an inevitable or natural state of affairs, but rather a contingent condition that can only fashioned amid varied and often trying circumstances. Moreover, they suggest that intimacy may not be the only or even the best means to redress moments of pain, injustice, and mistrust.
For no small number of the people affected by the NSU murders, rigorous accountability for law enforcement incompetence—not offers of solidarity from the Federal President—offered the most promising route forward.
One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.
A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.
It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:
Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.
What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,
Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.
Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.
The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.” In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.