The false piety over Spicer’s Holocaust mistake

US Politics
on 21 Comments

Many of us are surely lacking in knowledge of the Holocaust– including White House reporters. You can see from yesterday’s press briefing that after Sean Spicer made his gaffe about Hitler not using chemical weapons, as Bashar al-Assad had allegedly done in Syria (at 15:46), 12 minutes went by and Spicer fielded 16 questions on matters such as North Korea, Ivanka Trump, and tax policy before Cecilia Vega of ABC brought up his comment, apparently because it was blowing up on Twitter (another tweet; WSJ tweet).

Sean, thanks.  I just want to give you an opportunity to clarify something you said that seems to be gaining some traction right now.  “Hitler didn’t even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.”  What did you mean by that?

Spicer then dug the hole deeper, by saying that Hitler hadn’t used “the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing…. He brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that.”

The press conference then went on for another 12 minutes and 15 questions or so without any question about Hitler and gas. So it was only when reporters were instructed about how horrifying the comments were that the story took off.

Spicer has never apologized as much as he did last night. He was especially ashamed, he said, because he had ruined a great week for his boss, the president, surely a reference to Trump bombing Syria– with the overwhelming approval of the US foreign policy establishment.

By then Spicer’s historical mistakes had elicited an outpouring of outrage and crocodile tears. Chris Matthews said it was disturbing to think this had happened on Passover. Barbra Streisand and Chelsea Handler were shocked. Wolf Blitzer lectured Spicer: “As you know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, many of them by poison gas. Tell us who you are apologizing to right now. There are Holocaust survivors out there who were listening to what you said and couldn’t belief a spokesman.. for the president of the United States would make such a statement.” (More self-flagellation from Spicer.)

It’s obviously a good idea for officials to know basic historical facts, but the fact that Spicer got this wrong is a reflection of his age (45) and background. He clearly was not steeped in Holocaust information. Now that’s part of his job description. Some of the ritual surrounding this necessity is absurd, and probably makes a lot of people cynical about the centrality of the Holocaust in the cultural register of atrocities. The best/worst moment of the night was when Spicer reached out to Sheldon Adelson, saying “he made a terrible mistake+ apologized if he was offensive.” Adelson is of course a giant rightwing supporter of Israel who called on President Obama to nuke Iran, and Adelson is one of the biggest donors in Republican politics. So is that what this is about– donors?

Another part of the piety that is annoying is the claim that No one is allowed to mention Hitler. Chris Cillizza of CNN echoed the conventional wisdom:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer forgot the first rule of politics during a press briefing on Tuesday: Never, ever compare anyone or anything to Adolf Hitler. “Oh yeah, well this is like when Hitler did. …” is a sentence that you should never, ever say.

That doesn’t make much sense. Ever since Trump got elected, smart friends of mine have likened his rise to Hitler’s. Many people have done so publicly. Chris Matthews compared Trump’s speeches to Hitler. Should they all be stopped? No, why? People find historical analogies useful to understanding what’s happening now, so they should talk about them. When I visited Gaza all I could think about was my own childhood indoctrination in the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Alan Dershowitz calls the ’67 borders of Israel “Auschwitz Borders,” and no one chastises him.

The real question here is equating Bashar al-Assad to Hitler as a mass murderer. As David Bromwich points out in the New York Review of Books, the evidence that Assad committed the chemical weapon attack is less than convincing; “the most clear-cut evidence provided to reporters was simply “an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday.'” Russia’s foreign minister just called for an investigation. That’s what the press ought to care about. But no, they think Trump had a really good week.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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21 Responses

  1. RoHa
    April 13, 2017, 1:36 am

    12 minutes went by and Spicer fielded 16 questions on matters such as North Korea, Ivanka Trump, and tax policy before Cecilia Vega of ABC brought up his comment, …

    The press conference then went on for another 12 minutes and 15 questions or so without any question about Hitler and gas.”

    Maybe they thought that getting information about policy on North Korea, tax, and, yes, even Ivanka was more important than fussing over a throwaway line.

    “So it was only when reporters were instructed about how horrifying the comments were …”

    Instructed by some mysterious person(s) who decided that the slip-up was horrifying?

  2. WH
    April 13, 2017, 3:20 am

    I think Godwin’s Law is not so much about the ethical or historical soundness of comparing other people or things to Hitler and the Third Reich, but more a realistic observation about what happens when people do. Because Hitler is considered the trump card (ha ha) among all villains ever, throwing down that card usually takes discussions away from rational reasoning and into hyperbole and polemic.

  3. HarryLaw
    April 13, 2017, 5:18 am

    As David Bromwich points out “the evidence that Assad committed the chemical weapon attack is less than convincing”. Professor Theodor Postol MIT leading authority on these matters agrees with him …“We again have a situation where the White House has issued an obviously false, misleading and amateurish intelligence report,” he concluded, recalling the 2013 situation when the Obama administration claimed Assad had used chemical weapons against the rebels in Ghouta, near Damascus.

    “What the country is now being told by the White House cannot be true,” Postol wrote, “and the fact that this information has been provided in this format raises the most serious questions about the handling of our national security.” https://www.rt.com/usa/384520-postol-report-sarin-syria/

    • Mooser
      April 13, 2017, 4:46 pm

      President Donald Trump, and the Joint Chiefs of the Military and Intelligence Community of the US. Oh, and the various contracting interests. What could go wrong?

      • Antidote
        April 15, 2017, 4:15 pm

        According to Postol, both the Obama and Trump admin lied when they announed, in 2013 and 2017, that there was no doubt whatsoever that Assad was behind the sarin attack. Postol never claimed, then or now, to know who was respnsible.Neither do I, of course, but is seems that either admin misrepresented the facts, due to false intelligence or deliberate distortion, and that in either case the media bleated this out ad nauseam. The difference is that Obama did not launch a strike against Assad which is precisely what Trump recommended at the time in various tweets. Now he has completely reversed his former position, allegedly moved by televised pictures of “beatiful babies” brought to his attn by his daughter?

        Enough to turn even former Trump supporter Ann Coulter suicidal

  4. German Lefty
    April 13, 2017, 5:49 am

    I totally agree with Phil!

    “Hitler didn’t even sink to the level of using chemical weapons.”
    I have to admit that when I saw this statement on Twitter, I had no idea if it was true or false. Of course, I know that the Nazis gassed people in chambers. However, this gas has never been explicitly referred to as a “chemical weapon”. Not in the media. Not by my former history teacher. That’s why it has never occured to me to categorize it as such.

    • YoniFalic
      April 13, 2017, 12:30 pm

      Zyklon A was banned because it was easily weaponizable. Zyklon B was formulated to make it suboptimal as a weapon.

  5. Citizen
    April 13, 2017, 6:09 am

    Trump is Ignorant of History and So is SeanSpicer http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/04/13/trump-is-ignorant-of-history-and-so-is-his-chump-sean-spicer/ by @NatCounterPunch

  6. HarryLaw
    April 13, 2017, 6:43 am

    Andrew P Napolitano has this take on the US bombing of Syria…
    “Assad, for all his faults, is vigorously fighting al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Why would America harm another sovereign entity that is trying to take out al-Qaida and the Islamic State? Attacking Syrian military assets only aids al-Qaida and the Islamic State, which constitutes providing material assistance to terrorist organizations. Could anyone have imagined our country’s ever doing that”? http://original.antiwar.com/andrew-p-napolitano/2017/04/12/the-missiles-of-holy-week-and-the-rule-of-law/
    That is a good question, one has to look to the US arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan which led to 9/11, more recently John McCain called for arming the Islamists in Syria with manpads.
    WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — Media reported earlier in October that Syrian rebels asked Washington for Stinger missiles to use them against Russia’s military jets.

    “Absolutely… Absolutely I would,” McCain said when asked whether he would support the delivery of Stinger missiles to the opposition in Syria.

    “We certainly did that in Afghanistan. After the Russians invaded Afghanistan, we provided them with surface-to-air capability. It’d be nice to give people that we train and equip and send them to fight the ability to defend themselves. That’s one of the fundamental principles of warfare as I understand it,” McCain said. https://sputniknews.com/us/201510201028835944-us-stingers-missiles-syrian-rebels-mccain/
    Why has John McCain not been charged with material support for terrorism as US law stipulates under the Patriot Act?

  7. HarryLaw
    April 13, 2017, 7:47 am

    Sorry for three posts in a row but I think this is important, who has chemical weapons.. “The Syrian General Staff said that the US-led coalition struck a Daesh depot storing chemical weapons in Deir ez-Zor on Wednesday.

    The Syrian military said that this fact proves that terrorists possess chemical weapons.

    “The jets of the so-called US-led coalition launched a strike at about 17:30-17:50 [local time, 14:30-14:50 GMT] on a Daesh warehouse where many foreign fighters were present. First a white cloud and then a yellow one appeared at the site of the strike, which points at the presence of a large number of poisonous substances. A fire at the site continued until 22:30 [19:30 GMT],” the Syrian army’s command statement obtained by Sputnik said.

    According to the Syrian General Staff, the US-led coalition’s strike killed several hundred people, including civilians. Hundreds were poisoned as a result of the strike on Daesh’s headquarters and depot with chemical weapons”. https://sputniknews.com/

  8. Tuyzentfloot
    April 13, 2017, 8:39 am

    It’s obviously a good idea for officials to know basic historical facts, but the fact that Spicer got this wrong is a reflection of his age (45) and background. He clearly was not steeped in Holocaust information.

    Maybe he was not aware of the historical facts, but it’s possible he knew the facts well but didn’t connect the battlefield with the Holocaust. Thinking is quite linear.
    Just imagine making a statement using “Germans refrained from using chemical weapons in battles during WW2” + “Assad gassed his own people” to conclude Assad worse than Hitler, which is a satisfactory condemning statement.
    Then someone tells you, ‘the way you phrase it you just said Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on the Jews’, to which you reply ‘oops, I hadn’t made that connection.’ Because that use of chemical weapons is not a battlefield situation, so it’s a different context.

    • John O
      April 13, 2017, 12:05 pm

      That may well be true. However, Spicer is a very senior political figure. He seems incapable of pausing for thought – to wit, if I say this, how will it appear to people who hear it? Whether he was aware of the details of the history of chemical warfare is irrelevant – he could have, indeed should have, ensured a comparison of Assad to Hitler was appropriate (cf. Godwin’s Law). Gross incompetence. BAD.

    • German Lefty
      April 13, 2017, 2:51 pm

      “Because that use of chemical weapons is not a battlefield situation, so it’s a different context.”

      I agree!

  9. Tuyzentfloot
    April 13, 2017, 9:14 am

    Also, I think Phil uses ‘piety’ because he thought of Norman’s ‘Why so pious?’ :)

  10. Theo
    April 13, 2017, 2:04 pm

    The man tried to say how reprehensible this deed is, however used the wrong comparision to illustrate it! A human mistake and one has to be a hypocrat to make such a fuss about it!
    Hier I would like to add that we still do not have a proof who did it, and Trump´s shooting from the hip may be a huge mistake. In Aleppo the so called White Helmets did a few tricks and got in Hollywood an Oscar for it, although their stories were mostly staged events.

  11. HarryLaw
    April 13, 2017, 2:23 pm

    Spicer would do well to also remember the use of chemical weapons by the US and its allies
    Agent Orange was used for over 10 years in Vietnam.
    Agent Orange was a chemical, herbicidal weapon sprayed over 12 percent of Vietnam by the U.S. military from 1961 to 1971. The dioxinpresent in Agent Orange is one of the most toxic chemicals known to humanity.

    Those exposed to Agent Orange during the war often have children and grandchildren with serious illnesses and disabilities. The international scientific community has identified an association between exposure to Agent Orange and some forms of cancers, reproductive abnormalities, immune and endocrine deficiencies and nervous system damage. Second- and third-generation victims continue to be born in Vietnam as well as to U.S. veterans and Vietnamese-Americans in this country. [Counterpunch]

    White Phosphorous is also a chemical weapon used extensively by the US in Iraq and more recentely by the Israelis in Gaza. Plus depleted uranium, the US used 300 tons when invading Iraq, the fine uranium dust particles have been found to cause cancers and other abnormalities in Iraqi children born today.
    Not forgetting Winston Churchill.
    Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons
    The use of chemical weapons in Syria has outraged the world. But it is easy to forget that Britain has used them – and that Winston Churchill was a powerful advocate for them

    Secrecy was paramount. Britain’s imperial general staff knew there would be outrage if it became known that the government was intending to use its secret stockpile of chemical weapons. But Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, brushed aside their concerns. As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919, 94 years before the devastating strike in Syria, Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia. https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/sep/01/winston-churchill-shocking-use-chemical-weapons
    Churchhills bust is staring at Trump in the Oval office. Pot, Kettle.

    • Elizabeth Block
      April 13, 2017, 3:27 pm

      I did not know this. I did know that while Hitler didn’t use gas against Europeans – not because he was too decent, but because he knew they would retaliate in kind – Mussolini did use it against Ethiopeans, whom no doubt he saw as uncivilized tribes.

      • MHughes976
        April 14, 2017, 2:49 am

        Gas had been used extensively, of course, on the battlefields of WW1, with Hitler the best known victim. The British and German generals of WW2 had been junior officers 25 years before, some in the front line, and didn’t seem to like the idea of gas, perhaps because of mutual deterrence, perhaps because they didn’t think it won wars, perhaps because they had come to think it atrocious. David Jablonsky in ‘Churchill, the Great Game and Total War’ p.178 says that Churchill consulted his assistant General Ismay on June 30, 1940 about gas to defend ‘the beaches’ but nothing much came of it. He later talked about gas as retaliation for the terrifying V1/V2 rocket attacks, but again this way was not taken.

  12. German Lefty
    April 13, 2017, 3:04 pm

    Regarding chemical weapons: The USA used white phosphorus during the Iraq war and Israel used it during Cast Lead. So, obviously, the USA applies double standards here. A Christian who uses chemical weapons on innocents is still regarded as a good guy. A Jew who uses chemical weapons on innocents is still regarded as a good guy. However, a Muslim who (supposedly) uses chemical weapons on innocents is an evil guy.

    • eljay
      April 13, 2017, 3:09 pm

      || German Lefty: … the USA applies double standards here. … ||

      Hypocrisy is one of America’s and Israel’s “shared common values”.

  13. yonah fredman
    April 13, 2017, 5:09 pm

    As if Sean Spicer’s historical ignorance of 1939 to 1945 is explainable by his deep or impressive knowledge regarding some other period or atrocity.

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