The Cheapening of Symbols

Tonight, I attended a production of Kiss Me Kate at UC Irvine. The production was in most respects quite good; the singing and acting were both top-notch, and the sets were lavishly done. But there was one sour note that had me fuming for most of the second act, unfortunately. The character of Harrison Howell, a Texas cattle-rancher in the original, had been rewritten for the 1999 revival as an Army general, apparently modeled on Douglas MacArthur. He is domineering, rude, and peremptory, and portrayed as the future running-mate of Republican Thomas Dewey. That I might have swallowed with only a little irritation, but in this production his military escorts were dressed in SS uniforms, and the main character mockingly gives the Sig Heil salute when the General's back is turned.

Perhaps it is to be expected from a theater department at UC Irvine. Surely they must think it highly amusing to take such a dig at the military today, given their presumed opposition to the war. Yet that they should do so by using Nazi imagery, in the same way that some today are fond of equating Bush with Hitler, suggests to me that such people no longer appreciate just how evil the Nazis were — or they understand it in some abstract sense that doesn't really penetrate.

For Jews, however, Nazi imagery can be incredibly powerful and inspires visceral reactions of loathing and hatred among some, and terrible fear and anger among those who actually went through the Holocaust. I remember going to see The Producers on Broadway last year; when the actors came out in SS uniforms for a dance number, I felt a sudden instinctive need to find a gun and shoot them. That was how strongly the very sight of those uniforms affected me.

Yet the very fact that the Nazis represented the pinnacle of evil, which should make people hesitant to use them as a point of comparison, instead had the reverse effect. It is too easy for sloppy thinkers to use the Nazis as a cheap shortcut for conveying just how strongly they feel about something, whether or not the use is justified. This phenomenon has become so widespread that Godwin's Law was formulated to try to discourage such hyperbole, at least on the Internet. Sadly, it has had limited effect, and now invoking the Nazis or Adolph Hitler has become a debating tactic with almost zero semantic content.

Now, people are so used to such sloppiness, such ahistoricism, that they often don't even consider the effect of such usage on listeners who might fully appreciate who the Nazis were, or the Communist Party, or the Ku Klux Klan, or any such incarnation of evil who has been appropriated by the ranting classes. When we hear such unthinking appeals to reflexive emotion, we only feel disgust for the one who is so willing to mangle history for the sake of the transitory political problem of the day.

Similarly, while Americans may be used to speaking of "crusades" as a general term, the Muslim world (and the Jewish world, for that matter) has much stronger memories of what the Crusades actually were. Hence the semantic confusion after one of President Bush's early speeches.

Perhaps such cheapening of symbols is endemic to democracies, which by their nature are forward-looking and have a poor appreciation of history. Associations to past events quickly fade; democracies constantly change, with few attachments to what came before. And those of us who are still stongly attached to our heritage are doomed to a constant, low-level dismay at the thoughtlessness of those who surround us.

After all, it's just a show, right?

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