The prominence of the Holocaust in American culture serves a crucial function: we know what evil is, and we know the Germans did it. There is, of course, a large and growing body of work done by historians, cultural critics, and others that examines more specifically American forms of evil. Few of them, however, receive the same widespread public attention or sales figures as the latest book, film or memoir about yet another aspect of the Holocaust, which lets us have our cake and eat it, too. We can spend our time pondering serious matters, give appropriate expression to our horror, and lean back in the confidence that it all happened over there, in another country.
Susan Neiman on cultural sins.
[Content warning for discussions of the Holocaust, Nazism, the US slave trade and, briefly, the genocide of Native Americans.]
The whole essay is about the way in which America uses the Holocaust (and WWII in general) as a form of distraction from the slavery and genocide its own history. And while the text focuses mostly on the US and Germany,1 I couldn’t help reading it thinking of the Australian culture warrior bogeyman—the Black Armband of History—and the ways in which we, also, like to avoid our darker pasts.
- And Tarantino films, which I think Neiman… is slightly too lenient on. Because, the thing you have to remember about Inglourious Basterds is that it’s set in a broader “film universe” context in which killing Hitler is demonstrably shown to lead to a more violent, more brutal world. On the one hand, I really doubt Tarantino intended this per se; I think it’s probably just unfortunate fridge logic and a natural product of a dude who really isn’t as clever as he thinks he is. And one the other… yikes. Talk about having one’s cake. [↩]