Saturday, August 16, 2008

Atomic Bomb Anniversary Update

Briefly noted, some further commentary on the anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima:

• Open Democracy published "the text of a peace declaration issued on 6 August 2008 by the mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba" to mark the anniversaries of the two bombs. Among other things, it calls for the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

• In "Remembering the Bomb, Forgetting Why," Rick Moran, of Right Wing Nut House, vigorously insists on the necessity of using the bomb.  Although saying of the victims, "We pity them and ache for what they went through that horrible day," he counters exclusive sympathy for their plight with a call to pay equal attention to the sufferings of the far more numerous victims of Japanese imperialism and conquest.

Preservation in the Balance: Preserve UMass

The current issue of the University of Massachusetts alumni magazine contains a letter from Emeritus Professor Joe Larson, Corresponding Secretary of Preserve UMass, which attempts to strike a balance between concern and hope for the fate of the historic resources on campus.

Larson begins by noting a profound irony:
The Fall 2007 issue featured several articles on the accomplishments of alumni in the fields of historic architecture, restoration, preservation, and adaptive re-use of historic structures. This issue also carried a notice that UMass Amherst has become the first public institution in New England to offer an accredited professional graduate degree in architecture. But concurrent with the publication of this issue, on November 14, 2007, the UMass Amherst campus was placed, by Preservation Massachusetts, on its list of Massachusetts’ 10 Most Endangered Historic Resources.
He ends with a warning but also a note of encouragement:
I submit that it is time for the campus administration to develop an approach to historic preservation that complies with state law and actively engages the expertise of faculty and alumni.
The University's recent hiring of a professional consultant on historic resources--long called for by Preserve UMass, and since mandated by a decision of the Massachusetts Historical Commission--is reason for cautious optimism. Perhaps the University has now demonstrated the ability to learn lessons as well as teach.  In any case, let us hope that the new chancellor will be receptive to messages of concern from the dedicated faculty, staff, students, and alumni who care about their institution's history as well as its future.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

National Anthems: PBS Gets it About 90% Right (3 points off for content, 7 for smugness)

Last week, as the Olympics got underway, NPR ran a story on national anthems, taking their role in medal ceremonies as an opportunity to reflect on the musical form as a whole.   Interviewed by Renee Montagne, musician and commentator Miles Hoffman provided useful general background and generally sound commentary.   Regarding the Chinese anthem, they took pleasure in speculating that it is probably the only one derived from a popular film.  Hoffman correctly points out that the first real exemplar of the genre was "God Save the King," of 1745.  National anthems are thus relatively new phenomena, a product of the modern nation-state and nationalism, which arose only in the eighteenth century (and not earlier, as some works would have us believe).  

Hoffman subdivides the songs into the hymn-like ones, which praise land or ruler, and the bloody, combative ones (of which the French "Marseillaise" is the classic example).  He further and plausibly asserts that almost no national anthem texts are great poetry.

One nonetheless could have done without the arch tone that he uses when pronouncing not only the Chinese socialist phrases, but any lofty-sounding lines.  One could practically see the raised eyebrow and curled lip as he spoke.

The point was in any case not new. Had he wanted to point to warlike, pompous, ponderous, or preposterous texts, he could have gone even further, as this selection from Tom Kuntz's 1997 piece in the New York Times ("O Patriotic Hymns! You Enslave Us With Blood Lust and Self-Praise!") demonstrates:
Mexicans, when the trumpet is calling,
Grasp your sword and your harness assemble.
Let the guns with their thunder appalling,
Make the earth's deep foundations to tremble. . . .

King Christian stood by the lofty mast
In mist and smoke;
His sword was hammering so fast,
Through Gothic helm and brain it passed.

Other anthems appear to lose something in cross-cultural transmission:

Syria's plains are

     Towers in the heights,
     Resembling the sky
     Above the clouds.
     A land resplendent
     With brilliant suns,
     Becoming another sky
     Or almost a sky.

But other countries make it all too clear where they stand -- Libya among them:

     O World, look up and listen!
     The enemy's army is coming,
     Rising to destroy me.
     With truth and with my gun I shall repulse him.
     And should I be killed,
     I would kill him with me.
     Sing with me --
     Woe to the Imperialists!
     And God is above the treacherous tyrant.
     God is Greatest!
     Therefore glorify him, O my country,
     And seize the forehead of the tyrant
     And destroy him!
That said, I was fully in agreement with Hoffman when he praised the melody of the former Austrian and current German anthem--composed by Franz Joseph Haydn during the turmoil of the Revolutionary Wars in 1797--as one of the most beautiful, and played the sublime version that Haydn incorporated into his string quartet, op. 76 no. 3 (the "Emperor").  Haydn's inspiration came from the British example (he had recently visited England twice for extended periods), and the text, by the nonentity Lorenz Leopold Haschka, was likewise a dynastic hymn.  (Both the text and the melody of the Austrian anthem have changed several times since the fall of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, but that is another story.)

Although Hoffman correctly pointed out that the Germans chose to drop the first verse, with the words, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles," from the official text after World War II, the full story is actually slightly more complicated and interesting.  Like the Times, he implied that the lines were supremacist. No doubt, that is how they sounded in 1945, but when the radical and nationalist Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote them in 1841, they, like the words that spoke of Germany as stretching from the Baltic to the Alps and Lithuania to the Netherlands, referred to the locales in which German was spoken and were meant to emphasize simply the supremacy of German national culture and unity over German regional particularism.  Under the Wilhelminian Empire prior to World War I, the German national anthem was "Hail thee in victor's crown," sung to the same melody as the British "God Save the King" and the American "My Country, 'tis of Thee."  Only in 1922--under the democratic Weimar Republic--did the "Deutschlandlied," employing Haydn's melody and Hoffmann von Fallersleben's text, become the official German anthem.  The verses sung today, "Unity and justice and freedom for the German Fatherland," are actually Hoffmann von Fallersleben's adaptation of a song of praise by the great medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide.

All in all, the NPR piece was a useful one, and there are worse places to start, especially as this one contains eight musical selections (though having the Marseillaise played by the Coldstream Guards was a nasty irony; I'll take the Orchestre d'Harmonie des Gardiens de la Paix de Paris).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympic Controversies and Historical Parallels

Briefly noted:

The Beijing Olympics are producing a good deal of controversy, chiefly over Chinese policy toward Tibet and Sudan, and perhaps secondarily over China's general domestic human-rights record.

Not surprisingly, commentators are making comparisons with earlier cases or simply using the occasion to reflect on them.  Not surprisingly, either, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany are among the most common points of reference.

Already last spring, on the occasion of the torch run, the BBC and various commentators reminded us that it was the Nazis who invented that tradition (I am here borrowing a phrase from the influential book by Hobsbawm and Ranger).  The US Holocaust Museum, although making no explicit comparison, has an exhibition on the 1936 Olympics.  

Abebooks reminds us, however, that Olympic "crisis" (as it calls it), is hardly new.  It lists a selection of titles on a broad range of Olympic controversies and catastrophes, including the dispute over Jim Thorpe's medals, the Nazi Olympics of 1936, the protests by African-American athletes at Mexico City in 1968,  the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and scandals involving doping and training practices.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Taste Test: How We (Mis)Use our War Memorials

The Dissident Frogman takes one of his characteristic shots at a Greek PR company for using a crudely Photoshopped image of what is evidently an Allied World War II cemetery in an anti-smoking campaign.  That is:  Why choose that particular type of cemetery over any other?  Not everything is fair game for market exploitation.  Those austere grass expanses with row upon row of simple but eloquent crosses make great raw visual material, but there is a difference between dying because you chose to "smoke 'em if ya got 'em" (as they used to say in World War II movies) and dying in the fight against Nazism.  Merci, Frogman.

Admittedly, he seems inadvertently to succumb to the tendency that he decries when he speaks of "Health Nazis."  As readers of this blog will know, I think that we too often and casually reach for the Nazi comparison.

Ironically, however, the Frogman is not as far off the mark as one might imagine.   Nazi scientists were in fact the first to demonstrate the link between smoking and lung cancer. Even while waging wars of conquest and racial extermination abroad, the regime therefore sought to curb smoking at home--in the name of racial hygiene to preserve the German Volk.

In the course of blasting the tawdry advertisement, the Gallic sharpshooter also takes aim at another topic that has made headlines, the evidently increasing use (why?!) of war memorials as backdrops for private pornographic film and photography.  

As the Telegraph reports
While common acts of desecration have in the past included vandalism and graffiti, indecent photographs and videos are increasingly being shot around the magnificent structures built during the post-war years to remember the fallen.
The latest incident saw a French couple given a four-month suspended prison sentence for making a pornographic video at the Vimy Ridge memorial near Arras.
If people don't have a life, they should at least try to understand and respect the meaning of someone else's.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

6 August 1945: The US Uses Atomic Bomb Against Hiroshima

One of the most revealing contrasts between professional historical scholarship and popular historical knowledge and sensibilities came to light when the Smithsonian Institution proposed a new display, incorporating the restored forward fuselage and other elements of the "Enola Gay," the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995.

Scholars had long debated such questions as the abstract moral implications of using a new weapon of mass destruction against a civilian population (for some reason, the far more destructive continuous fire-bombing of German as well as Japanese cities occasioned less interest), the military necessity of the bomb (the objective ability and willingness of Japan to continue the war and the subjective role of US intelligence assessments), and the role of subsidiary or ulterior motives (including tense US-Soviet relations). These debates were an established part of the professional historical literature but had found less resonance with a public that, even if it acknowledged them, was in some cases alienated by the attempt to address them in a museum setting on the occasion of a major historical anniversary.

Among other things, the Smithsonian controversy thus highlighted the tension between the dual functions of museums as sites of both history and memory--supposedly impartial (and thus potentially critical) interpretation versus formation of national identity and civic consciousness. As a National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Curator framed the dilemma:
Do you want to do an exhibit to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? Frankly, I don't think we can do both.
The private Air Force Association, soon followed by other organizations and individuals, denounced the proposal as skewed and unpatriotic. After considerable back-and-forth, the exhibit was canceled and then reinstated, though the revised version then met with criticism from other quarters, such as historians who found it not critical enough. The Director of the NASM resigned under pressure. The new exhibit was closed in 1998, and in 2003, again controversially, the plane was moved to the new NASM on the grounds of Dulles Airport.

The debate about the necessity of using the atomic bomb continues, most recently with Robert Maddox's polemic against what he calls Hiroshima revisionists.

Today, of course, the issue of nuclear proliferation remains unresolved, as the nature of the Iranian program in particular generates speculation and talk or fear of atomic war.

Resources on the Enola Gay exhibition and controversy:

Enola Gay: The Plane (including statement by pilot Paul Tibbets)
Former Exhibition Information, National Air and Space Museum
Enola Gay Controversy, History on Trial series (from Lehigh University)
Enola Gay Archive (from the Air Force Association)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

4 August 1914: The War Becomes a World War

A month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, on 28 July.  Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August.  However, the conflict truly became a world war when hostilities spread to the west. On 3 August, Germany declared war on France. The following day, it invaded neutral Belgium, triggering a British declaration of war.  (The US thereupon declared neutrality that same day.)

It was on the evening of 4 August that British Foreign Secretary Lord Grey is said to have made the famous comment, "The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Referring to the concept of "Bildung"--more than mere "education":  total development of the individual personality --at the heart of German schooling and high culture, Erwin Piscator, who had fought in the German army on the Western Front, recalled: 
My calendar begins on August 4, 1914.

     From that day the barometer rose:
     13 million dead.
     11 million maimed.
     50 million soldiers on the march.
       6 billion guns.
     50 billion cubic meters of gas.

What room does that leave for 'personal development'?  Nobody can develop 'personally' under these conditions.  Something else develops him.  The twenty-year-old was confronted by War.  Destiny.  It made every other teacher superfluous.

Fewer than a dozen verified World War I veterans are alive today, and of those, only about  half saw combat.

Resources:  World War I Document Archive (from Brigham Young U.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Historic Preservation and the Memory of Injustice

It is always good (and sobering) to be reminded that historic preservation is not only about preserving the beautiful or the architecturally noteworthy, or what we are proud of.

Some of the most striking memories of my childhood encounters with history are of the conversations in which my parents talked about their experiences of Europe during or after World War II with Japanese-American friends, who shared their recollections of the internment camps to which the United States had so shamefully relegated them.  In the intervening years, the latter subject has, thankfully, attained an ever greater place in our educational curriculum and collective consciousness (though still not as great as it deserves).  Even though we are now more aware of the experience of the evacuees, few if any of us pause to think about the physical environment and its fate.

A recent piece from the Associated Press describes the challenge of preserving the remains of those camps in the American west. The first practical difficulty entails locating and identifying the surviving structures, many of which have been moved or reused.
The park service has proposed restoring a block of the barracks to recreate the living conditions that roughly 13,000 Japanese Americans experienced at the camp. The initiative is part of an overall plan to preserve sections of Minidoka, which became a national historic site seven years ago and now sits mostly deserted

But most of the barracks found so far are ghosts of their former selves, long since converted into homes, farming sheds, chicken and pig pens, and in one instance, a Twin Falls apartment complex.

"We have no idea how many still exist," said Patrick Taylor, who was hired in March to find the barracks.

Preservation plans at Minidoka fit into a larger, more complicated endeavor as the National Park Service and grass-roots organizations nationwide try to resurrect history that was largely buried for decades.

The camps held memories many Japanese Americans wanted to forget and actions the U.S. government worked quickly to erase.

"Most of these sites have been abandoned since they were closed," said National Park Service historian Kara Miyagishima. "No one has had the finances to preserve them."

President George W. Bush signed a bill in 2006 authorizing up to $38 million for a park service grant program aimed at preserving the sites, but two years later, the money still hasn't been appropriated.

Only two of the sites _ Minidoka in Idaho and the Manzanar camp in California _ have been designated as national historic sites.

[. . . . ]

"At first we were worried we weren't going to be able to find them," Taylor said. "That has turned out not to be the problem, it's what to do once we find them."

But the federal channels, although time-consuming, seem necessary in the long run, Taylor said.

History can be misleading as officials at the Manzanar National Historic Site in California discovered after spending an estimated $40,000 to relocate a mess hall, only to discover later that it was a World War II air base.

"By the time we found this out we had already spent the money," said Alisa Lynch, a park service employee at the Manzanar National Historic Site. "It's costing several hundred thousand dollars to restore it."
(Jessie L. Bonner, "World War II camp preservation proves difficult")

The topic also poses profound questions regarding the goals of preservation versus restoration, and thus, history and memory.

Last month, I visited Auschwitz (a separate report on that later, perhaps) where these issues are highlighted as perhaps nowhere else. Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps were not just places of internment, but also extermination--and, as such, de facto graveyards for those who have no graves.

Though still present on-site, many of these facilities, like those of Manzanar and Minidoka, were built quickly, with impermanent materials. Without conservation efforts, they will disappear. The greater the intervention required, however, the greater the loss of authenticity--and thus the risk of inadvertently calling into question the very historical phenomena whose reality one seeks to document.

As a 2007 press report noted:
"The biggest dilemma of this place is preserving what is authentic while also keeping it possible for people to see and to touch," said Piotr Cywinski, a 34-year-old historian who took over in September.

"This wasn't built as a medieval castle with strong materials to last for all time," Cywinski told The Associated Press in an interview in his office in one of the Auschwitz barracks. "It was a Nazi camp built to last a short time."
The most sensitive issue involves the ruins of the killing facilities at Auschwitz II (Birkenau):
The Nazis themselves blew up the gas chambers and crematoria toward the end of World War II as the Soviet army approached. Today, they are mostly in ruins as the Nazis left them, evidence of both the original crimes and the German attempt to cover them up.

Any decay at all poses a problem given the camp's role today as evidence of the atrocities. . . .

For all that to crumble would deprive future generations of priceless historical evidence of Nazi atrocities, a further concern in light of Holocaust denial.

[. . . . ]

Cywinski is calling for retainer walls to be built around gas chambers to prevent them from sinking further.

"We are at a moment where we have to act," Cywinski said. "If we don't, there's the risk that in 10 or 15 years, it will no longer be possible to understand their construction."

But any tampering with the gas chambers is problematic because Holocaust deniers could seize on that, and photographs of repair work, to try to argue that the whole thing was fabricated, according to Jonathan Webber, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Birmingham and a member of the International Auschwitz Council, a board that advises Auschwitz administrators.

Webber noted that the barbed wire at Auschwitz has already been replaced more than once since the war, because the original was so rusted. But "fiddling with the gas chambers" is different.

"Anyone tampering with gas chambers is tampering with the heart and soul of what Auschwitz represents," said Webber, who has urged the council to seek the advice of engineering experts before starting any work.
(Read the rest: Associated Press: "Auschwitz curator has new challenges," January 2007)

As the Times of London put it around the same time:
It is a macabre dilemma. Should one give new life to a Nazi camp that has become synonymous with evil? Or should one let the camp crumble gently? Should Auschwitz become an overgrown site for mourners or a tourist destination? The International Auschwitz Council meeting this week decided that it was possible to strike a balance. Auschwitz remains a museum as well as a crime scene and, as such, should be more accessible to those wanting to learn about the Holocaust.
Restoration efforts were to focus on stabilizing the remains of the Birkenau killing facilities and on the principal Auschwitz I camp, whose mainly brick structures derive from old Polish military barracks.  These include modernizing the exhibits housed there (they dated from 1955).  And then there is the problem of preserving the mundane yet chilling artifacts--from mounds of human hair and personal possessions such as toothbrushes, shoes, and luggage, to rusting metal cans that once held Zyklon B gas.  No less sensitive are the issues involving the larger ambience as the site adapts to address the practical needs of increasing numbers of tourists in more up-to-date fashion.
the Auschwitz restoration team has to be careful to avoid the impression that it is building replicas. “The camp has to be propped up without sacrificing any of its authenticity,” a source close to the council said.

The other fear, voiced by Jewish scholars, is that Auschwitz will lose the smell of death and become more of a museum than a graveyard. Noach Flug, the president of the Centre of Organisations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said: “Auschwitz is the original place where it happened. You must have the feeling as it was then — the smell and the look. It is important not to change.”

The most damning comment has come from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims: “Changing the memorial and making it less horrifying and more friendly, having more flowers, trees, parks and grass, is good maybe for an amusement park but not for a place that is important to teach us what happened.”

“This is not about beauty,” Mr Cywinksi said. “We have to think about the next generation and different ways of speaking to them.”

Further reading:

• Sharon Yamato, Moving Walls: Preserving the Barracks of America's Concentration Camps.
• Paul Kusuda, recollections of evacuation and internment in Manzanar, in Asian Wisconzine: "Day of remembrance: February 19": "Part 1"; "Part 2"; Part 3; "World War II at home: West Coast evacuation of aliens and non-aliens"

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Breaking News: Solzhenitsyn Dies

Reuters report:  The Interfax News Agency announces the death of former Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Is Barack Obama Too Young to be President?

Much has been made of the relative youth and "inexperience" of Barack Obama.  Obviously, neither age nor youth, neither experience nor lack thereof, is any guarantee of sound judgment and policy.  Much of that not terribly edifying  discussion, understandably, takes American political figures (John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King) as its points of reference.

It can also be instructive to turn to European examples. As I constantly remind my students, our notion that the political leader of a great power is someone of mature years does not necessarily fit the historical pattern. 

Fascist movements, for example, presented themselves not least as dynamic movements of generational rebellion, in which  the young asserted their rights over the "old" men, parties, and ideas held responsible for the First World War and subsequent chaos.  Although Churchill indeed fits the image of the senior statesman (age 65) when called upon to assume control of the government during World War II, his enemies had risen to power in their relative youth:  Mussolini was only 39 when he became Prime Minister, and Hitler was appointed Chancellor at the age of 43.

The youth factor is even more apparent if one turns to the French Revolution, which, as the successor to a closed social and political system, necessarily brought men of new social origins to power. Many of them were also young. Even the Old Régime, however, could claim that youth was on its side: Louis XVI was but 34 when the Bastille fell.  Robespierre and Saint-Just were 35 and 26 years old, respectively, when executed on the 10th of Thermidor.  Barère and Tallien, who overthrew them, were just 38 and 27.  Napoleon Bonaparte was 30 years old when he seized power.  Wellington and Napoleon both turned 46 in the year of Waterloo--the same age as Barack Obama today.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Karadzic Update

In my elation at the news that Radovan Karadzic had been captured and would soon be brought to justice, my immediate reaction was to ask how he had managed to escape that justice for so long.

When I learned that he had been living in Belgrade, though under an assumed name, and as a practitioner of "alternative medicine," I was sorely tempted to make some comment about the implicit connections between the facts of Karadzic's "political" career and subsequent existence, but I refrained.

I am therefore delighted that the admirable and irrepressible physicist Bob Park (one of my favorite scientists and internet commentators) took the words from my mouth:
Friday, August 1, 2008


after his indictment in connection with the Srebrenica massacre and the deadly siege of Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic was found with a beard and a new identity living openly in Belgrade. How could a mass murderer support himself for 13 years without drawing on his past? No problem. He practiced alternative medicine, which requires little more than a lack of scruples. He was fully qualified.
Thanks, Bob! You always come through.

Barack Obama: Hitler? or Just Willie Horton?

Although I am always on the lookout for problematic historical analogies, I must say that I missed this one.

By now, most of us have seen the McCain attack ad that juxtaposes shots of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears with footage of Obama in Berlin in a savage assault on his—energy policy. (Huh?)

I thought it was silly, confused, and of course wrongheaded in more ways than one. Others claim to see more.

There seem to be two main currents of interpretation. The first charges McCain and his strategists with playing on racial fears:
This vicious, nasty, disgusting ad is about the black mens and the white womens. And how the former ain't supposed to touch the latter. It's about a threat to the white womens! Rape!.
Logical flaw: One does not simultaneously compare the object of fear to both the negative analogue and the positive, endangered object. The ad criticizes Obama by likening him to the ditzy Paris and Britney. They cannot therefore be both slutty airheads and virginal everygirls (“I’m really scared he will rape my chaste honor student, who, by the way, is a notorious skank with an IQ the same as the room temperature”).

Even assuming that playing the racial-sexual card were the nefarious strategy here, it would not appeal to any sizeable portion of the electorate, no matter how little respect either the campaign strategist or the critic has for the American voter. In any case, let’s keep things in perspective. It’s hardly Willie Horton. (It took George H. W. Bush, the patrician gentleman, to bring us that unparalleled piece of vileness.)

The second interpretation is the more interesting and sinister. Writing for the New Republic (TNR), Eve Fairbanks muses, darkly:
McCain's newest TV ad, "Celeb," reminded Jon of the Simpsons' "Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?" episode, but was I the only one who thought it mimicked the end of "Triumph of the Will"?
Sadly, no.  Others, too, succumbed to temptation, most notably Rick Perlstein. Having praised the aforementioned psycho-sexual interpretation in pseudo-dialect (nuff said), he proceeds to attack the ad from a different angle, under the title, “Liberal Fascism”:

Recall that John McCain's new adviser Karl Rove has said he creates campaigns for people who watch TV with the sound off. I watched John McCain's new TV commercial with the sound off—the one, it's already been well-explicated, with the Barack Obama will rape yo daughta overtones:

I compared it to another famous piece of political film, also with the sound off:

That one, of course, is Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will, its most iconic scene, in fact: Adolph Hitler addressing the closing ceremonies at the 1936 Olympics the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremberg. I actually wonder if the Republicans had a crew on the scene to capture just the right angles; for instance, the identical camera placement shooting the speaker over the shoulder at stage right.

“Of course.” Even aside from the misspelling of Hitler’s given name (we won’t be pedants here), or the more serious initial confusion of films, or the highly dubious assertion that the embedded stills of the speeches inside the meeting hall are more “iconic” than the outdoor scenes at the Mars Field and Luitpold Arena, there are grounds for doubt.

Perlstein apparently sees the ad as of a piece with the notion of “liberal fascism” advanced by right-wing journalist Jonah Goldberg in his eponymous and preposterous book. It seems a bit of a stretch, and it’s not really articulated: The attack ad is kind of like a bad book and uses the techniques of an evil film to associate the target with the evil subject of that film . . . so, uh . . the guys who made the ad are really more like the evil ones who made or appear in the first film (got that?).

To the extent that visual similarities exist, they are largely inconsequential—by now, part of mainstream cinematic language. To the extent that they might represent a deliberate smear, they are ineffectual.

Logical flaw: There is no real attempt, in either substance or tone, to link Obama to anything fascistic. Indeed, there cannot be a tight connection, because the main point of the ad (to the extent it has one) is contained in the question, “But is he ready to lead?” No one doubts that Hitler had the ability to lead—specifically, to mobilize the masses in support of evil. This ad, by contrast, likens Obama to two celebrities notorious for their sex lives and substance abuse. Silly? Yes. Sinister? Hardly, especially given that his most nefarious policy would appear to be opposition to offshore oil drilling. Folks, we aren’t exactly on a train to Auschwitz here. The only people astute enough to get the presumed message would also be astute enough to reject it. Conclusion: Really bad strategy.

Noam Scheiber of TNR, citing both Fairbanks and Perlstein, nonetheless goes on to worry about the effect of the Nazi analogy on the elderly South Florida Jewish electorate. A lot of the resultant commentary then digresses into extended, mostly neurotic, though occasionally humorous, musings on that demographic, e.g. this sensible one by mpatrickhendri:
Yep, I can see it now, a elderly couple in Tarpon Springs nervously watches a commercial starring the newest installment of Hitler standing in front of a monument celebrating Prussia's victory over Denmark, and the inevitable question comes to mind: 'Is it dinner time?"
For God sakes, indeed. You guys even seen Leno ask people on the street what continent South America is on? Sure, they get the subtle point: crowds equal genocide. Fellas, BO has higher popularity among jewish voters than Joe Lieberman. Get over it, the jewish vote isn't going anywhere.
Indeed. How many ways can one misread and exaggerate the importance of a 32-second ad?

When the always provocative conservative blog, Little Green Footballs (LGF), first looked at the video, it said, simply and sensibly:  "The point that Obama is treated as a celebrity is a good one, but the comparison with Spears and Hilton is a little weird."

I could have lived with that analysis. Historians, no less than scientists, cherish the principle of parsimony.

Most recently, after surveying the commentaries cited above, LGF spoke of TNR playing the “Godwin Card.” For those unfamiliar with the term (I have not hitherto mentioned it, though it is very pertinent to much of what appears on this blog), the principle, enunciated by Mike Godwin in 1990, is that:
"As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
It is thus related to Leo Stauss’s reductio ad Hitlerum, though without any necessary judgment as to validity of the analogy.

The press and the electorate really deserve better. If it is ridiculous for right-wingers to accuse left-wingers of fascism, it is only slightly less ridiculous for left-wingers to see right-wingers everywhere accusing left-wingers of fascism, and in the process, further muddy the debate by implying that right-wingers are all fascists.

If you are serious in believing that neo-fascist ideologies are a global threat, then there are some serious debates out there that are worth taking seriously (1, 2, 3, 4). Otherwise, give the Nazi stuff a rest. Please. There are bigger issues and better ways to discuss them.

What was objectively bizarre about the ad was not just the introduction of silly celebrities into the electoral equation, but the disjuncture between the substance of the attack and the film footage. Linking Britney to higher electricity taxes? Excuse me? If McCain, whose supposed forte is his expertise in foreign and military affairs, wanted to take his best shot and criticize Obama’s presumed or “presumptuous” victory tour, he would have played to that strength and addressed the substance of the policy speech that the latter actually gave in Berlin. Others—conservative (1 , 2) or merely possessed of a healthy skepticism (1, 2, 3, 4)—have done just that.

It’s not an attempt to propagate a theory of liberal fascism. It’s not penis envy. It’s publicity and popularity envy. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and an incoherent ad is just an incoherent ad.

To me, the video is just a sign of a wavering campaign knocked off its footing by the success of a foreign tour that it dared Obama to make.

If this is the best the McCain people can come up with, then the Obama camp can breathe a sigh of relief. If the McCain campaign really was trying to associate Obama with Hitler, then the attempt was as incompetent as it was dishonorable. To cite the inimitable Talleyrand: worse than a crime—a mistake.