No, Spicer had no malevolent intent. Yes, he has to go.

Photo via Michael Itzkoff

There’s a school of thought that the harsh criticism of White House spokesman Sean Spicer over his bizarre statement about Hitler never gassing his own people has been overblown. According to this line of thinking, expressed by (among others) Michael Scherer of Time magazine, Spicer deserves the benefit of the doubt because he obviously experienced a brain cramp and had no malevolent intent.

I agree that Spicer’s offensive statements were of the brain-cramp variety and not an actual expression of anti-Semitism. But I disagree that he should get a pass. He is the press secretary for the president of the United States, not an aide to a state rep. A person in that job needs to be quick on his feet and to be able to avoid stumbling into such offensive language, no matter how inadvertent. I couldn’t do it. By all indications, neither can Spicer. Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple puts it this way:

The halting, hard-to-follow speech patterns reflect an unflattering truth about the top spokesperson at the White House: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A press secretary needs to have command of a vast topical landscape. Spicer has mastered bluster, and not much else.

Consider, too, that when he realized what he had done, he managed to dig himself in deeper, referring to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers,” and then attempting to clarify his remarks with this reference to Hitler: “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

“His own people.” Hitler, of course, did not believe that German Jews were “his own people,” and as a result 6 million Jews were exterminated. To see Spicer carelessly adopt the same idea in defense of his own misstatement is pretty shocking.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a sharp analysis of Spicer’s meltdown. He agrees with the point that Spicer was trying to make: that Hitler, even while he was semi-secretly gassing Jews in concentration camps (his own people, you might say), refrained from using chemical weapons on the battlefield, probably because to do so would have risked overwhelming retaliation. “Spicer is simply too big a boob not to know this and too inept to clean up his mess without digging deeper,” Marshall says.

It’s time for Spicer to go.

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One more reason why Trump is wrong about the Jews and the Holocaust

The Ovitz family
The Ovitz family

There is so much to think about following President Trump’s illegal, un-American ban on immigrants from several predominantly Muslim countries. I’ll be attending the Copley Square rally later today that’s being organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and will write about it for WGBH News.

For now, let me comment on a small piece of this. As I’m sure you know, Trump issued his executive order on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thus turning the nation’s back on a new generation of refugees at the same time that he was commemorating one of history’s most terrible events. And his statement regarding the Holocaust made no mention of the Jews because, you know, others suffered too.

In my first book, “Little People,” I explored a longstanding belief among people in the dwarfism community that Hitler rounded up all the dwarfs and had them killed. What I found actually reinforced the uniquely Jewish character of the Holocaust. In fact, dwarfs were largely left alone by the Nazis. Some may have been caught up in Hitler’s campaign to eradicate people with severe disabilities, but most people with dwarfism are healthy and ambulatory, and thus did not run afoul of the Nazi killing machine.

Members of the Ovitz family — dwarf entertainers from Hungary — even recalled being helped onto trains by German soldiers. But then it was discovered that they were Jews. They were shipped off to Auschwitz, where they became the subjects of Josef Mengele’s unimaginably cruel experiments. Incredibly, all of them survived.

You can read my chapter on dwarfs and the Holocaust by clicking here.

We are living through very dark times.

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Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.” Continue reading “Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993”

The New York Times and the Holocaust

Filmmaker Emily Harrold visited Northeastern on Thursday for a screening of “Reporting on The Times,” which explores how The New York Times covered (and didn’t cover) the Holocaust. Her film is based on Northeastern journalism professor Laurel Leff’s book “Buried by The Times.”

Click here for my Storify on the screening and the panel discussion that followed.

A new look at the dwarfs of Auschwitz

The seven dwarf siblings of the Ovitz family

The Daily Mail has published a lengthy excerpt from a new book about the Ovitz family, a troupe of seven dwarf entertainers from Hungary who were shipped off to Auschwitz and subjected to horrendous torture at the hands of Josef Mengele after it was discovered that they were Jewish.

The book, “Giants: The Dwarfs Of Auschwitz,” was written by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. It appears to be an extension of an earlier book by the two called “In Our Hearts We Were Giants: The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe.” (Thanks to Fred Short for pointing me to this.)

I wrote about the Ovitzes in my book about dwarfism, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes.” There’s a longish section about them toward the end of Chapter 4. I had seen a documentary about the Ovitzes at the Little People of America national conference in 2002, which prompted me to do some additional research.

One of my findings was that Nazis, contrary to what many people within the dwarf community believed, had not targeted people with dwarfism for elimination — unless they were Jews. Indeed, what happened to the Ovitzes underscored the uniquely Jewish nature of the Holocaust.

In the documentary, “Liebe Perla” (“Dear Perla”), Perla Ovtiz recalls that she and her family had continued to tour Europe and perform even after the outbreak of World War II. She remembers a time before their Jewish identity was discovered when “the Nazis gave us a hand, lifted us onto the packed train and helped us find some space.”

Though being Jews landed them in Auschwitz, being dwarfs kept them alive, as Mengele wanted to keep them around for his sick experiments. Another Jewish dwarf, Alexander Katan, was not so lucky. At the Mauthausen concentration camp, he was killed, and his flesh was stripped off his skeleton so that it could be displayed. Koren and Negev write that the Ovitzes feared a similar fate.

Incredibly, well into her later years of life Perla Ovitz remained on some level grateful that Mengele had saved her and her siblings. In “Liebe Perle,” she tells the filmmaker that she cried when she learned Mengele had died in Uruguay. “I can’t say anything bad about him,” she says. Truly a horrible and complicated tale.