By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist
That was the subject line of an e-mail I received last week from “Chris,” a lawyer in a red state. He wanted to know if anybody else sees a similarity between the beginning of the Holocaust — the nibbling away of rights and personhood that ultimately led to the attempted extermination of a people — and what is happening to gay people in American right now.
He knows it’s far-fetched. “But,” he says, speaking of the conservative element that is pushing hardest against gay rights, “we are not dealing with normal people here.”
Chris concedes there are differences between the plights of Jews and gays. “But they also have this in common — at one time in history, that time being the present for gays, they were the object of official government-sponsored hatred couched in the name of religion or morals.”
Here’s what I think:
The Holocaust is an atrocity unique in history, and I’m wary of appending modifiers: the “this” holocaust or the “that” holocaust. There’s a reason the word takes a capital h.
Which is not to say the lawyer is off base. I’ve long felt the current spate of laws — you can’t do this because you’re gay, can’t have that because you’re lesbian — bears a discomfiting resemblance to Germany in the 1930s.
Both spring from a mindset that says a given people is so loathsome, so offensive to our sensibilities, that we are obliged to place them outside the circle of normal human compassion. We don’t have to hear their cries, don’t have to respect their humanity, don’t have to revere their tears, because they are less than we — and at the same time, are responsible for everything that scares or threatens us.
Whatever it is, it’s all their fault. Blame them, whoever “them” may be.
My problem is that I see human dignity as all of a piece. I don’t know how to want it for me and mine, but not for them and theirs. As Martin Luther King put it, we are caught in a network of mutuality. As Dick Cheney put it, freedom means freedom for everybody. As Cain put it, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I always considered that the signature lesson of the Holocaust; always felt that in the largest sense, it was not about Jews and Aryans but about humanity and inhumanity. The Holocaust was, after all, only hatred carried to its logical extreme, the predictable outcome of an environment where we countenance taking rights from “them,” heaping scorn on “them,” making scapegoats of “them.”
And who can deny that this describes the plight of gay Americans in 2005? Or that demagogic lawmakers are using this environment to further their own ambitions?
There used to be an expression in Southern politics. The candidate who lost because he had been found insufficiently draconian on racial issues was said to have been “out-niggered.” These days, the worry seems to be that one might be “out-homoed.” Consider, for instance, a law under consideration in Alabama to ban books with gay characters from public school libraries.
Books. With gay characters.
It prompted a group of gay Alabamans to rise before a legislative committee and ask a pregnant question:
Why do you hate us?
And it strikes me that the same thing could have been asked by an Armenian in 1915, by a Bosnian Muslim in 1992, by a Rwandan in 1994 and, yes, by a Jew, in 1936.
We just don’t learn.
Ours is a stable and prosperous democracy, so no, I don’t predict train cars full of gays rolling toward death factories. Still, the mindset of aggrieved righteousness that allowed those trains to roll is not dissimilar from that which would ban books about gay people from public school libraries.
Maybe your instinct is to find the comparison unthinkable. Nobody is interning gays, nobody is mass murdering them.
You’re right. But ask yourself: How many would if they could?
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org