I am not sure I understand the fuss raised by a Massachusetts high school student using a quote often attributed to Joseph Goebbels about the Big Lie for his yearbook photo. The quote is, though perhaps not verbatim, “Make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it and eventually they will believe it.”
It seems that “quoting a racist dictator bent on genocide or his minister of propaganda” is the problem. And even then I am not so sure. What is the problem with the quote above beyond its origin? Does its origin forever and perpetually apply?
The article in The New York Times points out that Goebbels used propaganda to build the Nazi empire and then goes on to discuss our ongoing — and growing — issues with anti-semitism. The high school’s principal reassures readers, however, that the student was unfamiliar with the “hateful background” of the quote. The point being made here is the student didn’t know any better and we should stop right there. If the student didn’t know any better, he didn’t know any better about what? How would Goebbels’s association change the student’s intent? How would it matter especially if the student didn’t know about this?
I think the good people of Andover, Massachusetts, are projecting their associations with Goebbels in place of another person’s intentions here. They are loading the quote with meaning that goes beyond the simple denotative meaning of the words. (Presuming a fixed connotation, which strikes me as contradictory and absurd.)
If the student indeed did not understand the origins of the quote, that seems to make the case that a quote can be disassociated with its origin. There is no inherent meaning or implication in it. Couldn’t the quote be used as a reminder to beware? Or as a reminder that great evil was committed under the cover of the Big Lie? I think so. I think that is legitimate.
Of course, if the student were offering the quote as a strategy to promote anti-semitism, that is another matter, right? Otherwise, I think it is an appropriately perfect use of this quote. It is appropriate because it is associated with great crimes. We should want to learn from history, not run from it. Repeating the quote exposes it and exposes the risks associated with it. That is different from recreating its original intent.
Even worse, we don’t want to politicize history. A troubling trend in politicizing and especially of co-opting history exists. As we get more diverse and politically vocal about separate identities — itself a good thing — this co-opting sometimes has become weaponized. At the very least it can exclude who is given political space to reflect on history and how they do so. But more than excluding some groups from appropriate political discourse, one group claiming a special right to a historical event has sometimes turned that history into a tool for silencing others.
If Americans of European descent, for example, cannot talk about past war crimes committed by the United States Army against Native Americans that creates a barrier around those events, it defines a limited context for historical legitimacy. One might say it creates a “politically correct” way of addressing tragedy based on who has the right to claim to be the oppressed or the victim and thereby who has the correct relationships with those experience. We shouldn’t let events, slogans, and ideas of the past be claimed as the limited purview of one group, class, or race.
On the contrary, I would suggest that we should leave this open. I would suggest further that the oppressor and victimizer should have as much a claim to this history and a voice in it as the oppressed and victims. And the example from the Massachusetts high school is a strong example why.
A lesson can be learned by history here. In an era of erroneous “fake news” and routine dishonesty used to promote a political agenda, one should be aware of the danger of lies; should be aware that lies have — and have had — serious consequences. If we turn the facts of the past into politically dangerous territory we limit the where the lessons of history can apply.
So back again to the Goebbels quote. Is there anything inherent in that quote that promotes anti-semitism? If another leader in another place and another time, for example, tells big lies to promote jingoistic immigration policy is that not a lie for which we should want to be warned? In this case, a lie is a tool, not necessarily a consequence, of a political action. We need to be aware of the difference.