The Holocaust and the Edges of Denial

This past Friday the Whitehouse shared a public statement to commemorate the international day for remembrance dedicated to the Holocaust, as they do every year. This year, however, had a notable difference from previous ones, in that the statement did not mention Jewish victims of the Holocaust. When asked about this, Whitehouse spokesperson Hope Hicks asserted that the Trump administration is inclusive, so inclusive in fact that they feel it is important to recognize the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazi horrors including the physically and mentally disabled, homosexuals, Roma and other groups.

Looking past for a moment the astonishingly hypocritical claim to inclusiveness, this statement is very troubling. Ms. Hicks is completely right to point out that the Nazi Party turned its savagery on many groups other than Jews, but it is an unwarranted and unnecessary leap to then try and re-contextualize the Holocaust as a broad murder program aimed at a large number of groups. It was not. The Holocaust and Hitler’s “Final Solution” focused singularly on the global Jewish community. The extension of state-driven genocidal practices to other groups Nazis found distasteful does not alter that fact.

At first I assumed that this was a simple case of a costly error borne of a lack of expertise and experience, and that the Trump administration could not bring itself to admit to making a mistake; see also the mess this weekend derived from a poorly worded executive order and a foolish (truly foolish, beyond belief) decision to include green card holders in already restrictive and arbitrary policies on “vetting” entrants to the country. However, there was grounds for skepticism, and as John Podhoretz points out this odd and ahistorical desire to insist that not only the Jews suffered because of the Holocaust has an extensive history.

It is rubbish, and it is extremely bad history. Obviously, the willingness and eagerness of the Nazis to extend a message of hatred and eugenic exclusivism to a large number of groups that did not fit their entirely fictional Aryan race ideal is worthy of note and offers important lessons. Victims of their cruelty deserve to be remembered. However, the idea that the Holocaust was not the end result of a plan conceived from the very start as an attempt to solve a Jewish “problem” completely ignores historical fact. It ignores many, many things Hitler and his cronies said and were saying for long before he became Fuhrer. Hicks and her boss’ rather pathetic attempt to appropriate awkward language of inclusivity merely highlight a clumsy attempt to do an end run on the historical facts of the Holocaust, which should lead reasonable people to assume that someone involved in the drafting of that statement has a problem with Jewish people, acknowledged openly or otherwise, and that others who read the statement lacked the faculties or spine to fix it before sharing this message with the public.

If one truly wanted to be clear that the horrors of the Holocaust lie not just in the attempts by a state and a people to eradicate an entire group of human beings but that such methodology was then extended to various subsets of groups considered unacceptable to a stated norm, then there was an easy way to do this. Mention those who died at the hands of the state because of their sexual activity or ethnic origin, as an additional comment in support of the central horror of the Holocaust: the death of six million Jews and a meticulously constructed system that sought to kill many millions more.

To reiterate, this is among other things just bad history. You do not need to be an historian of the Holocaust or be familiar with the historiography to be able to point out the problem here. This is another evolution of the David Irving school of trying to chip away at the edges of the accepted historical argument. Irving and his fellows liked to cast doubt on the numbers of victims and dance around the reality that they were effectively denying the Holocaust. Irving even sued a historian for correctly pointing out that this is exactly what he was doing (a series of events recently dramatized on film). Dressing the omission of Jewish victims from a statement on the Holocaust in newspeak masquerading as post-identity-politics humanism simply takes the practice of Holocaust denial away from casting doubt on well-established historical fact to seeking to undermine well-established historical consensus. There is, in theory, room to maneuver here, but only if you are predisposed to argue that Jewish people are somehow over-represented in discourse on the Holocaust. If you are so predisposed, I am sorry to inform you that you are wrong. It was one of the great sins of human history, it has shaped all of our discourse on genocide and ethnic cleansing since, and adding to the long list of victims in the public consciousness merely helps spread the word of the sheer depth and breadth of its horrors. Those horrors, I am sorry to say, have expansive borders. There is no need to reduce the reality of the Holocaust’s defining anti-semitism to further illuminate them.

Apocalypse Now, Again

A lot of information is hitting me at the same time right now. People are making an Apocalypse Now game, Francis Ford Coppola is involved, and there is a lot of talk about how video games are ready as a medium to add something of genuine meaning to Coppola’s initial artistic offering.

Says the auteur genius behind Apocalypse Now, The Godfather (Parts I and II) and Jack:

Forty years ago, I set out to make a personal art picture that could hopefully influence generations of viewers for years to come. Today, I’m joined by new daredevils, a team who want to make an interactive version of Apocalypse Now, where you are Captain Benjamin Willard amidst the harsh backdrop of the Vietnam War. I’ve been watching videogames grow into a meaningful way to tell stories, and I’m excited to explore the possibilities for Apocalypse Now for a new platform and a new generation.

As I said, a lot there.

First off: it’s great they have a roster of talented people who have worked on good games before, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.

Secondly, I’m not really sure how making a game with Willard as a protagonist really adds to the original vision. I’m also not much of a fan of the phrase “interactive recreation of Willard’s journey” being used on the Kickstarter page. It doesn’t really mean anything of course, and doesn’t commit people to much, but it does reek of another video game existing mostly as a prematurely vestigial appendage of an existing work of art.

In fairness, what a work of art. My Vietnam class this past fall (which I will write up soon, I promise) watched Apocalypse Now and it remains stunning. If anything, I recommend that people who have seen the film at a young age watch it again after a decade or two. It was an entirely new experience, akin to the one I had reading Brave New World in my 30s, a testament to the film’s enduring artistic merit.

It means something, something tangible, that Coppola would make such a show of his investment and confidence in the project. There is no reason not to take him at his word. The game has the potential to be a genuine crossover as well, and if there is a medium best suited to mixing together established classics and something new, I think the video game is right up there with the novel. It is of course very difficult to do.

It also begs the question of what the game is setting out to do artistically. Apocalypse Now, in addition to being a tour de force from a young director in his prime, is a film seeking to explore the American misadventure in Vietnam in ways both explicit and indistinct. The film is soaked in the symbolism of American failure and confusion, but Willard’s journey enters the metaphysical. Apocalypse Now is as much about the limits and arrogance of modernity as it is the morality of the American war in Vietnam.

So, what to expect from a game produced in the early twenty-first century amidst the swings of populism in the West and a democratic consensus seemingly enshrined forever in the postwar twentieth century under siege? I’m not sure I know, really. I want it to work out, but it is not clear just yet what this game is going to be. I am far from won over from comments like this one:

“It’s like Fallout: New Vegas on acid in the middle of the Vietnam War.”

In fairness, they are trying to sell a game they are not able to start making yet. They deserve a lot of leeway. I am pulling for them, but I hope this proves to be a lot of pre-sale guff that makes something interesting possible.

Game of the Year (Not this year, last year)

‘Tis the season of GOTYs, or rather it ’twas before I spent Christmas having fun and not writing and then dove into an intensive January of teaching (more of that soon) and I come to share my own. As has been the case in recent years, my enjoyment of video games is nowhere near as closely tied to the annual release calendar as it once was. I have no regrets from not being up to date, but it does make my deliberations on what my favourite game of the year was more complicated. I suppose I could just give up on such deliberations, but why would I do that? It’s fun.

So yes, I often pick two or three games that came out the year before, or earlier. Rather than get too far into the weeds of what should and should not qualify as a Game of the Year, I will instead just go ahead and share my game(s) of the year, using my complete failure to match the latest and greatest releases as an excuse for categories, a cheap move that lets me write more and have more fun. Starting this evening, let me talk about my game of the year for a little while.

Game of the Year: Dark Souls

Yes, Dark Souls. Yes, the same Dark Souls that came out in 2011. This is probably my most egregiously anachronistic game of the year pick yet. My love affair with Dark Souls, though I had no idea that is what it would become, started earlier still when I tried my hand at Demon’s Souls in 2009. It didn’t go well. I subsequently tried Dark Souls, which also did not go well, and then bought Dark Souls for PC so that I could reinstall it every six months, play for an hour and get annoyed, and give up on it again.

This went on for a few years, and during that time I read, listened to and watched countless tributes to the game and its sequels. I assumed that the game just was not for me after all, that I looked for something different in games, that perhaps, as this problem gradually became worse, I just did not have the time to spend committing myself to the game. I did not have in me to be miserable for hours just to get to the next boss. Then it clicked.

Dark Souls is not about bosses at all. At least, not for me. I play the game somewhat atypically perhaps; I shamelessly dig into wikis, and the single moment that led to my finally understanding what makes these games so special came from a decidedly skeevy suicide rush to grab an armor set that my character in theory would not need for hours but that basically gave me just enough room to finally figure out how this whole thing works.

So… that’s the secret about Dark Souls. It’s not about the difficulty at all. I mean, the difficulty adds something special for people who are into that sort of thing, but it’s not the difficulty of the game that makes the game itself special. It’s the discovery, and the disarming intricacy with which the world you explore has been built. The Dark Souls environment makes sense in a way that compounds over one’s experience of the game. Lengthy, frustrating sections of the game come in retrospect to provide nostalgic recollections of one’s pathway through the story, a story that is nebulous by design and reflexive and adaptive as a result. You can take the Dark Souls story or leave it, you can read a lot into it or move on. It sits there and doesn’t really care if you are interested or not. In a video game world where your hand is held, gripped solidly by the AI as part of an extended tutorial that might last for hours, Dark Souls is refreshing. Invigorating. It’s the best kept secret in the medium, despite everyone shouting about it. If you read this and haven’t played Dark Souls yet, give it a shot, and keep trying until it sticks. You’ll thank me.