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It Does not Make Sense to Turn Everything into a Partisan Critique

A student of mine noted the following on Facebook last night from Eliana Johnson writing at NRO’s The Corner:  President Obama Commemorates the ‘Senseless’ Holocaust.  The piece in question starts out with what ought to be the least controversial of issues, condemning the Holocaust:

President Obama issued a statement yesterday to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He noted that survivors who bore witness to “the horrors of the cattle cars, ghettos, and concentration camps have witnessed humanity at its very worst and know too well the pain of losing loved ones to senseless violence.”

Could there a be a less controversial statement?  What could be wrong here?

Well…

The idea that all violence is “senseless” violence is one that has taken deep root on the left; it’s also, unfortunately, one that poses a major impediment to understanding the world. 

Nazism may have been an ideology to which the United States was — and to which the president is — implacably opposed, but it is hardly “senseless.” By the early 1930s, the Nazi party had hundreds of thousands of devoted members and repeatedly attracted a third of the votes in German elections; its political leaders campaigned on a platform comprising 25 non-senseless points, including the “unification of all Germans,” a demand for “land and territory for the sustenance of our people,” and an assertion that “no Jew can be a member of the race.” Suffice it to say, many sensible Germans were persuaded.

This may well be one of the silliest semantic critiques I have seen in some time.  To note that violence, especially genocidal violence, was “senseless” is not to suggest that the people who perpetrated the violence lacked reasons for their actions.  It means that the violence, and resultant death, lacks meaning or good purpose, that it was ultimately unwise and unreasonable.  The meaning is clearly that despite whatever reasons the murderers had for their murder, that the actions lacked legitimate thought and reason behind them.

How ideologically blind does one have to be to turn such a use of words, which is a fairly commonplace way of referring to violent tragedies, into a left/right critique?

Johnson clearly has it in for the formulation in question, because the rest of her post focuses on another instance of the phras:

On September 12, 2012, President Obama also lamented the “the kind of senseless violence that took the lives” of four Americans in Benghazi. That, you may recall, is the day the president supposedly said the murders occurred as a result of a non-senseless terrorist attack carried out by jihadists.

This sanitized version of events, both past and present, is surely more comforting. It’s also truly senseless.

First, love the way she gets Benghazi in there.  Second, the notion that calling the murder of Chris Stevens and those with as “senseless” is not to “sanitize”.  

Does Johnson think that “senseless” means “totally random and without cause;an unexplainable event”?  Perhaps she needs to consult a dictionary.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    Johnson needs to grasp the meaning of “senseless” as in “her senseless NRO post.” Not unmotivated, god knows. Just senseless.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 0

  2. Michael Demmons says:

    Well, you will notice that, in the comments section, the author is getting skewered. It might just be the dumbest, most partisan, hackish column I’ve ever seen posted at The Corner. And that’s saying something!

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 0

  3. Ah….to be young and ignorant again!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. Sejanus says:

    “How ideologically blind does one have to be to turn such a use of words, which is a fairly commonplace way of referring to violent tragedies, into a left/right critique?”

    You got plenty of commentators on this website that you can ask for yourself.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  5. beth says:

    I’m really wishing for an presidential executive order declaring next Friday “Don’t Drive Your Car Off A Cliff Day”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Frankly I think this is just a symptom of a much bigger problem…a problem we all need to be concerned about…Republicans, at some point, became stupid.
    Unfortunately for the Republican party…you can’t fix stupid.
    Look at yesterdays events…with Republicans tripping over themselves to see who could be the biggest embarrassment in the Hagel Confirmation Hearing…and then there is the outrageous testimony of Gayle Trotter on guns. Women fighting off 3, or 4, or 5 hardened violent criminals at a time. Oh my.
    And that’s just in the last 24 hours.
    The health of our Republic depends on having at least two robust political parties. Right now we have just one.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  7. JKB says:

    Perhaps it was senseless to point out the misuse of the word by Obama and his cadre of Ivy league wordsmiths in the context of the Holocaust. However, the violence of the Holocaust was not senseless, it was diabolical, it was evil. The Holocaust violence was the very definition of violence for a purpose and was the means to a considered objective. It was murder by bureaucracy. They had meetings, kept minutes, had plans created by teamwork. The attack on 9/11 was not senseless. It had a very specific purpose.

    Violence is not senseless if the victim or observer does not agree or cannot fathom the purpose. It is senseless when the violence does not help in reaching the perpetrator’s goal. That is what is wrong with the statement. The statement refuses to acknowledge the completely wrongful purpose of the Holocaust violence.

    “…and know too well the pain of losing loved ones to senseless violence.”

    And the survivors of the Holocaust not only know the pain of losing loved ones to senseless violence but also the horror of losing loved ones to systemic, planned to the last detail, violence at the hands of the bureaucracy. Murdered with a for a very specific purpose and to achieve a very thoroughly considered goal. The violence wasn’t senseless, it was evil.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 49

  8. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Some it’s come to this: NRO, presented a choice between Obama and Nazis, threw its lot in with the Nazis.

    And right-wingers wonder why they’re being ignored by the sane.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 0

  9. @JKB:

    “Americans can be proud, I think, that our government is moving forward to build a memorial in our Nation’s Capital to commemorate the Holocaust. Those who perished as a result of Nazi terror, millions of individual men and women and children whose lives were taken so senselessly, must never be forgotten.”

    There go those darn “misuse of the word by Obama and his cadre of Ivy league wordsmiths”

    What?

    Sorry, that was Ronald Reagan.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 56 Thumb down 0

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    Nazism may have been an ideology to which the United States was — and to which the president is — implacably opposed, but it is hardly “senseless.”

    I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, but at least it’s an ethos.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  11. Ben says:

    “How can we criticize Obama today?”
    “Well, we could defend the Nazis.”
    “Good idea!”
    The mind boggles.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 0

  12. JohnMcC says:

    @JKB: It does not of course disprove your point, my friend JKB, but similar records (including transcripts of actual conversation & interrogations) were kept by the Inquisition in the 14th century. I say this with the assumption that you actually had ‘point’ in remarking on the banality of evil. It has of course always been banal whether in Spain in the 1300s or Bagram Airbase in 2006.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  13. matt bernius says:

    @JohnMcC & @Steven L. Taylor:
    But you need to remember that JKB is a believer that “bureaucracies” are evil and a bane on human existence. So it’s critical for him to call attention to the bureaucratic rationality of Nazism.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  14. C. Clavin says:

    And JKB does his/her very best to validate SLT’s thesis.
    Well played.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  15. john personna says:

    The political blogs have too much of “the daily stupid.”

    Your post is an example of the non-stupid exception, while Johnson’s is an example of the common currency.

    Sadly, the stupid dynamic “pays.” Johnson gets links back and traffic.

    See also OTB economic reporting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  16. Jeremy says:

    You know we’re failing as a country when we’re having arguments over this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  17. Franklin says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: JKB, I do believe you were just owned.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    You mean Steven wasted some perfectly good oxygen just so he could “own” him? Now that Steven “Owns” him, what pray tell will he do with him? Fertilize the garden?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. JKB says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I would point out the two statements are not equivalent. One characterizes the the manner in which the lives were taken. The other characterizes the violence. Reagan’s statement does not in any way imply the violence was not deliberate and evil.

    However, the juxtaposition illustrates why it was senseless to attack Obama over this statement. The statement is fluff, produced without consideration because something had to be said. It says less about Obama than the distance we are from the Holocaust. I would not be surprised to hear more such imprecise statements from future presidents.

    It also highlights banality of the phrase “senseless violence,” The statement implies there is sensible violence that would not be as painful to those who lost loved ones to it. It is fluff, said without thought to appeal to thoughtless emotion.

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  20. C. Clavin says:

    “…Fertilize the garden? “

    Some materials and substances that are hazardous to human beings are just not acceptable for use in vegetable gardening.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. @JKB:

    “The statement implies there is sensible violence that would not be as painful to those who lost loved ones to it. “

    While I can’t speak to the pain endured by the Germans during WWII, I do think taking down the Nazis is as grand an example of “sensible violence” as one can muster.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  22. Liberal Capitalist says:

    From our good friends at Wonkette…

    “Those who perished as a result of Nazi terror, millions of individual men and women and children whose lives were taken so senselessly, must never be forgotten.”

    R. REAGAN

    Read more at http://wonkette.com/499462/national-review-only-a-monster-would-say-the-nazis-didnt-make-sense#wVTactgeapmV86ZW.99

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  23. mantis says:

    @JKB:

    However, the juxtaposition illustrates why it was senseless to attack Obama over this statement.

    It wasn’t senseless. It was deliberate and evil.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  24. wr says:

    @JKB: So Reagan’s statement is great because he used the adverbial form of the word rather than the adjective?

    You’re really slipping into the most loathesome kind of trollery, defending the indefensible simply because it was uttered by someone on your team. I’m not going to claim that you were even moderately credible before, but this strips away any pretense that you care about anything other than a win for your team.

    Which is fine, as far as it goes. Who around here doesn’t do that on occasion? But when it forces you to side with the Nazis over their victims, maybe it’s time to do a little reflection.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 0

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Some materials and substances that are hazardous to human beings are just not acceptable for use in vegetable gardening.

    True, but I recommend that before using JKB’s bull sh!t in the garden, it be well composted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. Surreal American says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy:

    Some it’s come to this: NRO, presented a choice between Obama and Nazis, threw its lot in with the Nazis.

    Why not? Their “intellectual” forebears in the 1930s had the same level of hatred for FDR.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  27. @wr: It’s just like how “terrorism” and “act of terror” are completely different.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  28. gVOR08 says:

    Teleology v conservative deontology. . (Wikipedia explains.) And maybe also excessive literalism. When Ms Johnson and JKB hear “senseless murder” they can only hear that the act was senseless, and say it wasn’t because the murderer had a reason. The rest of us effortlessly glide down a step to “The reason was senseless and therefore the act was senseless.” I swear conservatives have trouble with words.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  29. @gVOR08:

    “The reason was senseless and therefore the act was senseless.”

    Exactly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  30. gus says:

    What do you expect from people who can’t enjoy a book or a song or a movie because it’s “liberal”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  31. M. Bouffant says:

    Hers’s the real (sub)text:

    The idea that all violence is “senseless” violence is one that has taken deep root on the left

    To the right, violence & war are always the answer, & no violence committed by the U.S. can ever be wrong or senseless. So, essentially, the warmongers at NR are afraid that people will think twice before attacking other nations if it is admitted that some/most violence is senseless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  32. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Am afraid it’s too radioactive….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. Andre Kenji says:

    Until the War, the Jews were mostly being kept in concentration camps, being subject to forced displacement and suffering discrimination and political prosecution. That´s horrible, but that´s not much worse than the treatment that Blacks received in several areas of the American Continent or that Aborigines received in Australia. Jesse Owens could walk freely in Nazi Germany, and he could not do the same thing in his native Alabama. In fact, people of Japanese Descent would be kept in Concentration camps both in Brazil and United States at the time, the process that created Pakistan and modern India was brutal.

    The Nazis would only begin killing Jews in masse when the war had begun and both sides were doing giant atrocities, like bombing whole cities with phosphorus bombs or using rape as collective punishment. In that sense, it was senseless violence, in the same way that most collective violence at the time was.

    The idea that no one in the world was prosecuting and committing atrocities while the Germans were massacring people due to a ideology is ludicrous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  34. YoohooCthulhu says:

    @JKB:

    Once again, it’s not a matter of “purpose” here. The use of “senseless” in this context is generally used to refer to the lack of a *useful* purpose of the event *or* the uncaring/unfeeling natures of someone who would perpetrate the event (where “sense” is in the same sense as “sensitive”, meaning emotionally perceptive or caring).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. wr says:

    @Andre Kenji: The deliberate (and bureaucratic) attempt to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth is different from all of the other horrors you have listed above. No matter how cruel, no matter how evil, no matter how terrible — it is different.

    I suspect you understand this and are simply acting as one does — as I do, as we all do — on a blog like this, making an argument for the sake of the conversation, rather than exploring deeply in moral and historical issues.

    But I believe you are wrong, and I believe most of mankind believes you are wrong. And I found the glibness of your response troubling.

    I admit — if I hadn’t just finished reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, I probably would have skipped right past this and never paid your commetn much attention. But that book plunges you into the human and physical reality of the Holocaust, and makes it very difficult to accept it as a suitable subject for word games.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  36. @Andre Kenji:

    “Jesse Owens could walk freely in Nazi Germany, and he could not do the same thing in his native Alabama.”

    You should look into that one….as it’s not entirely accurate.

    The Nazis would only begin killing Jews in masse when the war had begun and both sides were doing giant atrocities

    Not sure that sentence needs an “only.” At any rate…again, it’s not accurate. The war began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The Nuremburg Laws were passed in 1935. The Nazis cooked up the “Final Solution” in 1942, two years after they’d been blitzing London. The US didn’t get involved until 1941, after Pearl Harbor, and didn’t invade Italy until 1943 and waited until 1945 to liberate France, the same year we firebombed Dresden.

    No doubt “both sides” were guilty of atrocities….but if you’re under the impression that the Nazi atrocities were inspired by the Allied atrocities, you’ve got it precisely backwards.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  37. Andre Kenji says:

    @wr:

    The deliberate (and bureaucratic) attempt to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth is different from all of the other horrors you have listed above.

    I´m not saying that. I´m pointing out that the Nazis only began to exterminate Jews in the middle of the war – until them, it wasn´t so different to the treatment dispersed to other oppressed minorities in other parts of the world. That´s why there was relatively few condemnations to the Nazis at the time. In fact, German Efforts on Eugenics were praised in the United States until them.

    That´s something important because there are large crowds inside the American Conservative Movement that defends sending Muslims to Concentration Camps. In some sense, the Holocaust was a bad idea that was popular in several places but that lost control in Gemany, and the American Conservative Movement learnt the wrong lessons from that.

    Besides that, face the fact: Human History is filled by horrors and by deliberate attempts to exterminate entire peoples from the face of the Earth. That does not make the Holocaust less bad or worse than it is. Because it´s a matter of fact: Human History is a horrible thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. Andre Kenji says:

    @James Pearce (Formerly Known as Herb):

    The Nuremburg Laws were passed in 1935.

    That´s the problem. The Nuremberg Laws were not so different from the Jim Crow laws in the United States. In fact, interracial marriage would only become completely Legal in the United States twenty years after the end of the war.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  39. @Andre Kenji:

    “The Nuremberg Laws were not so different from the Jim Crow laws in the United States.”

    They were radically different. What they had in common was that they are both indefensible.

    Jim Crow laws were no doubt racist, but because of our history and various legal precedents, they were premised on “separate but equal.” The Nuremberg Laws…not so much.

    Look, I know you’re not from the US. That’s fine. We have a kind of egotistical view of what we did in WWII, not only from John Wayne movies and such, but we’re heavily infused with “The Greatest Generation” stuff and “the winner writes the history” mythology.

    But to equate what the Nazis did with Jim Crow shows a misunderstanding of both what the Nazis did and Jim Crow. You really should look into it a little more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  40. Andre Kenji says:

    @James Pearce (Formerly Known as Herb):

    But to equate what the Nazis did with Jim Crow shows a misunderstanding of both what the Nazis did and Jim Crow. You really should look into it a little more.

    I´m not equating what the Nazis did with Jim Crow: I´m pointing out that what the Nazis did UNTIL they began to exterminate the Jews in the Concentration Camps was relatively normal to the Standards of the time. The “separated but equal” of the Jim Crow Laws was obviously hypocrisy, by the way.

    That´s why US Movement Conservatives are the only people that thinks that people should go to concentration camps(Michele Malkin became a Celebrity in this segment of the population defending this idea).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. @Andre Kenji:

    “I´m pointing out that what the Nazis did UNTIL they began to exterminate the Jews in the Concentration Camps was relatively normal to the Standards of the time.”

    This is what I mean when I say you should look into it. There was no “until.” The Nazis were dedicated to the extermination of the Jews from inception. The concentration camps were a means to that end.

    And what they were doing wasn’t “relatively normal to the standards of the time.” It was such a deviation from the “standards of the time” that they found most of the civilized world allied against them. Including Russia!

    As to Jim Crow, yes, “separate but equal” was hypocrisy. But it was also an attempt, lame and hypocritical as it was, at compromise. Those laws were enacted in regions of this country where black people were once considered property. To get the South to accept “separate but equal” was a huge step for them. It was, unlike Nazi ideology, a softening of their racial hatred, one that not only led to the Great Migration (wherein Southern blacks dispersed to other regions) but also the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

    As for Michelle Malkin, she is fringe…even in the conservative movement. In another age, she would be writing a trashy column in a tabloid no one of repute would read. That she defends the Japanese internment camps is testament to that. (Consider….the Japanese interment camps, while a disgrace, detained less than 2% of the people the Nazis killed. Also, when that policy ended, those people were freed, given an apology and reparations. That’s not a defense of those camps. It’s just a fact.)

    In other words, the comparisons you are trying to bring are spurious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  42. al-Ameda says:

    More evidence that Obama causes tens of millions of Americans to become unhinged.

    It won’t be long before Alex Trebek will be using Obama causes insanity” as a Jeopardy” topic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0