The Box

Jan 04, 2011 |  David Clemens

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The Box

Jan 04, 2011 | 

David Clemens

Excited to receive the shipment from Dan Wyman Books, I ripped open the box only to feel revulsion.  Inside were old books related to a familiar subject:  the Holocaust.  I’ve seen Night and Fog, Memory of the Camps, the Bergen-Belsen bulldozer footage; I am acquainted with the unspeakable.  So why this visceral reaction? I removed The Human Harvest (1907) by eugenist David Starr Jordan, once president of Stanford; the Report of Robert H. Jackson, United States Representative to the International Conference on Military Trials (1945); Harvest of Hate by Leon Poliakov (1954); and The Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Holocaust denier Arthur Butz (1976).  I had ordered the books because I make critical thinking students write a paper deciding whether Holocaust deniers should be invited to express their position when classes discuss the Holocaust.  It is a carefully-constructed and devious question, one which draws students into epistemology, skepticism, evidence, memory, perception, history, logic, free speech, academic freedom, Romanticism, and more.  I model intellectual disinterest, explain instead of promote, and must sometimes play devil’s advocate.  My responsibility also includes making typical Holocaust and Holocaust denial materials available for students to evaluate:  films, books, websites, from CODOH and IHR to Nizkor and USHMM.  They view propaganda (Triumph of the Will) as well as documentaries (Holocaust on Trial and Nazi Designers of Death). But my revulsion at touching, smelling, Jordan’s and Butz’s books, exposes the profound difference between reading about and reading, between scrolling a weightless web “page” and turning a physical page, between viewing and holding in your own hands original, contemporaneous sources of murderous ideas and records of their consequences. Tomorrow, I add the box to my library reserves. Related here and here.


| January 04, 2011 - 2:55 PM

Reading the stuff must be considered optional if for psychiatric reasons if nothing else, and as a student affairs person, I like to remind faculty that they have a moral duty not to mess up students’ minds and then send them back to the dorms for the student affairs folk to try to deal with.

I am not familiar with the particular works, but I am familiar with the genre and it is reprehensible.  In this particular type of situation, in this limited circumstance, I believe it not only acceptable but necessary that the instructor express his personal revulsion toward the material.  That he considers it reprehensible.

We are now two generations into value neutrality - that there is no such thing as an absolute right or wrong, only differences of perspective and differences of opinion.  Holocaust deniers thus are the legitimate other side to a debate where neither side is wrong, in a world where no one is ever wrong and all values are affirmed.

No, there really is such a thing as absolute wrong and the kids need to see—with their own eyes—what the Holocaust deniers are actually saying in order for them to understand that there really is such a thing as absolute evil.  They need to understand that it is OK to reject certain viewpoints as so reprehensible as not worthy of serious inquiry, something they have not been taught to do.  And they need to actually see that which people consider not worthy of viewing lest it become the “forbidden fruit” and legitimized in that manner.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot—there really is such a thing as true evil and students need to know what these people did in order to understand that concept.

David Clemens

| January 04, 2011 - 4:27 PM

Hi, Ed,

I appreciate your comments and your position.  The word limitations for blog posts prevent a full discussion of my exercise but let me share this:  I agree with you that there is absolute evil but I think my responsibility is to cause students to come to that realization for themselves, not just adopt my opinion and be left vulnerable to manipulation by others in the future.  This is a critical thinking class from which students should emerge equipped to resist the peddlers of evil and able to recognize their methods.  Interestingly, this assignment produces the best papers I ever read, 10 page, multivalent arguments which falsify the denier strategies and assertions one by one using critical thinking principles.  Except for what we use in class, the materials they choose to address are entirely up to them—I just make them available with abundant warnings, especially about websites.  I do this assignment because I am alarmed by the growth of a permissable anti-Semitism which has invaded academia and because of the growth of Holocaust denial abroad.  I had a colleague (poli-sci, Ph.D., Columbia) who was teaching in Jordan.  When she began discussing the Holocaust, she said she gradually became aware that she was the only person in the room who believed that it happened.  And she had no idea what to say.  I like to think that my students would be able to launch a sober, objective discussion of why Holocaust denial is a duplicitous, weightless belief offering no evidence for acceptance which disqualifies it from scholarly notice other than as a curiosity.  But it takes time, and students must get there themselves—in fact, critical thinking principles force them to such a conclusion.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.


| January 18, 2011 - 9:28 PM

I hesitate to comment knowing that I am among Holocaust true believers and I am firmly in the skeptical camp, but oh well.  I just ordered the Hoax of the 20th Century.  I’ve watched about five or six revisionist videos and read twice that many essays.  I’ve also read Debating the Holocaust by Dalton.  I think what is often lost among those who are devout believers in Holocaust is that there are victims on the other side.  The Holocaust is a type of war on the mind, a war on truth, and a war against the recognition of the victims of the Allies—those millions of innocent women and children bombed and burned and forgotten.  I have known a lot of Holocaust survivors in my adult life and heard their stories.  I was particularly impressed by one story of a camp survivor who was led by a German guard out of the camp to freedom.  When they reached the Russian front he was shot.  My opinion is that the whole story has to be absolutely true in order to believe any of it.  There have to be absolutely, exactly 6 million killed.  The stories of Ann Frank, etc. have to be absolutely true.  Everything has to at this point be completely correct otherwise it is a lie and I have come down on the side—after much reading that it is a lie.  And that is inexcusable.


| February 22, 2011 - 4:45 PM

I would be remiss to not use the critical thinking that I’m sure Clemens espouses in his classroom. Your opinion that every part of the story must be true in order for the entirety of it to be true is wildly fallacious in reasoning, and in fact is guilty of the basic logical fallacy “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.” There is a way to go about historical revisionism, you start with historical events, facts, their causes and consequences, and their interactions with other events, and form an educated conclusion based on those things. This is not what the arguments for Holocaust denial do. The arguments for denial employ a backwards methodology in which they begin with a conclusion and attempt to defend that conclusion, which is not the correct method for revisionism. If the number of Jews is in fact 5,679,302 and not 6 million on the dot, that in no way refutes the holocaust in its entirety. If you want to argue specifics, I’m sure that would be welcomed by the scholarly community as a necessary revision of an important piece of history, but to reject it in entirety is lazy, at best.

Dan Wyman

| March 06, 2011 - 11:30 AM

First, David, thanks for writing about this. I agree with how you present this material. I just want to add that the stuff can indeed be very difficult to handle. I find when we are cataloguing and researching the material, I can only deal with about 3 or 4 items before I have to swtich back to something else. One of my best cataloguers simply doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, and I completely respect that. Others manage it in their own way, knowing that we are making it available to the scholarly community, the same way as we do other historical primary source material…

David Clemens

| March 06, 2011 - 1:06 PM

Thanks for writing, Dan, and I am glad that you approve of my teaching critical thinking by using genuine Holocaust materials.  Of course, I sympathize with you and your cataloguers since I experience the same disgust, yet what are the consequences if we don’t accept the responsibility to remember?  Susan Sontag once noted how seeing death camp photographs as a teenager opened a wound for her that never closed.  Yet I would argue that scholars have a duty to open that wound.  I am especially worried these days that the weightless, digitized, representations of texts located in the cloud (and the disappearance of those not digitized) will simply further insulate students from the reality of the catastrophe that Time has already made remote for them.  Keep up the good work, Dan; it is an essential project, and I thank you and your cataloguers for doing it.