by Andrew Mukuru
Hitler has been immortalized as a cliche. To echo Teju Cole’s essay “In Place of Thought” from his most recent book Known and Strange Things, Hitler is a lazy analogy that stands in place of thought; an “uninterrogated platitude” in our minds. In this essay, Teju Cole, a critically acclaimed Nigerian novelist and essayist, creates a list of accepted ideas and their standard reactions:
AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising. INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees. SUNSET. Beautiful. Like a painting. Post it on Instagram and hashtag #nofilter. POET. Always preceded by ‘published.’ Function unknown. RACISM. Obsolete term. Meaning unknown.
Teju Cole was inspired to make this list after reading Gustave Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas, which is a complaint against automatic thinking. “What galls Flaubert most,” Cole writes, “is the inevitability, given an action, of a certain standard reaction.” This lazy tendency of the human mind to resort to preformulated ideas is what Cole, as Flaubert did a century ago, aims to record.
As Flaubert’s thinking inspired Cole’s, Cole’s thinking has inspired mine. There is a word, or name, missing in Cole’s list. And that is Hitler. I will attempt in my own words to record our standard reaction to Hitler.
HITLER: Nazi. Not Communist but Fascist. (Google's “Fascist”). Killed six million Jews in the Holocaust. Recognize their horrible suffering and then move on to your own miserable life. Any despicable act or politician or political act must in some way be equated to him.
A recent public victim of the Hitler reaction was the spokesman of President Donald Trump. Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad murdered more than 400,000 Syrians in a nerve gas attack. Sean Spicer, spokesman of the president, appeared at a televised briefing in a room full of journalists to comment on this atrocity.
“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer says, to show the severe inhumanity of Bashar al-Assad. “You have someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink [so low] to using chemical weapons.”
A lazy analogy in place of thought. A high school student knows that Hitler massacred Jews in gas chambers. Shouldn’t a man who has had five years experience as a communications director and now a White House Press Secretary know better?
Well, it’s not entirely his fault. After his comments, Sean Spicer received immense backlash. A journalist in the briefing room confronted his claims, and a cringe-worthy interview became outright embarrassing. But, ever since Donald Trump announced his run for presidency, comparisons of Trump to Hitler have been innumerous. Anything despicable has to be compared to Hitler otherwise it's not noteworthy as a tragedy. Holocaust survivors and those offended should not be mad at Sean Spicer. He is not the problem. The problem is a culture incapable of novel, independent thinking, hence the dependence on cliches.
But, the question still remains: how could Sean Spicer be so stupid?
“Stupidity stalks us all,” Teju Cole writes.
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