On Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel’s “Holocaust”

Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel called the Capitol protests a "holocaust."

Here we go again.

Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Ben Brancel recently made the following remarks, according to an AP story:

“They [lawmakers] came to town with a lot of ideas and a lot of concepts they could really work on and then they got stuck in the middle of a holocaust and a horror story that was going on in town,” Brancel told the crowd. WKOW-TV first reported about the comments.

In a statement put out by his office later, Brancel said he should have chosen his words more carefully.

“I apologize today for my unfortunate choice of words about the budget controversy,” he said. “I meant to portray the sense of turmoil in the past weeks, but I chose an inappropriate word in the context.”

He stood by his description of the legislative standoff as a “horror story.”

“It is a horror story in the sense that there is not a[n] orderly process of debate to resolve the issues,” he told WKOW-TV.

Brancel’s apology was welcome and accepted, and the propensity of public officials and activists to blithely invoke Adolf Hitler, the Nazi era and the Holocaust has emerged yet again in what to me is a disturbing fashion.

During the health care debate I wrote an open letter to those people who compared President Obama to Hitler.  I’ve also written about Tea Party-sponsored billboards in Iowa, Rich Lott’s finding nothing wrong with donning a Nazi uniform while reenacting World War II battles, and about the comparison of Arizona’s SB 1070 to the Nazi era.

To be fair, even through Republican Gov. Scott Walker said Brancel’s remark was probably taken out of context, the secretary did take responsibility for his statement through his apology, .

At the same time, comparing the democratic ferment around protesting the potential signing of a bill stripping workers’ collective bargaining rights to the systematic murder of about 6 million Jewish people, and millions of others, including homosexuals, people with disabilities, political dissident, Roma-Sinti and Jehovah’s Witnesses, goes beyond a simple linguistic error to a willingness to seriously dilute the meaning of one of the past century’s genocides.

I’m not sure exactly why this keeps on happening.

It might have to do with our failure, despite great effort, to convey the Holocaust’s atrocities to subsequent generations.

It could be a symptom of a general loosening of language in public discourse.

It might have to do with speakers’ desires to make an impact through their words and their confidence that invoking the Nazi era in Germany will elicit the desired effect.

Maybe it’s some combination of these, or others reasons I have not yet identified.

Whatever the impetus,  I again call on people of good will not never to bring up the past, but to do so with respect for what happened and with attention to detail.

For me, that, rather than the reckless grafting of one period onto another, is the path to truly meaningful dialogue and ensuing policy.


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