James Hansen and the Holocaust Frame: not even heroes are perfect

Mon, 2007-12-03 14:37Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

James Hansen and the Holocaust Frame: not even heroes are perfect

Just in case you were wondering, the new Beowulf movie is pretty awful–but there's at least one thing interesting about it.

It turns a heroic character without any apparent flaws (the original Beowulf) into a guy that, well, has loads of them. In so doing, it modernizes the story (and, as it happens, trashes the original poem).

Weirdly, I thought of Beowulf when I read the latest about NASA's James Hansen, our most famous climate scientist, who used an unfortunate Holocaust-related analogy to discuss the impact of global warming on endangered species in recent testimony in his home state, Iowa.

More specifically, Hansen stated:

Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

Quite predictably, this reference to “crematoria” caused a big controversy; and of course, Hansen had to apologize (PDF), albeit somewhat circuitously.

Indeed, even after apologizing, Hansen added this:

A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea – an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Advice to James Hansen: If you are going to be engaged in public debate on global warming, or as a major public figure on pretty much any subject, you should probably stay away from Holocaust metaphors and analogies, PERIOD.

 Why?

Because even if you explain what you really mean–and even if, once explained, it isn't actually so offensive–you still can't get away with it. Moreover, such analogies are pretty well guaranteed to distract people from the point you are trying to get across.

I write all this, incidentally, as one of the many, many journalists who has positively gushed about Hansen in the past.

In a feature last year for Seed, I called him the “New Scientist,” and praised his courageous thwarting of political attempts to silence him, as well as his refusal to retreat, as too many scientists do, into technocratic jargon when the fate of the planet is at stake.

So yes, James Hansen is a great hero–but if he is going to be out in front of the media, and if he is going to be engaged in politics, he like anyone else ought to study the unspoken but very real rules of high stakes political debate and engagement in America today. One of those rules is don't expose your flank, especially when you have a ton of people who'd love nothing better than to take you down (as Hansen most assuredly does).

Another is don't say things that you don't need to say that distract from what you really want to say.

On both counts, comparing pretty much anything in the global warming debate to the Holocaust is an utter no-no. You waste time, you lose the force of your original argument, you distract from the main issue at hand…and you probably offend people and may have to apologize.

How is that fun?

It's not like this is the first time for Hansen.

In March, I watched him get raked over the coals repeatedly before the U.S. Congress after having likened the Bush administration's suppression of science to…that's right, Nazi Germany. Instead of just admitting that he shouldn't have said that, Hansen went on and on trying to clarify and explain and defend himself. And he just kept getting dinged by Republican congressmen. After a while, it became painful to watch.

Another rule of politics: When you do something impolitic or ill-advised, just apologize, fully and without excuses. And move on.

The thing is, Hansen is actually better than most scientists when it comes to communicating. He doesn't limit himself to only talking about purely scientific matters, when science obviously has implications for policy, ethics, and much else. He doesn't mince words.

That's a good thing.

But even a James Hansen could probably use a little media coaching–something all too few scientists receive as a part of their normal career training.

If scientists are going to go into political battle–and, given the rank politicization of science that we've seen, it's doubtful they can avoid it on issues like evolution or global climate change–they have got to learn the rules of the battlefield.

Previous Comments

I am certain that Hansen meant no offense, nor to trivialize the Holocaust. It’s one of those cultural things that people unwittingly trip over and end up in a massive hole, trying to figure out what they did wrong, sort of like the “teddy-bear teacher”. If anything, I think he was trying to impress upon people the enormity of the consequences of doing nothing. What we should take from Hansen’s ill-advised metaphor is that we could suffer loss of life on a scale to rival the horror of the Nazi regime. That, as we should have awakened to the threat of terrorism in the Krystal Nacht, we should recognize the signs in the shattering of natural eco-systems a threat to the common good, of humankind as a whole.

I thought the train analogy got the point across quite well, but it’s true that any reference to the Holocaust or to Nazis is going to bring on a lot of scorn and derision. I think almost everyone agrees that what the Nazis did was evil, and it’s one bit of history most people have heard of. So the Nazis tend to be overused as the standard of evil, then you get reactions like Godwin’s Law on the Internet.

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin’s_law

No need to apologize for Hansen Femack when he won’t apologize himself.

Hansen is a perfect example, as are you Femack, in how enviros are hijacking the Holocaust in an attempt to advance thier cause. Shameful.

As for Hansen having been “suppressed”, that’s laughable. He may be a great scientist, but he’s also a loose cannon.

“enviros are hijacking the Holocaust”?

Other than being obviously false–thus the content of this post–what does that even mean? That somebody owns historical memory?

I guess Paul is presuming himself the owner of the memory of the holocaust. Or perhaps he’s just taking it upon himself to police our freedom of expression and declare the holocaust off-limits to certain classes of people.

In a free and open society, we would be able to draw lessons from history by noting parallels from event to event. The intelligent would be able to judge the appropriateness–and limitations–of these analogies.

In this world, however, dimwitted thought police like Paul S will always be there to scream “moral equivalency!” whenever someone dares mention the word “holocaust” or “Nazi”.

Any idiot can tell that Hansen doesn’t put any individual in the role of a Nazi. Rather, he inculpates us all, placing us in the role of the “good German”. It’s a sardonic comment, rather than vitriolic accusation. I’m not sure it’s a great analogy, but it’s certainly one he has the right to say, and not to be shouted down on grounds of “moral equivalency” or “hysteria” by the PC right.

But you’d need to have subtlety to understand that. And subtelty is impossible when you have immature dimtwits like Paul and ZOG inserting themselves into the conversation. Sadly, Chris is right: Nazi analogies are futile. The shrill have seen to it that the most significant event in our collective past has been effectively removed from useful discourse.

People who lived through WW2 and suffered through the Holocaust own the memories DEW, and no one else.

“In a free and open society, we would be able to draw lessons from history by noting parallels from event to event.”

Too bad Hansen is doing no such thing.

“In this world, however, dimwitted thought police like Paul S will always be there to scream “moral equivalency!” whenever someone dares mention the word “holocaust” or “Nazi”.”

Moral equivalency? What nonsense are you talking about? It’s gratuituous and unwarranted Holocaust analogies I object too. That Hansen won’t apologize for his odious analogy speaks poorly of him, not of me.

“Any idiot can tell that Hansen doesn’t put any individual in the role of a Nazi. Rather, he inculpates us all, placing us in the role of the “good German”.

And you must be that idiot. Hansen is not a Nazi, just everyone else is. Okey dokey.

I’m not sure I really understand most of the remarks in your reply, Paul, but here goes…

I see you’ve declared Hansen’s analogy “gratuitous and unwarranted”. Good for you. But you’re in no way acting as the thought police. Good for you. Still, perhaps you’d be so good as to explain why this analogy is gratuitous and unwarranted, rather than just handing down summary judgment.

But in order to do that, you’d have to go into context, read Hansen’s own words, including his much-circulated apology, in which he unpacks his thoughts on the subject. You’d have to appreciate the subtleties in his argument, and acknowledge that his words, right or wrong, were thoughtful.

And we all know you can’t do that. You need Hansen as a two-dimensional figure whose words can be easily slotted into categories like “alarmist” and “hysterical” and hence easily dismissed. You’d rather attack a straw-man Hansen, than take on the substance of his opinions.

Hansen handed down summary judgement, not me. And no, I did not find his words “thoughtful”; crass and cruel come to mind.

He’s a good scientist, I wish he would stick to that.

This is the most egregious, but certainly not the only example of Hansen’s stridency in the last 2 or 3 years. In his single-minded quest for public support, he has lost a great deal of credibility or, I would submit, simply “lost it”.

He has fallen into the same trap as some of my fellow sceptics who habitually hang the ever-convenient handle of “fascists” on Kyoto promoters.

Funny how the deniers are always shouting “ad hominem”.

And the ad hominem is…?

I merely mentioned what anyone but the most brain-washed warmist must have observed - that Hansen’s public pronouncements have become political rants. This would include his silly assertion that, notwithstanding his very high public profile, he has been “muzzled.” (Google his name and see how many recent hits you get!)

Sorry. I don’t see where he said Holocaust.

When I was a child of 12, maybe younger, I watched on television the films taken by the allies as they opened up the death camps and found the crematoria and the mass graves, the walking dead, the hollow eyes. It was 1966, a quarter of a century after the event, but I wept for days. The Holocaust belongs to every human being with a conscience, as a howling reminder that all that evil needs to prevail is that good people do nothing. For the ones who endured it there is no solace. For those of us who let it happen there is no forgiveness.

And that’s where we are now. If good people do nothing millions of vulnerable people will suffer and die of starvation, of catastrophic climatic events, of war. It’s up to us to prevent the worst. Hansen may have blundered, or maybe he didn’t. He was looking for an analogy that would convey the seriousness of the situation. Perhaps cultural delicacies have been offended, but I think we need to look past that and focus on the message. We can’t go on like this. It’s that simple.

No, Femack, the Holocaust does not “belong” to us at all. I was not responsible for it, I was not affected by it. Expropriating the Holocaust and making it personal to yourself is something I find offensive. The Holocaust, and all victims of war, belongs only to those people.

As Hansen believes the situation is serious, say so. That’s it. But don’t piggyback and inappropriately use the suffering of other people for your own cause.

Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Every one of us should learn from that appalling period of history that it can happen anywhere if we are not vigilant – does Rwanda ring a bell?

Rwanda? Yes, the UN made a fine job of that, too.

But now they’re on to bigger and better things – like controlling the weather.

Rob, again you and your ilk screw up the terms “weather” and “climate”. When are you people going to learn proper vocabulary?

Rwanda? Yes, the UN made a fine job of that, too.

But now they’re on to bigger and better things – like controlling the climate.

I agree that the UN botched the Rwanda file, not to mention Darfur. You won’t find me disagreeing with you on that matter.

However, the UN deserves credit for putting in place the IPCC, an arms-length scientific (not political) organization to collect all that is known (from the peer-reviewed literature) about climate change and to present it to policymakers in a way that they can (ideally, anyways) put together policies which would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The IPCC has succeeded in getting the word out. However, governments have failed on this matter.

I object to you saying “The Holocaust belongs to every human being with a conscience” Femack. Uh, no it does not.
That is just Oprah-like sentimentality.

The Holocaust only belongs to those who suffered it. Period. It is vanity and arrogance on the part of yourself and others to proclaim “The Holocaust belongs to every human being”. What sanctimonious nonsense.

I wish these gratuitous uses of the Holocaust by others to advance their own causes would stop. But I know that won’t happen.

I believe this indirect analogy is apt. The despicable crime of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, but this reference was indirect and while clearly painful I feel that it is entirely justified. Hansen was not belittling the wickedness of this crime.

The Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis, although they were clearly targeted for extermination. It must not be forgotten that there were also Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Social Democrats, Communists, partisans, trade unionists, Polish intelligentsia and gypsies, mentally handicapped among the holocaust victims.

Let us not forget that Nazism was a corrupt ideology that led to mass murder and yet another corrupt ideology demands more fossil-fuel energy that will if allowed to continue, lead to even more mass death.
I feel sure that Hansen was alluding to this undeniable similarity. Perhaps it came about as a result of the AGW deniers drawing the parallel themselves to ‘holocaust deniers’ and attacking their critics for an un-drawn metaphor.

Criticism of Hansen for this allusion is over-sensitive and such attacks should be redirected where deserved - at the fossil-fools.

The answer is to act NOW! Stop arguing over what Hansen actually meant! Vote for politicians that press for renewable energy and maximised energy efficiency and move away from fossil-fuel sources. Write to your politician demanding action.

Every individual needs to reduce their carbon footprint.

I am part of the way there, but I have a way to go! No more flying! Getting rid of my vehicle - I will be cycling.
Are you doing your bit?

“Let us not forget that Nazism was a corrupt ideology that led to mass murder and yet another corrupt ideology demands more fossil-fuel energy that will if allowed to continue, lead to even more mass death.”

… Says the hypocritical buffoon who types this on his computer with Internet access, sitting in his centrally-heated home, munching on a mass-produced bag of Cheetos – all products of a highly successful industrialised capitalist economy – oops, I meant “corrupt ideology”.

If that’s not an ad-hom, I don’t know what would qualify as that. Rob, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

“Ad-hom”? Not sure what that is, but I assume you meant by your hep-cat neologism an ad hominem argument. If so, then you are incorrect.

I was not making an ad hominem argument, nor any other sort of argument. I was merely pointing out that the person happens to be a bit of an ignorant dick. While that may be insulting, it does not constitute an ad hominem argument.

If it makes you feel any better, I am deeply ashamed of myself. Just not about that.

Rob the troll is throwing gratuitous insults again. I say he should be banned for that.

Got my vote…

Don’t Feed the Trolls

Working the yuppie peeyar scam on a truly decent guy like Hansen, just shows Mooney at his contemptible best.

Comes next, Sheril Kirschenbaum calling Hansen an anti-Semite?

Truly perverse yuppies at the very bottom.

What a waste.

Hansen’s ridiculous Holocaust analogy is typical of the hyperbolic utterances of Global Warming cultists. It positively reeks of sanctimony and self-importance.

Why would any sane person still want to cast their lot with this bunch?

Where does it say Holocaust?

Mooney uses Holocaust to create BUZZ.

Nisbet loves buzz.

Yuppies love buzz.

You can make a career out of making buzz.

The suffering Palestinians in their deadly Israeli CONCENTRATION CAMP IN GAZA are experiencing a HOLOCAUST at this very moment, but the Palestinians can’t create any BUZZ at all.

The NY times never reports about the Israeli CONCENTRATION CAMP IN GAZA.

Wrong. The Israelis are suffering at the hands of the Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorist-supporting (and terrorist-encouraging) organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Islamic Jihad, the “governments” of Syria and Iran, and of course Al-Qaeda.

If anyone is truly suffering, it is the Israelis who have to deal with this fear on a daily basis.

Stephen, a lot more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis. Murder is murder no matter who does it; and both sides are guilty here, and innocents on both sides are suffering for it.

That may be true. However, many of the Palestinians who were killed by the IDF were militants and were active in targeting Israeli citizens.

Also, Palestinian militants are famous for employing human shields, which is illegal under the Geneva Convention. Many hundreds of Palestinian civilians would be alive today if these militants would not act in such a cowardly (and illegal) way.

These militants are to blame for everything that has gone wrong in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. They’re the reason the Palestinians are so enraged. They’re the reason the “school” system is so poisoned with anti-Semitic, vile, propaganda. Heck, in Palestinian “schools”, children are taught that they should become martyrs and to kill Israelis rather than being taught language skills, mathematics, geography, and science.

Most Israelis would love to live in peace. However, the Palestinians (rejected to second-class Arab status by the Saudis and Syrians) have been indoctrinated with the desire for war and violence.

Whenever I read an excuse such as this: “Palestinian militants are famous for employing human shields”, it has been made by someone who murdered a bunch of civilians. If someone is holding a gun to a child’s head, do you murder the child in order to kill the gunman? Sorry, that excuse doesn’t work. Killing civilians is also a war crime, against the Geneva convention, and the claim that civilians were being used as shields is not a valid ecuse for killing the civilians. And note that much of the killing happens where Palestinians live; it’s their homes that are being bombed by the Israeli army.

Here are some innocent Palestinian civilians who died even though no one was using them as shields.:

http://breadnroses.ca/birthpangs/?p=218

A quote from the BBC: “More than 60 Palestinian women have given birth at Israeli checkpoints since 2000 and 36 of their babies have died as a result, says a UN report.” Note this is because Israeli soldiers would not allow these women access to a hospital.

And check out this site: http://www.btselem.org/english/

I’m not interested in a prolonged discussion; I just want to point out the Israelies are richer and more heavily armed, and they have killed more Palestinians civilians than Palestinian suicide bombers have killed Israeli civilians. Neither is justified. But Israel is oppressing the Palestinians and it must stop.

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