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October 17, 2003

Like many bloggers, I pointed

Daniel Radosh

Like many bloggers, I pointed out the other day the idiotic remarks Gregg Easterbrook made about Kill Bill. It didn't occur to me, however, that this debate was going somewhere else entirely: that Easterbrook was calling Jews greedy. That's the general consensus in the blogosphere, which has now seeped into the mainstream press.

This attack surprised me because I don't think it's what Easterbrook should be attacked for. True, it's always risky to use the words "greedy" and "Jews" in the same passage, but I'm not going to be offended just because he used language that could easily be taken the wrong way, and he's clearly (well, obviously not clearly, but on close examination) saying, as Alex Heard points out, something entirely different.

I am, however, offended by Easterbrook's obscene misunderstanding of the nature of the Holocaust. Easterbrook's implication is that there's a similarity in kind, if not in scope, between the type of violence depicted in Hollywood movies and the type inflicted during the Holocaust, which is why Jews should be extra sensitive to it. Leaving aside the thorny question of the relationship between movie violence and any real-life violence, Easterbrook's error is in thinking of the Holocaust as simply one big mass murder, as if the only difference between Hitler and Charlie Starkweather is their body counts. In fact, the Holocaust was not in its essence a mass murder at all. Rather, it was genocide: an intent to render a specific group of people sub-human and eliminate them and their culture from the face of the earth. Mass murder was a crucial part of this scheme, of course, but so was slavery, theft, humiliation, torture, debasement of religion, intentional fracturing of family and other social structures, rewriting and erasing of history, wholesale destruction of documents, artifacts, homes, and villages, and much else.

To use an analogy that is in one important way inapt but that nonetheless gets the point across, comparing the Holocaust with the type of killing that Easterbrook believes is glorified in the movies is like calling rape a type of sex. There is a sexual component to rape, but its essence is not sex but violence. There was a murderous component to the Holocaust, but its essence was very different than simple murder. Even the least redeeming movie violence (and Easterbrook would be on firmer ground if he'd chosen, say, Friday the 13th, since in Kill Bill not a single person dies who is either innocent or helpless) does not depict anything even remotely like what happened in the Holocaust. For Easterbrook's admonition to work, he'd have to say that women should not make romantic comedies because so many women have been raped. Um, well, like I said, the analogy falls apart there because it is possible to object to violent movies without dragging the Holocaust into it, while few people object to romantic comedies as a genre unless they star Meg Ryan.

Update: Amy Alkon takes me to task for saying the essence of rape is violence, not sex. "I know that's the popular view, but it's the scientifically incorrect one," she says. Here's her evolutionary psych take:

Thus, although rape can be violent, this doesn't mean a man's motivation to rape is violence. Thornhill and Palmer note that "rapists rarely engage in gratuitous violence, defined as expending energy beyond what is required to subdue or control the victim and inflicting injuries that reduce the victim's chance of surviving to become pregnant or that heighten the risk of eventual injury to the rapist from enraged relatives of the victim (all ultimate costs of rape).

Thornhill and Palmer explain that there's a difference between "instrumental" force, (the force actually needed to complete the rape, and possibly to influence the victim not to resist, not to call for help, and/or not to report the rape) and excessive force (which might be a motivating end in itself). Only excessive force is a possible indication of violent motivation. Use of forceful tactics to reach a desired experience does not imply that the tactics are goals in themselves (unless...one is willing to argue that a man's giving money to a prostitute in exchange for sex is evidence that the man's behavior is motivated by a desire to give away money). Here again the crucial distinction between goals and tactics is blurred when rape is referred to as an act of violence."

I'm sticking with my bad analogy, because this isn't the part that's bad. Unlike many people who do make the error Alkon points out, I wasn't addressing motive. There may be a difference between between "instrumental" and excessive force from the standpoint of the rapist (or of one whose primary interest is in understanding his motivation) but from the standpoint of the victim (or one whose primary interest is in describing the experience and nature of rape as a whole) that difference is irrelevent. Rape distinguishes itself from sex by its violence (even when the violence is only implied). I agree that the rapist is motivated by sexual desire -- that's the sexual component of rape that I mentioned -- but certainly there's something about rape that makes it different in kind from sex, at least enough to make my analogy work (as far as it does).

Update 2: Jonathan Alter thinks he has it figured out: "Gregg's one problem as a journalist is that he sometimes writes too fast." To which TMFTML is "not unsympathetic": "We've certainly made a few ill-advised posts of our own recently (we're thinking in particular of "Enough Already with Black People," "We'll Get to AIDS When We're Done With Cancer, Okay, Bruce?" and, perhaps most controversially, "Fuck You, Pope").

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