John Raese is feeling persecuted.
Raese, a West Virginia businessman running for the Senate, declared in a recent speech that he doesn’t want the government telling him what to do “because I’m an American.” Specifically, he lamented that he is required to place a “huge sticker” on his buildings declaring them smoke-free environments.
“Remember Hitler used to put Star of David on everybody’s lapel, remember that? Same thing,” he said.
For the record, the Nazis did not require the Star of David on “everybody’s” lapel. Only Jews were forced to sew the symbol on their clothing under penalty of being fined, imprisoned, or shot. But maybe we should just be grateful Raese did not compare smoker’s lounges to concentration camps — or some tobacco junkie hiding in the toilet to sneak a smoke to Anne Frank, hiding out for her life.
Predictably, Raese has come under fire from Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has refused to back down. “I’m not apologizing to anybody or any organization,” he told the Charleston Daily Mail. He went on to say, “I am not going to be intimidated by a bunch of bull----.”
Requiring him to put up no-smoking signs, is, he reiterated, “very similar” to requiring Jews to wear yellow stars. “It might be smoking today, it might be Big Macs tomorrow, then Coca-Colas the next day, then Jack Daniel’s, then we’re in trouble.”
Yes, he actually said that. And one can’t help but recall the famous thing Martin Niemöller said about the Holocaust: “First they came for the Big Macs, and I did not speak out — because I did not eat at McDonald’s.
“Then they came for the Coca-Colas, and I did not speak out — because I prefer Pepsi.
“Then they came for the Jack Daniel’s and I did not speak out — because I was not a whiskey drinker.
“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
OK, so that’s not quite what Niemöller said. But does it really matter? Does anyone care? Do the great words, noble precepts and tragic occurrences of yesterday still matter in a nation where reverence is something some of us can no longer even pretend to feel?
Raese made his asinine remark in furtherance of his belief in small government. It is an ideology whose adherents habitually squander whatever appeal it might otherwise hold through extremist statements such as these. Surely reasonable people can debate the proper size and role of government. But one begins to believe people like Raese seek not small government, but no government. And that, putting it mildly, is bizarre.
Worse, he compounds the sin by committing this act of violence against memory, this vandalism of simple respect. At one fell swoop, he manages to illustrate both American political extremism and American incapacity of reverence.
He is hardly unique. The Nazis have become the go-to image of political demonization. We’ve seen Barack Obama as Hitler and George W. Bush as Hitler. But anyone who understands what happened when Hitler was Hitler cannot help but decry such a monumental trivialization of atrocity. The crimes of the Nazi regime were singular, unprecedented in their sheer awfulness. Because of this, thoughtful observers draw Nazi parallels carefully and rarely if at all. And then there are the John Raeses of the world.
For what it’s worth, the experience of a Jew in the Holocaust and a smoker in America are comparable in only one regard: the death toll. The Nazis killed six million Jews in 12 years. Cigarettes kill that many Americans every 13 and a half. Of course, a smoker has a choice. A Jew had none.
And the idea of equating the two is ridiculous, offensive and unworthy of serious people. That should go without saying.
The key word there being, “should.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.