Hitler Poster: Free Speech, Silliness, or Provocation?
By Lee Russ
Saturday, April 28, 2007 at 09:02 AM
I live a few miles from Williams College. The college had an incident exactly a week ago that seems to me to exemplify a particular gulf in values in this country that has caused a lot of heat and will likely cause a lot more.Williams is a top-tier liberal arts college that costs a lot and has numerous alumni in positions of power and authority in the U.S. The alumni include a president (Garfield), a governor of New York (Charles S. Whitman), a head of the CIA (Richard Helms), prominent conservative presence Bill Bennett, Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and a bunch of high achievers in the arts, from Stephen Sondheim to John Frankenheimer to Elia Kazan.
In short, it's a place for people who measure high in IQ and who tend to have lots of ambition, connections and achievements.
According to the April 25 edition of the campus newspaper, The Williams Record, here's what happened.
Last Friday, April 20, several students at Williams found a poster attached to their dorm doors. The poster had a picture of a marijuana leaf, a picture of Hitler, the word "Remember" in large letters, and some smaller writing that appears to be a quote from Hitler, and at the bottom this:
420 Remembrance"420" is an informal holiday recognized by marijuana smokers. April 20 is Hitler's birthday.
Happy Birthday Hitler
April 20, 2007
There was a lot of buzz on campus for the next few days over the so-called "Mary Jane Hitler" poster, especially from the Williams administration. Campus Security and the local town police in Williamstown, Mass. were involved in investigating who put the posters up and what they meant. Many students were offended, including the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA).
By April 24, the person behind the posters was identified as a Williams College sophomore, who had been aided by her non-student friend in creating the posters. In place of her name, I'll call her The Postress.
Her motive was to parody a Holocaust Remembrance poster that the WCJA had, a few days before the Hitler poster appeared, put on student dorm doors. The Holocaust posters each had the word "Remember," along with a picture and description of a Holocaust victim and a six-pointed star. According to The Postress, she regarded the Holocaust poster as an invasion of her space and "I was afraid to take it off." She described discussing with her friends whether they "were allowed to recycle this dead Jewish person someone put on our door."
Now there appears to be a significant divide on the Williams campus. Some students, Jewish and non, find the Hitler poster offensive and/or frightening. Others think the Hitler poster is OK for one reason or another, and the campus newspaper quotes one student as saying, "Either both posters are acceptable or neither are."
The Postress, for her part, says she never meant to frighten anyone, though she knew her poster would be considered offensive. She said, "But then people will be offended by what they want to be offensive."
So my question is this: do you think The Postress's poster was:
- A parody (funny or not) which is protected free speech?
- An act of silliness (and if so, is it protected free speech)?
- An unprotected act of provocation?
- Something else altogether?
The poster scan comes from EphBlog, a weblog for the Williams College community that provides ongoing coverage of this story.
This reminds me of the tempests in a teapot I used to get into at the University of North Texas in the late '80s.
Put me in the offensive act of provocation camp, since a Jewish student who awakens to a Hitler poster on her door has a good reason to be alarmed, just as a black student would if the poster depicted a lynching or the KKK.
The poster's creator was playing with fire by using Nazi symbolism to make a point about a heavy-handed Holocaust memorial plastered on dorm doors.
Ultimately, the school should probably deal with the whole thing by throwing an orgy of awareness at the problem with the kind of well-intentioned blah blah blah at which higher education excels. I smell a symposium in the air.
I agree with that student: Either full-throttle or cut the power. These days, it seems statements are under some unwritten rule as to what can or cannot be said:
-White person says n-word. Bad! Yet, hip-hop artist says it, and makes money doing so.
-Ultra-con commentator uses f-word. Is not punished or fired, nor has paper columns cut for such. Yet, many take this person as highly offensive.
-Ultra-super-neo-con radio commentator makes nasty comment about football player, steeping in racism. Is not fired, and is still on the air.
-Other radio commentator makes similar racist comment. Out the door within a month.
-Man steals military documents and hands them over to the press to show Vietnam war is a lost cause. Public cheers. DOD groans and wags tongues over "violating national security".
-Article in paper says government spies on banking records. Government has baby. Calls this paper "traitorous". Yet, data was already public knowledge, published elsewhere.
This is my point. We either have free speech or we don't. Yes, I think what that student did was tasteless, but, again, either...or.
And no more "hidden clause" rules, please.
It's clearly parody and funny because it is so absurd. Does anyone really believe nazis are now using and advocating marijuana as part of their propaganda? Hitler as Rasta Man?
Maybe the complainers should smoke a little to open their minds to how uptight and ridiculous they appear.
To those who think that the pro-Hitler posters were a joke or were otherwise harmless, check out the evidence posted on EphBlog: www.ephblog.com .
The detailed evidence posted there conclusively proves that the pro-Hitler posters were created and posted by a 33-year-old non-Williams student who is the president of the company the hosts such websites as the "Al-Qaeda Appreciation Society of North America," the official website of the Nazi Party of America, and a web site glorifying and encouraging church arson.
The pro-Hitler posters were not some ill thought out joke. Instead, they were actually posted by neo-Nazi, Al Qaeda-loving, church arson-supporting anarchists who threatened violence against Williams students.
As such, Williams students have been justifiably scared and the Williams administration needs to take action to ensure that such hatred and bigotry does not happen again.
As seen on ephblog, Julia Ann Cordray, the Postress, has demonstrated herself to be a nazi sympathizer and a bigot. While I support her right to free speech, I deplore the poor taste that she showed in putting up those posters.
For what it's worth, the full explanation from The Postress of her intentions, etc. appear as part of the blog thread found here.
Someone at EPHBLOG wondered why I didn't just use her publicly available full name: first because I'm uncomfortable with throwing around the name of someone who is not a public figure of some sort, and second, because I don't want to give her the publicity in case she's hoping to become a public figure.
For what it's worth, here's how I view this little controversy:
As a matter of free speech, I lean toward her having the right to post what she did, if the school's policy is to allow postings on dorm doors.
The right to post, however, is far different from the consequences of posting, or the wisdom of posting. I don't doubt that Jewish students were offended and/or frightened, just as Black students would have been if the posters carried KKK figures. People from ethnic groups that have not been subjected to terror and murder and mayhem frequently don't understand how real and serious these symbols are to those who come from groups that have experienced these horrors.
And there's still plenty of anti-Semitism around, not to mention Holocaust deniers, admirers of Nazis of various stripe, and so on. And, of course, there are always the plain old thugs and bigots who love force and simplistic thoughts, and despise weakness and serious analysis, who view with disdain just about any group which differs from them.
Whether The Postress is simply a silly person who fails to understand how her actions affect others, or a bigoted thug, I will never know because I don't plan on getting to know her. I am, however, very suspicious of the tone in her statement that she sat with friends wondering if they "were allowed to recycle this dead Jewish person someone put on our door."
None of this is new, of course, and it is unfortunate that so much time, energy and resources will be spent by people--including me and definitely the Williams College community--talking about this.
What really drew my interest to the story, though, is what I see as the simiarity between The Postress's feeling that she must take it upon herself to challenge the norm, attack what she sees as the PC mania, and the stated intention of several figures from the far right to instigate an atmosphere of nastiness and combat, attacking their enemies--liberals, secular intellectuals, etc.--whereever and whenever they find them, so that their enemies never have a moment to rest.
Statements like this from Eric Heubeck, in The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement, 2001 (from Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation):
Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions.
Or this, from David Horowitz, in The Art of Political War: How Republicans can Fight to Win:
You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate. You can only do it by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.
Or this from Grover Norquist:
We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals--and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.
The unity that this country felt after WWII, and for many tears afterward, is dead. Stone cold dead, just like Hitler and most of the people who actually served in the war. What we have now is pretty well described by the quotes above--a social and economic war, but not against outsiders: it's a civil war in the sense of being internal, though God knows there's little civil about it.
It strikes me that The Postress is likely to be one of a generation of people raised in this atmosphere, someone who has iternalized those values to the point that they seem simply natural and moral to her.
I wonder how many more there are like her.
From the Ephron Link...
The fliers were not intended to threaten anyone or take any position for or against marijuana or Hitler and consisted only of bland historically accurate information, but were a parody of fliers posted on every dorm door just a few days earlier."
Uh-huh. Merely a parody? The author goes on to cite freedom of speech, the history of parody, the neccesity of breaking taboos to learn etc etc ad nauseum. It is being described as a manifesto of sorts. I wouldn't personally dignify it with that term. It's a rationilisation of an act designed to make the Jewish group who posted the Holocaust memorial posters feel uncomfortable. It's a tit for tat thing. Your poster made me feel uncomfortable and now I'm returning the favor. Spud found the rant to be predictable and boring. This part was kind of interesting to me...
"It is understandable and commendable that a group would be passionate about their issues, but philosophically troublesome to ask people to remember an event for which they were not alive and able to witness, and arguably obtrusive to create a standard of posting fliers on student doors to promote a group's ideology, no matter how well intentioned."
"philosophically troublesome?" Here's what I find troublesome about that attitude. People who fail to learn the lessons of history tend to repeat the same mistakes. Failure to acknowledge the depths to which the Nazis sank in those times is tantamount to saying that evil is not worth paying attention to and being vigilant for.
The Postress, as she's been dubbed, goes on to argue a slippery slope argument about the next step being allowing JWs et al to knock on doors on campus and proselytise. That argument is hardly a likely occurance and just another sad part of the mawkish immature "manifesto". She said she did it to promote dialogue but most of the dialogue is about what an ass she is not the issues she wished to put forward. I celebrate 4/20 every year but I live in Vancouver where marijuana is taken very seriously indeed by everybody but the police. In all the time I've lived here I've never seen a Hitler poster advertising for 4/20. Bud rawks. Hitler sucks.