I referred to Helen Thomas’s recent comments a couple of times here in posts about the larger subject of Israel’s May 31 attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. I think I made it clear just in those tangential remarks that I agreed her remarks were offensive but that the reaction to them was overblown (in the blogosphere in general; not necessarily here, and certainly not here alone).
But my previous comments were made before Thomas’s speaking agency dropped her, and before Craig Crawford, who is represented by the same agency, announced that he would no longer work with her on a joint book project. And before Joe Klein opined that Thomas should be made to sit in the back of the room during White House briefings.
So how do I feel about Helen Thomas now?
I feel sad. I feel really sad. I mean, like the kind of sad you feel when everyone around you seems to be losing their critical faculties, their perspectives, and maybe their minds as well.
I don’t like what Thomas said. It offended me — even hurt me. Although I know (as many other people, especially on the right, seem not to know) that she was not suggesting that Jews in Israel should go back to Hitler’s Germany or Hitler’s Poland. Some people have taken her statements to mean that Jews should return to Auschwitz. Despite knowing that many people are not inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, that’s not what she meant. I know I’m not in her head, but I think it takes an especially ungenerous soul to take her words that way.
I mean, look. What she did mean was bad enough. She meant — and apparently believed — that the Jewish population of Israel could and should return to countries like Germany and Poland now that there is no Holocaust going on there anymore. Apparently she thinks that, since Germany and Poland are free now and are no longer controlled or ruled by the Nazis, the Jews of Israel should be willing to return there, or that it’s perfectly viable for them to return there, simply because before the Holocaust, those countries — and others in Europe, especially Eastern Europe — actually were home for millions of Jews.
It’s bad enough that she believes that to be true. It’s appalling, in fact — especially given that she is someone who has committed her entire adult life to witnessing and investigating and writing about injustice and persecution and oppression. She should know better. But believing that Germany and Eastern Europe or even a country like France, which actively collaborated with the Nazis, could still be “home” for the Jewish people today, or ever again, as incredibly insensitive and uninformed as it is to believe that, is not the same as believing that Jews should “go back to Auschwitz” (which is how some — not all, but some — on the right have paraphrased her remarks). It’s not even similar. Heck, it’s not even on the same planet.
People have to be capable of making distinctions like these.
But many are not.
It’s still difficult for me to understand the ferocity of the response to Thomas’s comments. I understand that a big part of it is the left-right polarization in this country. But the thing is, Helen Thomas is not an elected official. She’s not a media pundit. She is 89, for jeebus’s sake. In two months, she will be 90. She is a member of the White House Press Corps, but let’s be real, folks, only in a ceremonial sense. She has “Emeritus” informally tacked on to whatever title people give her. And she has earned a lifetime of respect as a professional journalist. I really and truly, simply cannot believe the calls to fire her (from Hearst), and now the fact that the private agency that represents her for speaking engagements has dropped her. And that Craig Crawford will not work on a book with her anymore. I mean, what is this? She is not Hitler.
When Strom Thurmond had a very well publicized 100th birthday party that was attended by all sorts of political luminaries and bigwigs (Trent Lott was only one of them), some people questioned the seemliness of feting, in such an open, prideful way, the birthday of a man who had built his entire career on the most vicious tradition of Southern white supremacist doctrine. After Lott praised him in terms that specifically endorsed Thurmond’s Jim Crow, segregationist background, he created a public uproar. And yes, he was forced to resign as Senate Majority Leader. But Lott was only 61 at the time and at the apex of an extremely influential and powerful career — one in which (obviously) he was in a position to make public policy. And even with that, he was only asked to give up his leadership role in the Senate at the time — he was not asked to step down from the U.S. Senate, nor did he. He was not asked to give up any lucrative consulting work or speaking engagements. His reputation, after maybe the briefest of bumps, was not damaged at all.
And he was at the peak of his career, in an extremely high-profile, politically important and powerful professional position from which his views could have adversely and tangibly harmed the lives and fortunes of millions of Americans.
At the time, I remember having discussions in Internet forums with conservatives who argued, in Lott’s defense, that oh, Lott was just indulging an old man on his 100th birthday, and that anyway, Thurmond’s racist past was just that — in the past, a long, long time ago.
Now that may or may not be a legitimate point, but my question here is, why all the uproar over Helen Thomas, when she is almost 90 years old, is not an elected official, does not have any meaningful influence in her career at this point, and isn’t even taken all that seriously as anything more than a symbol of past glory even by people who admire her?
I don’t think Pres. Obama or Robert Gibbs will ask Helen Thomas to sit in the back at White House briefings. I devoutly hope not, at least. But the idea that anyone could even suggest that a legendary journalist with a long and distinguished career should be subjected to that level of personal humiliation because, at the end of that illustrious career, she made ONE TERRIBLE MISTAKE, is well and truly beyond my ability to comprehend.