This morning, the New York Times Magazinetweeted the results of a survey of readers who were asked if they could bring themselves to kill the baby Adolf Hitler. Forty-two percent said they could off the future Führer, 30 percent declined, and 28 percent said they were unsure.
Rosenfeld, who is not on Twitter, was blissfully unaware of the latest baby Hitler hubbub. But he kindly agreed to talk about why we never get sick of Hitler assassination fantasies and why Nazi references keep popping up in our political discussions.
Mother Jones: When did people start floating this hypothetical idea of, "Hey, if only we could go back in time and kill Hitler, everything would be different"?
Gavriel Rosenfeld: Of course, the notion of killing Hitler and improving history goes back to World War II itself. The idea of going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby is less frequently explored than exploring the possibility of whether Hitler had been assassinated successfully in real life. But what's interesting is that when you get into the post-war period, many of the narratives in books and movies conclude that if you killed Hitler, you're actually going to make history worse. So I'm surprised that 42 percent [in the Times Magazine survey] said they would kill Hitler as a baby. Of the 58 who said they wouldn't do it, maybe they realize they wouldn't make history better or they're just ethically opposed to killing babies. And these are all Americans?
MJ: I don't know, but I assume they are. They didn't release any demographic info.
GR: The answers that you get to this question vary quite a bit by nation. British and Americans almost always say that you would make history worse, while German respondents are far and away inclined to say, of course, if you get rid of Hitler you make everything better. And the reason is that the Germans tend to like to blame the Nazi experience on one man who can be scapegoated. If you pile all the blame onto him, you exonerate the German masses from any responsibility. Whereas Americans and British respondents don't want to let the German people off the hook. They make the case that if you get rid of Hitler, some other leader apart from Hitler would have emerged and, because of the structural constant of German nationalism, would have exploited German national feeling and produce the same kind of events no matter what.
Originally the premise of killing Hitler was fueled by deep traumatic feelings of wishing and fantasizing that if only things had been different, we could have spared ourselves all kinds of suffering. More recently it's been turned into a comedic trope. As we go forward, tragedy plus time equals comedy, and that is what we're seeing now.
MJ: In The World Hitler Never Made, you wrote about several books and shows that dealt with the scenario of killing baby Hitler. Do you have a favorite?
GR: My favorite, I suppose, is the British comedian and writer Stephen Fry's novel Making History. It's about a grad student in Cambridge who decides not so much to murder Hitler but to prevent him from being born by sending, though a time machine, some birth control pills to the well where his mother was fetching water. By that process, his father, Alois Hitler, becomes sterile and Hitler is never born. That leads to a worse Nazi dictator emerging, a fictional guy named Rudolf Gloder. He's much more rational than Hitler and he gets nuclear weapons and wreaks havoc around the world. He defeats the Soviet Union so there is no Cold War, but there is a cold war between the US and Nazi Germany. The irony is that the grad student then has to go back in time to make sure Hitler is born.
GR: We are in a "what if?" moment. In times of uncertainty, we tend to move away from deterministic world views. And when we try to find moral footing for our actions, we compare ourselves to the foil of all foils, the Nazi period. It's a quest for moral certainty by saying, "Even if we're not doing great these days, at least we're not the Third Reich." Which can be consoling or alarmist. There's always a present-day agenda behind it.
MJ: As a historian, do you see any good coming from these counterfactuals? Do they result in more people learning the history?
GR: I feel mixed about it. It's the same as climate change deniers who force scientists to waste their time having to refute nonsensical ideas. On the other hand, it does bring to public attention things that people might not understand. Counterfactual claims make awesome headlines. The first step to get people interested in history is to wonder how things could have been different. Most people experience history as one damn fact after another in high school. But if you can wonder, "Wow, what if the US hadn't gotten involved in World War II?", you can become enthralled by the imaginary possibilities. Maybe that's a way of getting the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. And it's why Hitler has become a meme. If you're a website and you want to get attention, you can Hiterlize anything.
MJ: So if you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you?
GR: I would be very tempted, but I wouldn't have been born if World War II had never happened, which was caused by Adolf Hitler. My mother emigrated from Eastern Europe to America as a result of World War II. So for personal reasons, I would be a little hesitant. But far more broadly, what I have learned from studying counterfactual history is that the law of unintended consequences always kicks in no matter how secure you are in your plan. We have to live with the historical record as it is, like it or not.
Bottoms up: Would-be NIH head Michael Savage advises using "good quality coffee" in your coffee enemas.
Three days ago, Donald Trump called in to Michael Savage's radio show for a 12-minute lovefest. As the chat wrapped up, Savage made a modest proposal to The Donald:
When you become president, I want you to consider appointing me to head of the NIH. I will make sure that America has real science and real medicine again in this country because I know the corruption. I know how to clean it up and I know how to make real research work again.
"I think that's great," Trump responded to the right-wing talk radio fixture. "Well, you know you'd get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you, because I hear so much about the NIH, and it's terrible."
So what are Savage's qualifications to head the nation's premier biomedical research organization, which oversees $30 billion worth of medical research annually?
As he is fond of reminding his listeners, Savage does have some scientific credentials. He grew up revering Charles Darwin, got a biology degree and a master's in medical anthropology, and then earned a doctorate in nutritional ethnomedicine from the University of California-Berkeley. In the 1970s, he took several trips to the South Pacific to study medicinal herbs and soak up "ethnic wisdom." (Along the way, he is said to have skinny dipped with Allen Ginsberg in Fiji.) He published dozens of books on herbs, plants, and health under his real name, Michael Weiner.
As I discovered when I perused his body of work while profiling him, some of his writings veered into serious woo territory:
In The Way of the Skeptical Nutritionist, he ventured that a person's ideal diet should be determined by his or her ethnicity. Getting Off Cocaine: 30 Days to Freedom promised blow addicts "an alternative plan for getting 'high'—legally and naturally!" The treatment involved ingesting a daily cocktail of Sudafed, vitamins C and E, and amino acids, as well as self-administering the occasional coffee enema. "Use a good quality coffee," Weiner advised. "Not decaffeinated or instant."
In his 1986 book, Maximum Immunity, Savage insisted on mandatory nationwide AIDS testing and suggested that vitamin C might stop the disease. He said that gays should "accept the blame" for the spread of AIDS and sneered that "those who practice orgiastic sex, with many partners, and use street drugs are not likely to respond to reason."
Beyond that, Savage has boasted of a serious academic résumé, including affiliations with Harvard, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and the University of Heath Sciences at Chicago Medical School. He's also claimed to have conducted "important research" for the NIH's National Cancer Institute.
Ever since he changed his name and hit the airwaves in the early 2000s, Savage has moved on from his days as a "World Famous Herbal Expert." But his biggest breakouts from the AM-radio echo chamber have involved his comments on science, medicine, and infectious disease. In 2008, he said nearly every autistic kid was "a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out" and said "there is no definitive medical diagnosis for autism." (The NIH, which sponsors autism research, has a definition here.) Earlier, in 2003, the would-be NIH director told a caller to "get AIDS and die" and was promptly canned by MSNBC, which had just given him his own cable program. One of the NIH's main goals is to make sure people don't get AIDS and die.
Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act
By Barry Yourgrau
After a me-or-the-mess ultimatum from his girlfriend, Barry Yourgrau reluctantly tackles his cluttered apartment, sorting through treasures, trash, and our messy relationship with accumulation. As part of what he comes to call his Project, he shadows "Disaster Masters" as they empty a hoarder's stash and navigates the "goat paths" of a British man's "hoarding Valhalla." Yourgrau, best known for his surreal fiction, comes to understand why it can be so absurdly hard to break free of the "intimate pull of objects."
The average lifespan of an Antarctic emperor penguin is 15 to 20 years. The average lifespan of an American comic strip is probably far shorter. Both are reasons to celebrate the 25th anniversary of This Modern World, Tom Tomorrow's unconventional political comic strip starring the endearingly acerbic Sparky the penguin.
Earlier this year, Tomorrow (AKA Dan Perkins) was nominated for a Pulitzer—not bad for an independent cartoonist who got his start in zines and alt-weeklies and survived the bumpy switch from newsprint to pixels, not to mention two Bush administrations. To commemorate this odds-defying accomplishment, Tomorrow has spent the past year tracking down just about everything he's drawn since 1990 and compiling it in a massive, two-volume set that he's self-publishing through a just-launched Kickstarter campaign. In addition to the awesome-looking collection, incentives for funding the project include a stuffed Sparky, swag from TMW pals Pearl Jam, and a chance to indelibly ink Tomorrow with an image of America's favorite flightless political observer.
Mother Jones: Sorry to put a damper on things, but I heard that print is dead. What are you doing compiling a 1,000-page, 15-pound set of volumes for people to buy?
Tom Tomorrow: The same people who say that print is dead are the same people who say that the future of print is artisanal. And I see this as a very artisanal project!
MJ: Tell me how you got the idea to put together almost everything you've done over 25 years.
A mockup of the 25-year This Modern World compendium Tom Tomorrow
TT: A couple of years ago, I ran across this big Taschen two-volume set of midcentury advertising. As I was looking at this whole package, something just clicked because I realized that my 25th anniversary was coming up. I always mark 1990 as the real start of my career because that's when the strip started getting picked up; it's when it stared getting political. (It's a little bit of an arbitrary date; really if you wanted to mark an anniversary it would have to be when I turned five, because I always drew cartoons as a kid.) But 1990 effectively marks 25 years as a professional cartoonist, and that's a big chunk of my life. And I thought it shouldn't pass without marking the moment.
MJ: Has going though 25 years of work been nostalgic?
TT: I wouldn't say it's been nostalgic. Initially, it was horrifying! The very early work, it makes me cringe a little bit. And then it gets pretty good within a couple of years, and I was relieved to find I was actually proud of it. A lot of this stuff I hadn't read in 20, 25 years. I was kind of surprised how well it held up, honestly.
MJ: Well, you've been hitting so many of the same themes throughout your career. Which topics or throughlines did you see as you went through your work?
TT: Certainly gun control, on which we've made almost no progress in 25 years. Heath care is a very interesting one as a person who's been a freelancer for 25 years. For a country that celebrates entrepreneurship, the peculiar American linkage of health care to employment status is puzzling. Obviously we have made progress on that one.
MJ: Some of the political figures, like the Clintons and Bushes, haven't changed.
TT: Yeah, I'm looking at all these years I've spent writing about the Bush family and hoping I don't have to do that beyond this next election.
Sparky, always the optimist Tom Tomorrow
MJ: How has your perspective on the strip changed?
TT: In 1990 there was no internet, there were no blogs, there was no social media. In those days I really viewed the strip as a vehicle for conveying information that people might not have had access to elsewhere. I don't see it quite in that light anymore; I assume people know how to use search engines. I think it's gotten a little more playful and less didactic. It's still the wordiest strip out there, but less than it used to be.
MJ: One of incentives for the stretch goals is that if you read your top goal, you will get a Sparky tattoo.
TT: It would be my first tattoo of my own creation. It's crazy expensive to make this; all the money is going to printers and to everyone that I've been working with who deserve to be paid for their work. It's been a tremendous amount of work to get this stuff located and scanned and sequenced. It's a labor of love until we hit some stretch goals. If we reach them, I was just trying to think of some extravagant gesture to show how much that would mean to me. So I just threw in the tattoo. I honestly didn't think about it a lot. I may come to regret it!
"They can call me a gadfly. They can call me whatever they want to call me."
"The NRA asked me to keep my mouth shut, but I've never run from a fuckin' interview in my life," Edward Peruta barks into the phone. The 66-year-old Vietnam vet, ex-cop, public-access TV host, worm farmer, legal investigator, crime scene videographer, and serial litigant has never been one to hold his tongue, and he's not about to start now that he's at the center of a high-profile case that could upend California's gun laws and wind up before the Supreme Court. "I am who I am," he says. "People know there's usually a hurricane comin' if they step on my rights."
Peruta is the lead plaintiff in Perutav. County of San Diego, a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn California's system of issuing concealed-weapon permits. Currently, the state's police chiefs and sheriffs may require applicants to show "good cause" for carrying a concealed gun in public. Such discretion is applied arbitrarily and violates the Second Amendment, according to Peruta and his legal team, which is backed by the National Rifle Association.
That argument swayed two judges on the 9th Circuit Court, who ruled in Peruta's favor in February. For a moment, it seemed that California would join the 37 "shall issue" states that issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who meets basic requirements such as a background check. Then California Attorney General Kamala Harris successfully petitioned the court to reconsider the ruling en banc. Next Tuesday, an 11-judge panel in San Francisco will hear oral arguments in the case.