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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

The Toxic Cynicisms of Amnesiacs: “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 7, 2008

In 1973 and 1974, I was a graduate research assistant to Henry Cohen, founding dean of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research in New York. Henry was not an academician. He was a seasoned New York City bureaucrat with an innate talent for balancing competing constituencies and getting things done within giant organizations. He was also a master of malapropisms. Henry would prompt students to understand the complex “woof and wharf” of New York City politics and chide long-winded speakers to “stop beating a dead horse to death.”

At the risk of beating a dead horse to death myself, I’d like to add a coda to yesterday’s post on Palin and Language. The subject: the Republican mantras “Drill, Baby, Drill” and “Never Again!” …

The Republican promotion of offshore oil drilling as the solution to America’s energy problems is either a red herring or a proof of their poor grasp of energy matters. But the mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill” that they use to promote this policy is proof of their historical amnesia or near-obscene bent toward cynicism. “Drill, Baby, Drill” is an obvious paraphrase of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” the chant that was the background score to the urban uprisings and riots that traumatized a score of American cities during the 1960s. Promoting an empty energy plan by purloining and paraphrasing a chant associated with the tragic outcomes of America’s deep-rooted race and class divisions goes over-the-top, especially at a time when economic inequality reaches new extremes in America and when race remains a dividing line in American society and an undercurrent in the present election.

Even worse is Palin’s proffering of “Never Again!” as a cry of protest for holders of foreclosed mortgages and owners of devalued real estate. Their plight and rage is real enough but “Never Again!” is a slogan that has been used for a half-century by Jews throughout the world as a blunt statement of their willingness to fight against future attempts at mass murder and by Jews and non-Jews alike to draw attention to ongoing acts of genocide that continue to torment and disgrace mankind. Is it possible that while guarding Alaska against Russia and Canada Palin was too busy to learn of such events or to have heard the phrase?

In 1946, at age 23, Henry Cohen left the US Army to become the administrator of one of the largest displaced persons camps in occupied Germany. A summary of his experiences at the camp — and of the tensions between Jewish survivors and the US military — can be read in this transcript of a talk he gave in 1996. In it, Henry’s emotions and humanity shine through his bureaucratic prose. I wonder what Henry Cohen would have made of the policies of McCain and Palin or of their trivialization of the inequities faced by Blacks in the US and Jews in Europe. But I do know he would have honorably yielded to Palin his title of master of malapropisms. And, so, in memory of Henry, I’ll stop “beating a dead horse to death.”


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