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Folk Devils and Moral Panics

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2018-06-22 11:22.

Some newpaper reports just leave you baffled:

The message from Exeter University's career advice service featured a comment from Erwin Rommel, who led Hitler's war machine in North Africa.

The quote from the German commander, known as the Desert Fox during the Second World War, read: 'One cannot permit unique opportunities to slip by for the sake of trifles.'

A spokesman for the university, based in Devon, said it was a 'genuine error'.

It said the staff member who selected the quote did not know who Rommel was.

They said the information had been taken from a free to use website.

Well, it's the career advice service, so it's not really the academic side of the university. We'd have expected a bit more rigour from them. But it is a bit of a worry that that they have someone with such a limited horizon in charge of motivating students looking for jobs.

We can't get worked up about their using the (alleged) words of a German Field Marshal – Rommel was forced to commit suicide by Hitler and should be considered to have achieved his redemption from the National Socialist regime.

But the grovelling reaction of the University – it was a 'genuine error' – is a regrettable sign of the times. Grovelling, because it was not just an error, but a 'genuine' one – as opposed, presumably, to a 'fake' error. Please don't punish us, we genuinely didn't mean it – honestly. Not one of the three excuses proffered by the university's spokesman exculpates them in any way.

In fact, not only is their minion too ill-educated to know who Erwin Rommel was, the 'spokesman for the university' doesn't seem to know much better either, being too ready to put him in the simplistic 'Nazi' category – just another geezer in a natty Hugo Boss uniform.

The Mail journalist or more likely his sub-editor, too, puts his limited horizon on show in the strapline 'who led Hitler's war machine in North Africa', not, for example 'who was forced to commit suicide for opposing Hitler'. Let's not spoil a good outrage for a bit of balance.

Cultural absolutism

But this episode also illustrates a particular problem of modern life: public discourse seems to be completely incapable of nuance. We see this here as the blanket characterisation of Rommel as a 'Nazi' and therefore beyond the pale. Such figures are given the black spot and have a cordon sanitaire erected around them such that it is no longer permissable to even mention their names or use their words – however profound or wise those words might be.

For someone who wants to get on in the elbowing world the insights of the great strategist and great tactician Rommel would seem to be just the ticket.

But once someone has the black spot of a modern Folk Devil (Stanley Cohen™) they are completely excluded from polite discourse. This, it seems, is what has happened to the complex figure of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel through his association with that great black spot: 'the Nazis'. And there is no blacker spot than that – unless, of course, it is 'Trump!'™.

Quotes 'R Us

Let's do what we do best here: generalise without any empirical evidence. Just as the Devil has all the best music, the complex figures of history, some admittedly with more shade than light, probably have all the best quotes. 'Am I my brother's keeper?'

Conversely, one of the features of the find-a-quote websites is that the currently canonized get all kinds of sayings attributed to them without any basis whatsoever. Associating a remark with Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King will get it picked up and passed around like a shot, no questions asked. The attribution to Voltaire of the theme 'I shall die for your right to say it' and all its variants is completely bogus, but crops up again and again. Karl Marx and Co. are still among the canonized, as we noted in connection with this year's centenary, so you can quote anything that old monster said, however outrageous, however mangled, with impunity.

Still, we can expect nothing better from an organization that employs an underling to surf the click-collector 'free-quote' websites beloved by after dinner speakers and best men at wedding receptions. The quotations on many of these websites are worthless: unsourced and, where the original was in a foreign language, in dubious translations of unspecified originals. In the present case, from the information we have been given we really have no idea whether Rommel said this – and if he did say it, what he actually said in German.

In search of time past

Perhaps we ancient ones are expecting too much of our millennials. When I went to secondary school at eleven years old the Second World War had ended barely a dozen years before. Most of my teachers had served. The events of that war were still fresh in living memory and were retailed in person and in many films on TV and in the cinema. We grew up with a detailed map and timeline of the war in our heads.

This was before the development of the Holocaust theme – my generation of boys was more concerned with the goodies and baddies of the war, the Cowboys and Indians, if you will, and we were probably unhealthily fascinated by the evil doings of the Gestapo and – to a lesser extent – the SS. 'How painful is pulling a fingernail out? Hmm… I bet that really hurts. Dawson, just come over here a moment.'

For my contemporaries and me the name 'Rommel' is embedded in a detailed wartime narrative. It amazes us that there are people who have never heard of all that.

In contrast, let's say for the sake of argument that the Essex University minion who chose the Rommel quote is twenty-two years old, a near millennial. Aside from the considerable naivety of choosing a quotation from someone unknown to you, we have to explore the world-view of this person a little.

This person was eleven years old in 2007, when he or she started secondary school. The Second World War had ended sixty-two years before that. The number of people who have any personal recollection of that war is now tiny. The Holocaust theme and the life-stories of the civilians caught up in the war have blotted out the military and political history. The outlines of the campaigns and battles do not enter the normal syllabus.

Whatever ancient, clunky products of Hollywood and Ealing youngsters may get to see these days, these films will do nothing to fill in the framework of the conflict. I am willing to wager that for the vast majority of millennials the Second World War is a black hole with two labels attached – 'the Holocaust' and 'Hitler's Nazis'.

Over the waterfall

And how can we expect it to be otherwise? Sixty-two years before I was eleven takes us back to 1896. I have to confess that my knowledge of the events in Sudan and Khartoum in the late 1890s and the Boer War (1899-1902) is as sketchy as our millennial's knowledge of that other war that ended sixty-two years before they started big school.

I can still recite most of Newbolt's Vitaï Lampada, though…

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Sir Henry John Newbolt (1862-1938), Vitaï Lampada 1892. The invitations to dinner parties dried up long ago. Thank you for asking.

… but don't ask me whose sand and which desert it was.

Perhaps we wrinklies need to accept that the events we took to be important have now passed over that unforgiving waterfall called history. No millennial really cares anymore. When we wrinklies can give a concise account of the Battle of Ferkeh or even the Fashoda Incident then we can tut-tut at some young person who has no idea who Rommel was. In other words – and I quote:

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

KJV, Matthew 7:4. Although the quote is definitely from the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, the pedants who infest this website will point out that no one knows who Matthew was. And let's not get into the 'did Jesus exist' thing, either. One black hole at a time, please.

And, don't forget of course:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 3, Antonio.

Enough.